“Love Thine Enemies” Marks a Powerful Path

This piece ran in the newspapers in December, 2019


If everyone loved their enemies, there wouldn’t be enemies.

Opposing interests, different points of view, but not enemies. How can somebody be an “enemy” if you’re feeling love for them?

If both sides feel that way, surely they will find a way forward that is better than all-out conflict.

But what happens when one side regards the other as an enemy, because that side isn’t coming from love (but from hatred and fear), while the other side, animated by a loving spirit, doesn’t regard the other as an enemy?

A stunning example is that of Jesus on the cross, who shows his love of his “enemies” when he appeals to the Father not to regard too harshly those who have nailed him to the cross. “Forgive them, Father,” Jesus says, near the very end, “for they know not what they do.”

Does he mean that they don’t know who He is? That they don’t understand that his special role in the human drama? Maybe.

But I prefer to think that he meant that there is some more general kind of ignorance that makes it possible for people to be so cruel to another human being, regardless of who it is. We really are supposed to love our enemies, which precludes acting cruelly toward them.

Does “Love Thine Enemies” make us weak, a pushover in those battles in which the fate of the world is determined? I think not. Would it be possible to practice “Love Thine Enemies” while assembling and using the military might with which the United States helped destroy the Nazi regime? I think so.

It might be easier to do what the American military did in World War II if we were filled with hatred. But it is still possible to destroy something that simply must be destroyed, while also feeling love for the enemy.

(I think of the situation in the film, “Old Yeller,” where the beloved dog has become rabid and crazy – from an injury suffered in saving the boy’s life from a javelina, as it happens – and must be destroyed. It is with tears in his eyes that the boy does what needs to be done, shooting the mad dog he loves.)

One of the problems in the world is that it is criss-crossed with boundaries between groups that serve as lines of enmity.

Jesus also addresses the issue of such inter-group enmity with his other moral injunction: “Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself.” We can see the connection with “Love Thine Enemies” when we investigate how Jesus responds when asked, Who is the ‘neighbor’ one is supposed to love?

He responds to that question with the story of the “Good Samaritan.” The story shows the Samaritan to be the “neighbor” one should love—and to Jesus’s Jewish audience, the Samaritan is the “enemy,” the member of the hated group of “others.”

Of course, in the story, what makes the Samaritan “Good” is his extending his humanity – his concern for another human being — to the injured Jew in the story. But there is more here than just the tale of a particular virtuous individual.

This picture of the Samaritan’s caring behavior indicates, I think, a more general truth that Jesus is communicating about those lines of enmity in the world: We should recognize that the people on the other side of our divides – whether racial, religious, nationality, ethnic group, political viewpoint – are generally human beings like ourselves.

So much of “enemies” is about seeing other groups of people on the other side of the boundary – white/black, Christian/Muslim, Palestinian/Israel, liberals/conservatives – as worse people than ourselves. But it’s probably close to the truth that – in basic human terms – the mixture of virtues and faults is roughly the same in one group as in another.

So loving the Samaritan as “neighbor” goes along with recognizing that, if we get to human basics with people on the other side of those lines – with our “enemies” — we will be able to discover in them a shared humanity that enables us better to fulfill the injunction, “Love Thine Enemies.”

The process of polarization uses the power of hatred and fear to make “enemies” of people, making the world a more broken place. “Love thine enemies” is something to strive for, in polarized times like this, to narrow the gap between one group and another that’s congregating at the opposing pole.

If I knew a better way to act out of love in the columns I post here than the ways I do, I would do it. I figure all good people are better off if they are expressing “the better angels” of their nature.

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