Love your enemies
IN THE GOSPEL of Matthew we find the following startling passage:
You have learnt how it was said: You must love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I say this to you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; in this way you will be sons of your Father in heaven, for he causes his sun to rise on bad men as well as good, and his rain to fall on honest and dishonest men alike. (Matt. 5:43-46.)
To emphasise that there can be no misunderstanding or misinterpretation, the same exhortation is found in Luke in even stronger terms:
But I say this to you who are listening: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly. To the man who slaps you on one cheek, present the other cheek too; to the man who takes your cloak from you, do not refuse your tunic. (Luke 6:27-29.)
It seems pretty plain: Jesus is asking us to not just love our neighbour, our family and our friends, but to also love our enemies. The parable of the Good Samaritan explains to us who our neighbour is and what our obligations to him or her are, but we are left with little guidance about who our enemies are. On the one hand, it is quite clear who our enemies are—they are those people who hate and persecute us, who treat us badly, but on the other, it might include some of our friends as well, who let us down from time to time.
Both passages tell us that who we consider to be our enemies will not necessarily be the heads of hostile foreign powers such as Saddam Hussein, nor terrorist leaders such as Osama bin Laden. While we might talk about such individuals as enemies of Australia, we are hard pressed to call them our enemies in the direct sense that the Evangelists seem to imply. Neither Saddam Hussein nor Osam bin Laden directly hate us or persecute us, and if we call them our enemies, we do so at a distance. That is, it is doubtful that either one has a dastardly plan to cause us personal grief. If they have any evil designs, they are formulated in abstract terms in which there is no sense of a personal animosity. While it is certain that through their command of others, they may do us great harm, the fact remains that they have no personal animosity towards us as particular individuals. If they hate Westerners and deplore their degenerate ways, they do so hating them all equally and anonymously. They do not pick out particular individuals on whom they wish harm. The Bali bombers had no personal animosity towards the individuals who were in the nightclub; if they hated and thought of Westerners as impious idolators and blasphemers, they did so in an abstract way.
Great evil is more easily perpetrated if we think of our enemies as abstractions, as numbers, as depersonalised and as far as possible, not human beings like us. Victor Frankl writes that the first thing that was done to the prisoners at Auschwitz was that all their belongings were taken away from them, every mark which identified them as an individual human being was stripped away. (Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 1959, 12-13.) It is easy to hate people and to persecute them if we blind our eyes to their humanity. It is much more difficult to do so if we see them as husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, as having an intimate personal life not unlike our own. More particularly, if we realise that there are friends and family who love them and will be deeply distressed by the evil that we visit upon them, we may hesitate to act, especially if we have had our own experiences of the effects of evil on those we love. For most people, it takes an effort of will to stifle the urge to empathise with others. It is no accident that part of the training of suicide bombers involves disengagement from their own intimate relationships, for by doing so, it becomes impossible to envisage those who they are about to kill along with themselves as having rich, deep satisfying relationships with others. It is instructive that Jesus does not deal in abstractions, but confronts us with a demand for a concrete response, here and now, to our neighbour and to our enemies.
It is equally important for us to see the Bali bombers as human beings, and not merely as the agents of al Quaeda, as the agents of evil. The greatest victory that evil doers can achieve is to awaken in us the same blood lust which has driven them to perpetrate their atrocities on innocent human beings, for in doing so, we become like them, seeking revenge where we may. The way of Jesus is not like this. He insists we break the spiral of hatred and enmity by having the courage to turn the other cheek. This does not mean that we should not hunt down those responsible for mass murder and not punish them, for prudence demands that we take appropriate steps to protect other innocent lives, but it does mean that we have a preparedness to forgive. It means that we do not assume, for example, that all Muslims are our enemies as a result and fall into the trap of abstraction and faulty reasoning: if some Muslims are bad all Muslims are bad. Muslims are not abstractions they are individual human beings, who respond to the same emotions and have the same aspirations that we do. While it is important to recognise the Bali bombers as individual human beings, it is not these distant evil doers who are our enemies in the sense Jesus speaks of our enemies.
Despite the activities of al Quaeda and other fanatics who we rightly consider to be enemies of Australia and so in a somewhat removed sense are our enemies, they are not our personal enemies, for they do not hate us in particular, they hate us in general. Our enemies are much closer to home. Jesus calls us to love our enemies and in doing so is not dealing in abstractions but those people with whom we have relationships, those people who we know and find difficult to get along with. They may be our boss, they may be a difficult colleague, if we are at school or university, they may be a member of our class. It is these individuals who are our enemies, since they may act in ways which cause us to lose heart, to be impatient, to gossip and to fail. Our enemies are those who frustrate us, who rarely have a good word to say about us and who assail our spirit, preventing us from flourishing as human persons. They stunt our growth into the fullness of human life and through their scandalous behaviour towards us may leave us bitter and unable to be open to the graces that our other relationships may bring.
Jesus reminds us that our enemy is the other in a sense which those who love us cannot be, for our enemy is radically alienated from us. It is this radical alienation which is at the root of the impulse to regard the other as not only unlike us, but also as not fit to be described as a human being. Insofar as we succumb to the impulse to regard our enemies as utterly unlike us and return their venom with our own, we enter a destructive spiral of hatred from which there is an ever decreasing likelihood of escape. We become debased as human beings for we become more and more like our despised enemies, returning hatred with hatred. Jesus urges us to break this cycle of destructive hatred by returning hate with love and in so doing, paradoxically triumphing over evil. In reality, it is not paradoxical, for it is by our autonomous act of will in refusing to act in a like manner to our enemies that we declare our freedom and affirm our own humanity. Moreover, we dare our enemies to act likewise.
Through his death and resurrection Jesus triumphed over evil, not by destroying His enemies and those who persecuted Him, but by forgiving them, by dying on the Cross for them, as well as for us. If we are to be His followers, we are asked to do the same—to forgive our enemies, to turn the other cheek, to bless those who curse us, to pray for those who treat us badly and do us harm. It is a radical proposal, but ultimately it is life-giving, for the recognition of our common humanity begins with the liberation of our enemies through our refusal to hate them for what they do to us and the replacement of the destructive spiral of hatred with love. In this way, we call those who hate and despise us to recognise our humanity as well as to acknowledge their own. If the modern world is to find a path to peace and to an end to terror it needs to start by breaking the destructive cycle of hatred, selfishness and mistrust which characterises the relations between many of the world’s peoples.
Reprinted by kind permission from the Mercy Ed. Newsletter, Vol. 7, 3, 2002.
John Ozolins is Head of the School of Philosophy at the Melbourne St Patrick’s Campus of the Australian Catholic University.