loving the enemy

Last Sunday, February 18, I read Luke 6.27-38 and then the following reflection (which I wrote):

I’ve heard it said that all theology is at its very heart autobiography, and that what the theologian is attempting to do is to examine the various circumstances and experiences of his or her life and express the truths they’ve discovered about God and human existence in logical, reasonable terms. And this makes a lot of sense, and not just for theology—also: poetry, philosophy, psychology, artistry, biology, etc. Whatever you happen to think about begins within the borders of your own mind, begins with the basic assumption that I am thinking in the first place. And so, I suppose, to think about God is to think about myself. What all this has to do with the passage I just read may seem obvious once I say it, but please bear with me: I am going to say what I think about this passage.

The most striking thing about Jesus’s words is the thing that everybody seems to be talking about, namely, the impossible suggestion that I love my enemies and treat the people who hate me and abuse me and curse me as nicely as I can—maybe even better than that. While I have a very difficult time just trying to figure out what it means to love my neighbour, it seems that everything just gets more complicated when Jesus asks me to love my enemy. And it doesn’t really help me to make the clever observation that often times my enemy turns out to be my neighbour and vice versa because really, the only thing I know about my neighbour is that they are the person who ends up close to me, whether they live next door or have taken the empty seat next to me on the bus, whether they are the person asking me annoying questions while I’m trying to read in a coffee shop or the person I wake up next to every morning. That’s neighbours for you: they are hard enough to love simply because they’re always there next to me, but they’re nothing compared with my enemies.

Enemies, on the other hand, are the ones out to get me: they don’t like me and they tell me so, usually without saying anything to me at all. They say offensive things and act cruelly. They make me feel unlovable. And so, they are enough to make me yell and scream, even though that takes an awful lot of provocation, for me to tell someone what I really think of them—although there are a few people who have heard about the time when I (rather explosively) told someone that they needed to exercise more patience in their life. But aside from very rare outbursts, I try to practice a civilized enmity: that is, in my free time I smolder with rage and nurse bitter feelings against all the mean and hurtful people in the world. If someone hurts me or cheats me in some way, I’m much more likely to bear it as a grudge and silently label that person “my enemy,” than I am to scream at them—although the screaming and shouting does feel good from time to time. So when an enemy mounts a surprise offensive on my usually well balanced, equitable sensibilities, it stops me in my tracks. I’ll be humming along all tickety-boo and suddenly, as if out of nowhere, someone will begin telling me about how homosexuals are going to hell because they are deviants and they celebrate their sin unashamedly. Or how Hindus are misguided people who are actually worshipping demons and not the Almighty. And immediately, my back goes up and I want to shout swearwords and kick over tip-able, breakable things; but instead I nod my head and smile a little, and make some vague comment about how grace is a lovely idea, isn’t it?—and then I carry away all my hurt and I label that person as an enemy in my mind. And the very strangest part is that I feel entirely justified—and even a little bit giddy with pride—in condemning that person and calling them an ignorant, unloving hypocrite. I strut my stuff in my head and quote scripture to myself, saying, “O woe is you, my enemy—for the scriptures proclaim thusly: ‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.’” And so on. But, of course, it doesn’t take much to realize that that’s exactly what I’m doing, and I’m also really enjoying my glorious judgments. I am treating people in just the way that I deserve to be treated, and maybe that’s the whole problem here—there is no mercy, there is no grace.

I guess the real question is who is doing all the real damage here. If I’m the one carrying around all this anger and all these bitter feelings then it seems that my enemy didn’t have to do all that much to hurt me—I’m doing it all to myself. I’m carrying around all the hurt and all the pain. I’m the one who’s becoming angry and mean and annoyed with everyone. I’m becoming more judgmental and less giving. I’m the one who is shriveling up. And so I think, in the end, I am turning out to be my own enemy—perhaps more than anyone else. While I seem to be loving myself, I am simply caught up in my own self-absorbed—maybe self-obsessed—thoughts, and so I am hating myself by carrying all that anger and hurt around. And it’s truly damaging because I don’t even notice I’m doing it. I direct all the awful, volatile feelings inwards because I think that it’s more pious and makes me a better person, but I have forgotten that the anger persists—it grows stronger and it goes deeper. So the trick in all this is to find some way to deal with all my hurt and injury, all that enmity and hostility—find a way to let it go. To forgive myself and other people. To extend mercy and grace. And I think that can only be done inside myself—by being a little kinder and gentler and more tender with that injured part of me. At the end of the day, the more I am myself, the better I will be able to love other people.

