The Difficult Teaching
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by Josh Davis
A couple of thousand years ago, an unemployed carpenter and itinerant preacher living in what we now call the Middle East, was executed by the Roman State for repeatedly saying things that made a lot of people uncomfortable. That the religion based on that man’s life and teachings eventually spread to Rome itself, and then on to the rest of the world, has done nothing to make those teachings any less uncomfortable. They are as difficult today as they were two millennia ago...and as relevant today as they were then*.
“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, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. for if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” [Matt. 5:43-48]
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you...it’s not an easy teaching to accept intellectually, much less to live out. On the one hand, we might say that loving your enemies is a sure recipe for extinction, or at least exploitation and oppression. After all, your enemies are your enemies for a reason: because they are trying to dominate you to their benefit. Loving your enemy sounds a lot like Stockholm Syndrome. On the other hand, this teaching is coming from someone who went willingly to his own execution and then, for all intents and purposes, took over the world...so maybe Jesus knows something we don’t...
Or maybe he’s just playing a longer game. In the short-run, sure, hating your enemies (and acting on that hate) might seem to be more intelligent and self-preserving than loving your enemies (and acting on that love); but in the long-run hating your enemies is practically guaranteed to result in your having more enemies, while loving your enemies makes it likely that you’ll end up with fewer of them.
To take but one obvious example from our world today: in attempting to kill everyone who we think wants to do harm to our country (i.e. terrorists), we have only succeeded in creating ever greater numbers of people who want to do harm to our country...because we have killed their fathers, mothers, brothers, neighbors, children, etc. with our far-from-precision drone strikes. It should be obvious that this hate-driven response to terrorism can only be counterproductive to our actual security, but that doesn’t stop us from pursuing it all the same. Why? Because the teachings delivered on that mount in Palestine all those years ago are as unwelcome a message today as they were then. Hate feels good. It makes us feel righteous, especially when it’s directed at somebody who has done something that has harmed us. Loving is hard. Heck, it’s hard enough to do with people we actually kinda like, much less with our enemies.
Regardless, it’s the only winning long-term strategy out there. If the things we do and the public pronouncements we make are driven by hatred, anger or self-righteous indignation, we’re liable to only succeed in making our problems worse. In the long-run, the only way to truly defeat our enemies is to make them our friends...or at least get to a place where they are no longer our enemies. The long-run strategy that Jesus proposes is one focused on overcoming our enemies by overcoming enmity. If we can’t pull that one off, we’ll end up continually looking over our shoulders, waiting for our enemies to strike us back, repaying our hatred with some of their own.
Do I need to add that I’m writing this to “the Left,”** however defined? I’m not pointing out how hypocritical “the Right” is being when they go to church every Sunday and then vote for war-mongers every election...although one could certainly do that. No, I’m talking to us lefties and progressives. I’ve noticed that a depressingly high percentage of the commentary from “the Left” since the election of our recently sworn-in Reality-Show-Host-in-Chief has been...how can I put this?...hateful. Just. Really. Hateful.
And it’s understandable, of course, if you feel like half the country just voted to make your life worse to be feeling some anger and even hatred towards the people who did that. I personally don’t think that bigotry was the primary driving force behind Trump’s election, but even assuming that it was, this is where Jesus’ teachings comes in: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. This, friends, is where the rubber hits the road. It’s easy to love the people who agree with you: even tax collectors and racists can do that! If you really want to rise above, to become a better person, you have to find it in yourself to love those who don’t agree with you. Ideally, you could love even those who would see you put to death, as Jesus showed by his own example, much less people who simply voted for the other party’s candidate. And if love is too much to ask, then at least maybe we can try not to hate so much, or so publicly.
If we respond to people we see as our enemies with hatred and aggression, we can expect them to respond to us in like manner, and we can expect the negativity between us to increase over time. If we seek to move in the opposite direction – to decrease the amount of negativity, aggression and hatred we all have to live with – to move towards harmony and not away from it – we need to make a conscious effort to respond with love, as paradoxical as that might sound.
When Harold Washington, Chicago’s first African-American mayor, was asked whether he was going to treat the city’s white neighborhoods to the same disregard and neglect that black neighborhoods had experienced under every previous mayor, Washington’s response was (paraphrasing, from memory), “We’re going to be fair to them. We’re going to be so fair to them, they won’t know what to do. We’re going to be so fair to them it’ll make their heads spin.” Washington knew that the only hope of repairing relations wasn’t to return one hurt for another, but to return justice for injustice and love for hate.
As we move forward into this new year, and this new administration, my hope for our movement is that our work and our resistance be based in Love, not just for those who agree with our politics or whose causes we ally ourselves with, but also Love for our “enemies.” I believe it is indeed true that “Love Trumps Hate,” as the protest sign declares, but I believe this calls on us to love even those who hate us, or who we think might hate us. We need to find it within ourselves to love even the Trump voter, in short. If we can’t do that – if we can’t get over our desire to shame and belittle people who don’t think like us – we will continue to find ourselves surrounded by enemies. There is a better way, though, I think, if we’re willing to really listen to what that unemployed carpenter and itinerant preacher was trying to tell us a couple thousand years ago.
*Full disclosure: I am not a Christian, nor do I claim any other organized religion. My spiritual mentor is an anarchist Hindu monk (my description, not his) who has been known to suggest “Om Jesus” as a mantra for Western seekers who show up at his ashram in Nepal...for whatever that’s worth. My use of Christian scriptures is not based, therefore, on any particular metaphysical belief system, but rather on my considered judgment that certain Christian teachings are highly pragmatic, as well as being true in some loftier sense.
**Scare quotes because I find the way we currently talk about politics a tad bit silly, as any political scale which puts myself and pro-fracking, war-mongering Democratic politicians in the same category – “the Left” – conceals a lot more than it reveals. Still, that’s how we talk, so...
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