Loving our enemies
“But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.” Luke 6:35
Two drivers – one man, one woman – are in a hospital parking garage. They’re both going for the same parking space, but the woman manages to whip into it first, ignoring the turn signal that the guy has had on before she got there. They exchange some heated words there in the parking garage. She insists that the space is hers. He questions her moral character. She calls him a jerk. It gets pretty ugly.[i]
What neither of them stops to consider is why they’re both at the hospital. The woman – Patricia – is there because her daughter is having surgery to remove a cancerous tumor. The man – Gary – is there because his girlfriend is also having major surgery. They’re both terrified of losing someone they love, and so neither of them is behaving well.
And of course, because this is actually a TV show, they discover that they love the same person. Patricia’s daughter Maggie is also Gary’s girlfriend. So now they find themselves in the same waiting room, holding on to their resentments from the parking garage when what they really need to do is focus on Maggie.
So much of our lives is built on the expectation of reciprocity. I help you now so that you might help me later. You scratch my back; I scratch yours. Give and take. Favors are exchanged back and forth. Transactions, both emotional and practical, form the foundation of many of our relationships.
As the scene with Gary and Patricia reminded me, our hostilities are also built on the principle of reciprocity. You hurt my feelings, so I try to hurt yours. You have done harm to me, so I look for a chance to retaliate. Soon we find ourselves separated by a series of small antagonisms that make reconciliation seem impossible. And yet Gary and Patricia also remind me that we seldom know the full story of what people are going through. So often our resentments and retaliations are driven by something else – fear, insecurity, grief. Most of us are doing the best we can to get through the day; we just don’t always behave in the best way.
Into our hatreds and resentments intrudes today’s gospel, in which we hear Jesus telling us to love our enemies. Right, Jesus. I’ll work on that right after I return from my trip to Mars and win my gold medal at the Olympics. At least those things seem possible.
Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you. It’s a tall order. It means first admitting that we have enemies. Call them what you will – enemies, rivals, antagonists, nemeses. We all have people in our lives who bring out the worst in us. It’s hard enough to summon the restraint not to engage in conflict with those people, and now Jesus is asking us to love them, do good to them, bless them?
Notice that Jesus doesn’t seem to care how we feel about the enemy. You can see it in this passage. Jesus doesn’t talk about our emotional response. He instead identifies some concrete actions. He tells us to pray for our enemies. Give them what they need – a shirt, a coat, money. In other words, we are to act generously toward our antagonists in spite of how we might feel about them.
Let me be clear about what Jesus does not mean. He does not intend for us to remain in abusive relationships. Turning the other cheek should not relegate us to perpetual victimhood. This text has often been misused to pressure people to stay in relationships that do not reflect God’s intentions of mutual love and support. Following Jesus’ directives here do not keep us from holding someone accountable for harmful behavior. What it does keep us from doing is poisoning ourselves with long-held resentments toward those who have harmed us.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave many powerful sermons during his life as a preacher and civil rights leader. One of his most compelling sermons is about Jesus’ instruction to love our enemies. In that sermon he offers three reasons we should love our enemies.[ii]
The first is this, in his words: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars…Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction. The chain reaction of evil – hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars – must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.”
We’ve all seen that reality unfold – in our lives and in our world.
The second reason Dr. King says we must love our enemies is that “hate scars the soul and distorts the personality.” He acknowledges the terrible harm done to those on the receiving end of oppression and hatred, citing as examples the Holocaust, the violence inflicted on African-American citizens in this country, and the horrors of war. But Dr. King reminds us that hate also harms the person who hates: “Like an unchecked cancer,” he says, “hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity.” He observes that “modern psychology recognizes what Jesus taught centuries ago: hate divides the personality, and love in an amazing and inexorable way unites it.”
Dr. King adds still a third reason: “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend…By its very nature, hate destroys and tears down; by its very nature, love creates and builds up. Love transforms with redemptive power.”
The transformative power of love. It all comes back to that overwhelming force – a love that we have because God first loved us. Thankfully God does not operate with a sense of reciprocity. Because if God were to treat us as we deserve, we’d be in some trouble. God instead extends mercy to us far beyond our deserving.
Why does God treat us so generously? God desires our freedom. Freedom from the back and forth, freedom from the accumulation of grievances that harm both ourselves and others, freedom from retaliations and recriminations that erode relationships and our very souls. God wants us to be free from all of it – to live as people who don’t have to have the last word because we have what is first and foremost: an unfailing love.
The poet John O’Donohue has written a poem titled “For Lost Friends” in which he reflects on close relationships that have ruptured and are no longer the same.[iii] The final stanza of the poem is a prayer that fits any broken relationship. As I read it, I encourage you to think of someone with whom you have a difficult relationship. May God give us the courage to live this prayer:
Though a door may have closed,
Closed between us,
May we be able to view
Our lost friends with eyes
Wise with calming grace;
Forgive them the damage
We were left to inherit;
Free ourselves from the chains
Of forlorn resentment;
Bring warmth again to
Where the heart has frozen
In order that beyond the walls
Of our cherished hurt
And chosen distance
We may be able to
Celebrate the gifts they brought,
Learn and grow from the pain,
And prosper into difference,
Wishing them the peace
Where spirit can summon
Beauty from wounded space.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