Jesus said, “Love your enemy.” (Matthew 5:43-48) What does it mean to love my enemy? I’ve been thinking about this a bit lately. It seems appropriate to talk about as our culture continues it’s “war” and daily divides along a myriad of lines, political, religious, racial and economic. And it’s not just the “culture,” it’s often me. I seem to have enemies. Some are pretty up front about it and tell me clearly of their disdain for me, but others seem to have more of a guerrilla tactic of sniping quietly from the trees and hills, little hits and nicks here and there that seem minor at the time, but become a real issue for me.
And of course there’s the third angle… there’s the people I don’t like. I figure that most of us know we all have people in our lives we don’t like. We may hope that we able to rise above such a thing, and we may exert a lot of energy to rise above viewing all people with anything over than love, but we fail. I fail.
That’s when the words of Jesus then come ringing in and oppress me. He commanded love for enemies. A part of my gut reaction to that is to feel as if “I am told to lose.” Most of our enemies are not just in conflict with us, but also in competition with us. I also feel a reaction deep inside that says, “He doesn’t know my enemy.” Surely, if Jesus knew how much hurt I was feeling from the malice of another, he’d be as peeved off as I am! And finally, I have to admit that often at my core, I’d rather beat my enemies. You know, I’d prefer to get a little Psalmy and smite the skulls of those who would encircle me, right on?
So……….. I’m trying to find some things that “love your enemies” might mean in my life. What does it really mean to love an enemy? For me? Can I do this? Do I want to do this? Will I do this? Each question just surfaces another one, or three, or fifty questions.
I have to start with myself. After all, the command to love enemies is mine to own. It’s not a command that necessarily alters the enemy, it changes me. Here’s where I’m starting:
Love Your Enemy = I Am Not A Victim (even if I was victimized)
I need to step off the stage every time I start to feel like singing my woes. I am not a victim and my enemies do not control me. Victimization is too often an experience that becomes an identity. Of course, there are victims among us every day, and we are victimized. I would never try to lessen the pain or impact of anyone who is a victim of a violent or horrible crime or hurt. In my own life some things have been more painful and less painful at times, but my response needs to be consistent that I am not defined by the hurt.
The recent theatrical incarnation of Les Misérables gets some pretty mixed reviews, but I totally enjoyed it. One of the most haunting lines for me is in Fantine’s song “I Dreamed A Dream” when she sings, “…but there are dreams that cannot be / and there are storms we cannot weather…” The sentiment is echoed again in the song “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” when Marius sings, “…there’s a grief that can’t be spoken / there’s a pain goes on and on…” I can’t speak for anyone but myself here: I know what they mean. But even as these lines resonate with me in deep ways, I also recognize that I must turn away from darker, hopeless view, even when justified by my own pain.
I cannot be a victim, defined by the injury done by my enemy, if it I am to love her/him. Love is not denial. Love is going to require that I find my way out of the identity formed by my injury. If someone abuses or attacks me in a way that devalues me, I must re-find my value. If the attack cause me pain, I need to heal. If the attack demoralizes me, I need to regain strength and courage. I will do these things so that I can return to the task of loving. I cannot do this alone. If Jesus commands it, I need Jesus to help me do it, and I’ll probably need you, too.
Love Your Enemy = Forgiveness
Just as love is not denial, neither is forgiveness. Forgiveness begins as my own way of releasing the need to punish, to avenge, to hurt another, to attack, to rationalize my own violent needs. Forgiveness is hard because when I choose to forgive I am choosing to shoulder the burden of paying for another’s crime. At least if Jesus wanted to command something he was willing to demonstrate it. On the cross, he spoke what I think might be some of the most awesome words uttered in the gospel narrative, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
What? Yes, they did! They knew what they were doing! Can I accidentally crucify someone? Could they have tortured and murdered so cruelly without intent and premeditation? What is Jesus saying? Is this the blindness and denial I fear that my own forgiveness might represent? Or is it a conscious decision on the part of Jesus to remake the world around him? Those words are a one-sentence-wake-up-call and alarm that something is happening here that breaks the ordinary into sharp little pieces.
Forgiveness is re-creation. When I can actively forgive I am re-creating things and myself. This is not a simple switch I throw or a decision I make. It’s a set of reflexes and intentional actions I take to make forgiveness real. And I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not the best at it. Forgiveness will look and feel a little different for each person, reflecting our intrinsic variety as individuals, but it will always need to have the hallmarks of active, authentic forgiveness. Jesus forgave, and still hung on the cross. He still died. I think the reality of his forgiveness is in the narrative of his resurrection. He didn’t come busting from the grave like one of our contemporary action heroes might, kicking butts and slapping bad guys. He came forth and said, “Everything I taught you is still in force, my own pain and hurt doesn’t change a thing… go love, love God, love one another, love enemies… go do it, go teach it, go live it… everywhere… every when… with everyone.” (Yes, that’s my paraphrase and interpretation of Jesus after his resurrection. I personally don’t want the “great commission” in my life and experience of it to ever be divorced from the power of Jesus’ humble, courageous grace.)
Love Your Enemy = I Don’t Have Enemies
Unfortunately, I am me enough to get sidetracked by the statement Paul makes about enemies, that seems so close to what Jesus says, but adds that in doing so I will be “heaping hot coals on the heads” of my enemies by my love. I am bent and base enough to chuckle that Paul seems to offer me such a slick way to get revenge on an enemy, simply by loving. Is that not a bonus and a half? I really can kill him/her with love!
One of favorite authors and speakers is Fr Richard Rohr, a Franciscan out in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I have heard him a couple of times mention what he calls “a low reading of scripture” and “a high reading of scripture.” I think it’s Fr Rohr’s very polite way of telling me how childish I am sometimes, lol. Whenever I read scripture in a way that gives me license to hate or attack or be mean/vengeful/negative, or in any way move against the actual fruits of God’s Spirit in my life… love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control… in those moments I have misread scripture. So, for Paul and the Proverb he seems to be quoting, I will choose to focus on the summation of “Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good.”
Whether my love for an enemy is a purifying fire or a painful fire for my enemy, or more accurately feels like hot coals on my own head… it’s still love and not my need to punish or avenge myself. And for my part, if I love someone, it’s hard to call them an enemy at all. We may still disagree on things, we might still need to work on the consequences of their actions, or mine… but in the act of loving I am re-creating their role and place in my life. One who is loved is the antithesis of an enemy… she/he is precious, cared for, sheltered, redeemed.
I wish that writing a blog post about love made me love better. The only thing a blog post might actually signify is that somewhere along the way I have recently realized a deficit of love in myself. It’s too easy to blame my “enemies” for that lack of love… they are either too unlovable or too deserving of hate. It’s too easy to make some quick excuses for myself… I drank too much, I’m too tired… or I didn’t really mean it, I just knew it would get a lot of shares and likes from people on Facebook who are angry or biased like me!
And that’s the reality. I recently find myself withholding posts and shares because I know they don’t stem from love, but from the hate I’m harboring deep inside. I find myself sitting in the corner of the room rubbing my hands together and evilly chucking “bwahahahahah” over the attack posts I could launch if I wanted to… and then, baby, they’d know how stupid they really are! Quite an image, huh?
Withholding the attack posts is only part of the equation for me… facing the reality of my own anger and lack of love is the other half. Dang it, having enemies can really enliven me! And just as my cat would love to shred my favorite couch, it would feel too good to sharpen my claws on the idiocy of another.
“They don’t know what they are doing” is not denial, it is re-creating myself. It is the reality that whether they know anything or not about what they do, I am still to know myself, and I am to carry the responsibility to make myself. No one’s action or ignorance is license for me to abandon that call.