Throughout the passage I just read, the frame of reference is myself: “…do good to those who hate you… Do to others as you would have them do to you… Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” Everything seems to begin and end with me. And so maybe that’s the place to start. Maybe it’s less about the enemy “out there” and more about finding out who I really am in here. I think a lot of times we get so hung up on defining who our enemy is that we forget that we are meant to be loving them. At the root of all this, we aren’t only loving the people who love us, but we are also loving the people who make us feel unlovable—maybe, strangely, that turns out most often to be ourselves…


st. valentine and the praying mantis

When I awoke this morning, in a sudden flash of insight, I realized that it was St. Valentine's Day. Now having never had a Valentine's Day that didn't consist of the continual realization (and the subsequently bothersome awareness) of my singleness, this epiphanaic flash of what day it was was followed very closely by thoughts of the praying mantis. I suppose that may seem strange, and indeed I find it so as well, especially since waking up most days I find it difficult to string together even the simplest of thoughts, let alone two rather striking thoughts. Usually, "Boy, it's sunny outside today," is a brilliant and insightful moment when I am dragging myself from sleep. But today I had two, followed closely on one another's heals: (1) it's St. Valentine's Day and (2) the praying mantis is a bug that kills her mate.

Looking into the praying mantis, I found out a few things. I found out that the mantis gets its first name (i.e. praying) from its prayer-like posture, as it clasps its hands before it. Its second name (i.e. mantis) is derived from a Greek word meaning prophet or fortune teller. So the praying mantis is some kind of praying fortune-teller prophet. The female of the species, interestingly enough, rips the head off her mate during the mating process. Or, as Wikipedia puts it: "The female praying mantis is known for her habit of biting the head off her partner while they are mating, though contrary to popular belief, this act has no influence on the reproductive process, save for terminating the male's ability to pass his genes on to any other females. Sexual cannibalism may be rarer in the wild than in captive mantids kept in a cage, due to the lack of room for the male to evade the female after mating ends." I find it particularly troubling that one mantis biting the head off another seems to be the best method that the mantis has come up with to ensure monogamy.

As for St. Valentine, I was surprised to learn that he wasn't simply one person. It seems that there were at least three different St. Valentines, all of them martyrs, recorded in the early martyrologies under February 14. One was a priest and one was a bishop, and these both suffered near Rome in the second half of the third century. The third Valentine suffered in Africa with a few friends, although that's all that's really known about him. Now normally this sad sort of tale isn't enough to get people in the mood, so to speak, or to cause them to pluck that saint's day from the calender as the perfect occasion to buy their significant other flowers; no, it seems that Valentine's day developed into its conventional, popular form (as celebratory of love sweet love) in the fourteenth century in England and France, where February 14 (i.e. the middle of the second month) came to be known as the day when birds pair off. In "Parliament of Foules," Chaucer writes:

For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne's day
Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.

Ah, the seeds of romantic love--you can almost feel it buzzing in the air, as the birds return and find their mates... Of all the seasons, Spring seems to be that romantic time of year, that young-love-in-Paris season. Of course, Valentine's Day seems less about spring and little birdies than it does about dragging ourselves through the last weeks of winter. All in all, Valentine's Day past seems to be filled with violence and depression and regret: Valentine(s) the martyr; the praying mantis mating ritual (which although it may seem like a good idea at the time, will inevitably come to be remembered with regret--especially when baby mantis asks about daddy); those creepy birds who return in the middle of February; and Chaucer's poor spelling. It all seems so made up and contrived. Like the perfect opportunity to sell more greeting cards and chocolates after the holidays--just enough to get us from Christmas to Easter.

But then, if you ease your soul a moment, and simply reflect on what love looks like to you, you can let the strictly narrow-sighted sense of romantic love drift away, and you begin to see all the love in the world. Last week in church, for instance, we talked about the Sacred Heart of Jesus (or, as the French say, Sacre Coeur) and about all the compassion and intensity of unconditional love. Maybe Valentine's Day isn't so much what the commercials have made it to be. Maybe it's less about romantic love and it's more about all love--that is, capital "l" Love.
A little while back I had this idea that maybe because God is love, in the sense of being love-unconditional, and that since this means that his love is boundless, the only way to have true love is to have eternal love. And that's not to say that only if you love someone for all eternity can you love them at all, because I'm not sure if that's possible. Rather, I think I'm trying to say that loving someone is like dipping into eternity--like dipping into the very heart of God, and realizing that love itself is a sign of the Divine. And you can glimpse, in a fleeting moment, the boundlessness and the depthlessness of Love. You realize that it takes you as you are only if you will take all of it.

The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.
--Thomas Merton