Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles, lest the Lord see it and be displeased, and turn away His anger from him.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”
Proverbs 24:17–18, Matthew 5:43–45
He’d been suffering a splitting headache of late. The remedies of his day—bathing the feet in hot water, applying a mustard seed poultice to the wrists and nape of the neck—proved ineffective. Receiving a single communiqué on the morning of April 9 changed everything. The message, from General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, acknowledged his willingness to meet and work out the terms of the surrender of his forces. The note alleviated the throbbing in General Ulysses S. Grant’s head almost immediately.
The two generals met in the house of a Mr. McLean near Appomattox Court House, Virginia. Grant arrived looking somewhat disheveled, while Lee came dressed in full and new military dress. Lee concealed his true emotions at having to concede defeat. Grant remembered himself being less than jubilant, despite the victory of his union forces:
I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us. (Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant)
Though these two had, for years, sought to outmaneuver one another’s movements and outmatch one another’s strength, the muted gathering that day proceeded with equal sobriety between them.
Last week we were introduced to a recent attempt by some scientists at explaining the existence of religious belief. Some cognitive scientists liken the religious impulse to what our minds have done with the heavens: arrange the random distribution of stars into constellations that conform to familiar entities—fish, bears, dippers, and twins. Though human existence is rife with apparent disorder, our minds prefer order. So religion is one offshoot of this ingrained mental proclivity—all to preserve ourselves, to facilitate our survival by bringing mental harmony to a cognitively dissonant existence.
Yet as Mark elaborated this week, Jesus declares a righteousness that does not make survival its highest virtue. If anything, His ethic increases one’s chances for being vanquished. Here a so-called religious idea cuts against the grain of what is assumed to be the underlying impulse for all religious ideas.
And the challenge to this new thesis isn’t unique to Jesus’s explicit teaching. For though He parted company with the teaching of His day, Jesus wasn’t being innovative with God’s previous revelation. Proverbs 24:17–18 envisions a supremely humble (and counterintuitive) response to the downfall of an enemy: Do not rejoice in his defeat, else God may take pity upon him and revive his antagonism.
Again, the command not to rejoice in an enemy’s ruin stands in contradistinction to the assumption that all religious faith has self-preservation as its foundational motivation. For if nature aims to save itself, and nature is “red in tooth and claw,” then our natural instincts should lead us not to respect our enemies (nor to suffer more of their blows) but to eradicate them forthwith.
Some men follow nature’s instincts, delighting in downfall. But Jesus does not. And neither did General Grant. For when he heard his men’s exuberance at the news of Lee’s surrender, he ordered the celebration to cease, saying, “The Confederates were now our prisoners, and our countrymen, and we did not want to exult over their downfall.”
What can enable us to rise above nature? The dignity of our adversaries is not itself enough motive to suffer their indignities or to restrain the impulse to rejoice in their suffering. We must instead appeal to the One who suffered the gravest indignity to preserve us from the greatest suffering imaginable.
Against whom are you poised to retaliate for their injuring?
Over whose injuries are you tempted to gloat?