Love Your Enemies

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We should, on the contrary, forget the offenses of our enemy, even though he neither repents nor amends, in imitation of Christ who prayed for those who crucified Him, and who, far from repenting, mocked Him… For the height of perfection is to love our enemies, and to pray for them as did the Lord Jesus.                                                              – St. Thomas Aquinas as quoted in Sermon in a Sentence: Volume 5

Please consider with me for a moment the washing of feet that is traditionally a part of the Holy Thursday Mass. God came down to earth and became man. He chose as a symbol to teach his disciples how to minister to others, to do the most humble work of washing their feet. This was so lowly that it embarrassed and shocked them. Feet can be gross and dirty. To wash them, one must get down on one’s knees. Jesus is God and He humbled himself in this almost unbelievable way. Our priests, even today, in re-enacting this, put themselves in a similar position. And, even today, many are embarrassed and shocked by the idea and we have these crazy squabbles about whose feet are worthy to be washed by priests. But what is the point of this symbol for us today? Yes, it is in part a lesson in being a servant, especially for the priests who are called in a particular way to be Christ to the world. But it’s also a display of the crazy radical unfathomable love that Jesus has shown for us and calls us to imitate. It should humble us into the realization of how petty so many of our squabbles are and how many of the things that show up in the news or in the latest armchair political debate are just distractions from the stuff that really matters.

I think that we have a hard time realizing today what a radical call it is from Christ to “Love your enemies.” And by the way, I must admit that I only became aware of this fact a few years ago, that the oft-quoted biblical phrase “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” is said in the context of “Love your enemies.”…

“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, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect. – Matthew 5:43-48

In a 1957 sermon, preached when he was still minister of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed the silent and not-so-silent toll hatred takes upon us.

There’s another reason why you should love your enemies, and that is because hate distorts the personality of the hater. We usually think of what hate does for the individual hated or the individuals hated or the groups hated. But it is even more tragic, it is even more ruinous and injurious to the individual who hates. You just begin hating somebody, and you will begin to do irrational things.

You can’t see straight when you hate. You can’t walk straight when you hate. You can’t stand upright. Your vision is distorted. There is nothing more tragic than to see an individual whose heart is filled with hate. He comes to the point that he becomes a pathological case. For the person who hates, you can stand up and see a person and that person can be beautiful, and you will call them ugly.

For the person who hates, the beautiful becomes ugly and the ugly becomes beautiful. For the person who hates, the good becomes bad and the bad becomes good. For the person who hates, the true becomes false and the false becomes true. That’s what hate does. You can’t see right. The symbol of objectivity is lost. Hate destroys the very structure of the personality of the hater.
– 17 November 1957 “Loving Your Enemies”

There’s a lot to worry over in our world, a lot of evil and a lot of problems and we should try to do the best we can to be people of Christ in the midst of that world. I think politics and the concept of fighting evil are aspects of it, but we have to be aware that they have a way of sucking us into not so great ways of trying to make the world a better place, especially when we let them supercede the more important aspects of bringing Christ to the world. For example, it’s a good thing to support companies and schools and politicians and whatnot that uphold our moral values, but this can easily devolve into the Pharisaical problem of watching what others do and judging them according to things like where they do their shopping, where they choose to educate their children and who they vote for.

If we look at the Gospels, it is clear that love and being the salt of the earth and the light of the world come first in making the world a better place. I really like the reminder that the following quote (haven’t read the book, by the way, just stumbled on the quote) provides to the idea that our job as Christians in this world is primarily to do good, rather than to fight evil…

For thousands of years the sages have taught, both by precept and example, that evil is only overcome by good, yet still that lesson for the majority, remains unlearned. It is a lesson profound in its simplicity, and difficult to learn because men are blinded by the illusions of self. Men are still engaged in resenting, condemning, and fighting the evil in their own fellow-men, thereby increasing the delusion in their own hearts, and adding to the world’s sum of misery and suffering. When they find out that their own resentment must be eradicated, and love put in its place, evil will perish for lack of sustenance.                                          – James Allen, Byways of Blessedness

I do think that in our day and age, there is a strong temptation to think that our primary focus should be on fighting evil and that doing good is somehow kind of an extra, maybe just for extraordinary people. Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta was a powerful witness of love to the world. What she taught me is that love is our most powerful weapon against evil and authenticates our beliefs in the eyes of the world.

On a personal level, I would like to suggest that we have to stop assuming that we understand the intentions of people we are in conflict or disagreement with, even in the small conflicts within our own families and circles of friends. We do not know what is going on inside their head or their heart. In addition, the emotions involved in conflict – hurt, fear, anger, etc. – can often lead to serious misunderstandings, even on the most basic level. We need to fight cleanly over important concepts and ideas, but without animosity. We need to ask questions, avoid presumptions, and slow down and have enough quiet time (particularly in prayer!) to sort things out, especially before reacting to situations and causing further hurt and misunderstanding. And really, what we should aim for, especially on a political level, is understanding what those opposed politically have in common with us, and fight for the good together wherever possible. I truly believe that if we follow Jesus’ example of love, we can do a lot of good together, even with those whom we have strong disagreements with.

Some time ago, I came across a study that is worth taking a look at, in order to be aware of the spiral effect that judging people’s intentions can have on escalating conflicts. It also perhaps sheds some light from a new angle on the biblical exhortation to “Judge not lest ye be judged.” It concludes that we tend to assume that those in conflict with us are motivated by hate. This tends to lead to unwillingness to negotiate and often leads to increased conflict. While our enemies may not always have good motives, knowing that we are likely to have biases in this area can certainly help bridge some important gaps. The whole thing can be read at this link, and I think it’s well worth reading: Study finds intractable conflicts stem from misunderstanding of motivation.

If we could read the secret history of our enemies we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility. – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow