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Do I really need to love my enemies?

This new year started out a mess and we are more divided than ever. When we struggle with liking, let alone loving, those who so adamently speak and work against what we believe, we start to wonder... do i really need to love my enemies?!

What Jesus tells us

Let's start with a passage from the biblical Gospel of Matthew (5:38-48) in modern language from The Message:

"Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.

You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the supple moves of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.

In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you."

In this famous passage, Jesus instructs us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. And all God’s people responded ... then and now ... I don’t think so.

Get real!

Today, you might hear ... that sounds nice, peaceful, very Zen of you, and all of that good spiritual stuff.

But we are living in the real world and we don’t want anything to do with an ethic that takes away the possibility of shame, judgement, retaliation and retribution, unfriending and turning our backs on those that we disagree with. That calls us to love those who hate us or act in opposition to what we believe is the truth, the right way of thinking and acting, and asks us to let our enemies bring out the best in us. Are you kidding me!? The world just doesn’t work that way.

Probably no admonition of Jesus has been more difficult to follow than the command to “love your enemies.”

Some people have sincerely felt that its actual practice is not possible. It is easy, they say, to love those who love you, but how can one love those who openly and insidiously seek to defeat you? Especially in this time of national divide when almost half of the country seems to be on board with nationalistic, facist, and racist ideology. But how we continue to deal with it doesn’t seem to be working.

when friends become enemies

I have been inspired by Oshetta Moore, the author of a book called Shalom Sistahs. Shalim Sistah book by Osheta Moore

Oshetta is all about what it means to be a peacemaker in everyday life. She describes a reality that may be very real for some of us right now. Where we change, and we grow, and we learn. And we start to ask questions and begin to press against some of the structures and things that have held people down. We see why things are messed up and how they could and should be better.

But there’s other people who hold those things up….people who are dear and precious to us. Our neighbors, friends, co-workers, family members. When we question and even judge….they get hurt. And they push back on us in some ways that are offensive, that are frustrating, that make us want to ask: Do I need to be in a relationship with them?

And that question can easily turn from, “Whatever, I don't need them” to, “They are the worst, and I want nothing to do with them. They are my enemy. I don’t want them in my life. I’m unfriending, turning away, cutting them off.”

As I’ve evolved and I frustrate people and they have pushed back on me and I've pushed back on them and that relationship, I’ve gotten so hurt and angry with them. But as a believer in the Divine Creator, the expansive energy of the Universe, I keep finding myself drawn over and over to love, to compassion, and empathy, and bridge building.

finding shalom

Osheta calls this peacemaking. She reminds us, even challenges us, that we have to lean into peacemaking, because it's our secret weapon for dealing with all that’s wrong in our world right now. It's what we hold on to that creates flourishing, and goodness. It is the weapon that we use to fight for connection. She equates peacemaking to another, more ancient word, a Hebrew word for a beautiful concept: Shalom.

Shalom is God's dream for the world as it should be. It's an ongoing vision of wholeness and goodness and flourishing.

Shalom is what happens when the love of God pulls us out and says, “I see you, You are beloved, and you are enough.” And we are made whole. And then we turn around and make the world whole.

Shalom is that picture of the garden, that essential it-is-goodness of the garden. And when we live into shalom, we are creating goodness all around us.

The work of being a peacemaker and loving our enemies is not easy.

It doesn’t mean that you’re someone who never has conflict or is never disturbed or is somehow above being involved or disrupted by the world.

I think it means being very engaged with the world. It means naming and acknowledging the wrong thing, the absence of peace, and then leaning into the work of making peace happen.

What Osheta shares is hard for a lot of us, because it’s very countercultural and it pushes back against a lot of our natural inclinations, especially for those of us who have felt hurt or misunderstood by other people.

Do I really want to live into shalom, or do I really want peace just for the people I like and who make me feel good about myself and my beliefs? Do I really want to help foster shalom and God’s dream for the world—even for people I can’t stand?

We want to shame those who do wrong. We want retribution. We want to judge them and righteously say I told you so. We want our tormentors to be punished. We want our enemies to suffer like they’ve made others suffer. And that is not shalom at all.

Oshetta says shalom is the breadth and depth and smell and climate of the kingdom of God. So when we pray, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” it is us living into shalom, God's dream for the world.

Loving my enemy means telling different stories

But when I think about practicing shalom, not just as this idealistic concept, but truly practicing and living it, I struggle, and you might too, with the question: What does that look like? I don't know how to do that in my life. Especially for these people that just annoy and frustrate me!

Osheta offers a very powerful way to make peace with our enemy, to practice shalom.

She tells a story in her book about how one of her teen sons was called the N word at school by his basketball coach. And instead of going ballistic, she decided to be intentional and practice shalom. For her, that meant taking out her journal to write a better story about the coach, and she describes the two stories she wrote.

The first was about how the coach was beloved in the eyes of God. That story allowed her to reinstate the humanity and dignity of the person she was incredibly mad at. Because when we dehumanize people, it makes it easier to define them as enemy.

And the second was a backstory of the coach’s life that helped her to get why he was the way he was. That story allowed her to have empathy and compassion for him. Because your enemy is the person who is right on the other side of your empathy.

Whew - that part is so hard for me!

Especially at this moment in time. I do not naturally have much empathy for the people who stormed the Capitol, the Proud Boys, the homophobes, the racists, or the people who make memes at the expense of people of different ethnicities or for Donald Trump and many in the Republican party and those people who support him, frankly.

Photo by Nina Strehl on Unsplash

And I also know, in the depths of my heart, that I am no better and no worse and no more beloved and no less beloved than every single one of my enemies and every single one of the people I don’t want to be empathetic towards.

In fact, alot of times when I bring this topic up, I’m the one that gets turned on. I’m told how ridiculous it is to have empathy for those people, because they are terrible and wrong!

And so what does it mean to have empathy while still acknowledging and naming the destructive and broken and unholy things that have been done? Can we have empathy without excusing or glossing over very real hurts and injustices? Does “telling a better story” mean giving grace to people who probably don’t deserve it and, let’s be honest, would squander it?

Love of enemies: the hardest part Jesus’ teachings.

It is so radical and alarming to associate the word ‘love’ with the word ‘enemy’ that we are not only forced to reckon with those who wish to harm us, but redefine what we mean by love.

Our sentimental notions of love must be thrown out the window. Love is not an emotion, or a feeling and it doesn’t even mean being nice or kind. When Jesus bids us to love our enemies, he is speaking of neither eros [romantic love] nor philia [reciprocal love of friends]; he is speaking of agape, understanding and creative, redemptive goodwill for all people.

When it comes to our enemies, there is no in between, no neutral ground, and no indifferent space. If we do not love our enemies then that means we hate them.

Few public figures have spoken more plainly and powerfully about Jesus’ teaching to love our enemies than the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This was not an abstract theological question for Dr. King. He wrestled practically and at great cost with how to love his enemies, both through prayer and through nonviolent direct action.

This passage is an excerpt from King’s sermon Loving Your Enemies.

"The reason you should love your enemies is because hate distorts the personality of the hater. When you hate someone, 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 an individual whose heart is filled with hate…

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. All objectivity is lost. That’s what hate does. Hate destroys the very structure of the personality of the hater."

There is so much hate in our society today—hate between right and left, democrat and republican, white and black, male and female, gay and straight, rich and poor, Muslim and Christian, citizen and immigrant, powerful and powerless. With non-stop media it is so easy to get sucked into the never ending cycle of hate, but we must remember that hate is killing us.

Hate only has the power to tear things down and to ruin us. Hate has no redemptive potential.

Only love can redeem us and only love can redeem our enemies.

Love is not a feeling, but the conscious and chosen actions we make for the benefit of another’s life. It is doing something for someone else, caring for another’s wellbeing, and promoting the human flourishing of other people. Hate tears down our enemies, our world, and our souls, but love builds up.

Only love can build a beloved community. Only love can bring shalom.

To be clear: Having empathy does not mean erasing the reality of what other people have done. To have empathy is not a get-out-of-jail-free card and doesn’t absolve people from accountability. To have empathy doesn’t mean seeing someone or something as better than reality.

Rather, empathy is really an act of humility: We recognize that others are complicated like we are, like I am—and we recognize, hard as it may be to do so, that God loves them too.

I think each of us craves love and belonging. Is it so hard to imagine that our neighbors want the same thing? I think each of us wants wholeness. Is it so difficult to think that our enemies want the same thing?

So ultimately, what I hear from Osheta is an invitation into holy imagination. I think she’s urging us to dream beyond ourselves.

And that is a healing gift that will ultimately benefit not just our enemy and not just our neighbor but also each one of us who dares to go down this difficult path. We must learn what it means to resist injustice out of love for the oppressed and, at the same time, resist the temptation to hate out of love for the oppressors.

Jesus was trying to teach us that hate not only divides us from the object we hate, but from our true selves, which means we cannot be complete, whole, or full human beings who are at peace with ourselves, with others, or with God if we hate our enemies. But love for our enemies, on the other hand, can make us complete and bring us shalom.

I know that it’s not practical or realistic. Frankly, I don’t really care.

I will fail. But I’m going to try to be a compassionate bridge-builder and tell better stories anyway. Because I know that love is the only way to break the never ending cycle of violence, love is the only way to bring redemption to a world in desperate need of new hope, and love is the only way for us to be the people that God has called us to be.

I long to be in a company of peacemakers, to make it communal. Not in spite of all of the chaos and dehumanization that’s going on right now but because of it.

It’s never been more important to have linked arms around that vision of what flourishing looks like and to lean into that together. And to remember that we do not walk alone. We aren’t the ones who invented it, we’re simply part of it. And we’re invited into it. We can keep borrowing hope from each other in these days, as we practice shalom even when it makes no sense to anyone else. I love this particular way of living.

What about you...

Will you love your enemies?

Will you work towards shalom?

Or will you take the easier path of defriending and writing off your enemies, thinking positively, and just hoping for the best? I hope not.

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