I belong to a religion which tells followers that we have to love our enemies. It’s something that we have to be told to do, because it’s not a natural act.
When we actually do it, loving our enemies sets us apart from the world. Others are stunned and take notice.
Historically, though, our religion often seems to become a faction of political organizations that use our religion to gain money and votes. When this happens, followers revert to the worldly practice of hating enemies.
We’d really be of no use to the political powers if we were to love our enemies. There are lots of excuses and lies about how hard it is, how naïve we’d have to be, etc.
Is it really hard? How would it look? What if we did love our enemies?
Here are some ideas.
1. Defend ourselves – using only the force necessary
Deliberately surrendering to aggression is not a loving act – not love for self, or for the aggressor, who is thus encouraged toward further aggression, or for the next possible victim of aggression.
A loving response to our enemy requires resistance to aggression, but only with the level of force that is needed. If a nasty look is sufficient then we would not use a harsh word. If an email to the aggressor is sufficient then we wouldn’t copy his supervisor.
The principles behind the use of deadly force offer some guidance on this point. If someone threatens me with deadly force, it’s going to be hard to find any love in the event or those that follow, but the aggressor and the law and I accept that my response to a deadly threat may kill the aggressor.
However, my goal is NEVER to kill, but merely to end the threat to myself. When the threat stops, because my aggressor retreats or surrenders or becomes incapable of harming me, then I stop my attack.
If I chase a knife-wielding mugger down the street with a gun in hand then I am committing a crime, along with acting hatefully.
So a loving response to any kind of aggression defends against it, defies it, but does not use more force – verbal, social, physical – than is necessary. We have to let the last word be the final word.
1A . Defense, not revenge
The difference is that defense is a reaction to an attack or threat right now. Revenge is an attack, later, when we are not in danger, rooted in assumed justification by a previous attack.
We don’t have to wait to be hurt before fighting in self-defense. A thrown punch, a brandished weapon, an attempt at insult – any of these warrants defense in kind, even if the attack does no harm.
However, even if the attack hurts us, we stop fighting when the attack ends. Payback isn’t love.
2. Respond to the aggression and not to the aggressor
When we challenge our enemies with love, our objection is to their actions and not to the enemy’s self.
This means that we don’t get into the dehumanizing labels that enable hatred. If we call our enemies by any epithet then we’re escalating the conflict in our own minds and hearts.
My guess is that this is why our religion’s founder told us that when we call another a name, we’re at risk of damnation. The epithet is just a common sin, but it readily leads to hatred and hatred is destructive, seductive.
Though we might be able to blunt a single attack from a single person, what can we do against, and how do we end a conflict with, an entire category of person?
It seems as though we’d have to destroy everyone in that category, regardless of their actions. Destroy them all and let God sort them out?
In modern America, though, for all of the hatred and the bluster, the politicians won’t tell you that they don’t actually want to destroy the enemy. What would be our reason to give money or votes when we finally get what we want, if there is no one left to threaten to take it from us?
2A . Drop the pitchfork
Humans are so encumbered by bias and projection and sensory limitations that we can’t even judge and report the events of a minor car accident accurately. However, we seem completely confident in our ability to judge as evil our enemies, who are humans, made in the image and likeness of God and loved by God.
This is where the religion’s founder told us to take the log out of our own eye when accusing a sibling of having a speck in his or her eye.
We’re probably a bit more valid when we judge specific acts as evil, but even in that, we’re relying on supports like law and history and consensus to render those judgments. We make them in the context of our times.
Interracial marriage was once, by consensus, evil. It was once illegal for women to vote but legal for children to work in coal mines.
I’m sure that the mass murder of Americans that happened on 9/11/01 was evil, from the beginning through to the pain that endures, but I also know that for at least hundreds of thousands of followers of another religion, those actions were morally good.
I’m not about to surrender my opinion on this matter, but who is right? That’s God’s call and I don’t get a vote.
Being denied what you want doesn’t imply evil, either. It’s neither the job of others nor the nature of life to give us want we want. Getting what we want isn’t our mission in life, either.
It may be disappointing and frustrating, but it’s also a chance to grow in faith. That our country elected a person whom we don’t like is not inherently evil.
If our difference of opinion on, say, government rules about carbon emissions renders me evil then the same difference renders the other person evil as well. The religion’s founder told us that we would be judged by the same standards that we use to judge others.
We don’t know what Heaven is like. Imagine sharing an apartment for the rest of time with the person whom you chose for an enemy.
3. Don’t look for more trouble
When our initial conflict with a person moves us to look for other reasons to dislike a person, we’re moving toward hatred. We’re looking for excuses to continue the conflict.
If you research anyone, easily done, then you will find reasons to dislike that person, especially if you already do.
We wouldn’t do this. We could act with love by responding only to the problems that present.
4. Listen to our enemies
What is our enemy actually saying to us, about us, about others? What is our enemy actually doing? It may not fit into the category that we ascribe to our enemy (#2) and it may not fit what we think of our enemy (#3) but a loving response to aggression requires us to listen to our enemy.
We might be tempted to pile on, to paint with a broad brush and to charge our enemies with offenses committed by what we regard as similar others, or committed only in the darkness of our own minds, but that’s not what is really happening
Conflict is not an opportunity to project our own darkness onto the aggressor and destroy it while destroying him. We would listen to our enemy and thereby know when he is done fighting (#1).
If we loved our enemy then we would not put into his mouth words that are convenient for our agenda but not part of his.