Why Love Your Enemy?
February 22, 2004
When someone hates you, you have two choices: you can hate them back or you can refuse to hate. When someone hurts you, you can respond in two ways: you can hurt them back or you can refuse to hurt. In today’s gospel Jesus makes it clear that if we wish to be his disciples, we must refuse to hate, refuse to hurt. This is why he teaches that we are to love our enemies, and why he enshrines that teaching in the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” Since we would not want others to hate us or hurt us, we should not adopt hateful or hurtful attitudes towards them.
Now this teaching to love our enemies, to follow the golden rule is the most difficult of all Jesus’ teachings. We all struggle against it. We have many objections. It does not make sense. It is impossible to follow. The people who hurt and hate us do not deserve our love and forgiveness. We cannot help but ask, “Why does Jesus want us to do something that is so difficult? Why is he so insistent that we love our enemies?”
As I prepared this homily I had the intention of trying to defend Jesus’ teaching. I wanted to come up with a positive and logical explanation of why it made sense to love our enemy. But I must admit that I could not craft an argument which completely convinced me. So I have decided to take another approach.
There is in philosophy a mode of argumentation that is called the via negativa. This is Latin for “the negative way”. What this line of argumentation recognizes is that some issues are so complex and so elusive that you cannot defend them or prove them directly. Therefore what you need to do is address them indirectly, negatively. The via negativa asks, “What would happen if the inverse of the proposition were true? What would happen if the opposite of what this proposition is suggesting were to be followed?” I suggest that the via negativa is a constructive way of demonstrating why Jesus’ command to love our enemies makes sense.
When someone hates you, you have two choices: to hate back or to refuse to hate. Jesus clearly asks us to refuse to hate, to love our enemies, to do to others as we would have them do to us. That’s his teaching. But it is clear that many people do not follow his teaching. They may feel that the golden rule is foolish or impractical. Therefore, they decide to return hate with hate, to return hurt with hurt. Their golden rule is: “Do to others as they have done to you.”
Facing this reality, the via negativa asks, “How is this approach working for you? Are you satisfied with its results? The results of this approach are easy to find. Look at the newspapers. Watch the media. Look at the situation in the Middle East, in Eastern Europe, in India and Pakistan: “You hurt us, we’ll hurt you.” Look at the retribution that characterizes the gang violence in our cities. Recognize the number of families in our society who are addressing their disputes with handguns. “We’re just getting even,” they say. But of course it never amounts to getting even. Violence grows into an escalating cycle of destruction and hatred.
How is “getting even” affecting your relationships? Are you satisfied with the way hurting and hating back is shaping your life? Do you find that holding on to resentments with your family or friends is working for you? Are you satisfied with waiting for others to suffer as you have suffered? In short, are you satisfied with the kind of world that emerges when we respond with hate and hurt, when we do to others as they have done to us? Most of us would admit that such a world is a disaster.
The minute we acknowledge that, the via negativa argument says, “If this approach is not working, if it is a failure, then the other approach must be true.” The other approach is that of Jesus, telling us not to hate, not to hurt, but to respond with forgiveness and love. Now Jesus’ approach is still difficult, but it is the only way to break the cycle of violence and hatred that is destroying our world and ruining our lives.
Now let’s be clear: when we talk about loving our enemy, when we talk about forgiving those who hurt us, we are not denying our right to defend ourselves. We are not advising that we accept abuse and manipulation. We are saying that when we respond to our enemy, we choose to do so in a way that breaks the cycle of violence rather than feeding it. We choose not to hate because we know that hating will only lessen our life and endanger our world.
Jesus’ teaching is not easy. We would all like another option. But there are only two options on the table. Therefore, if you are satisfied with the kind of world that results from returning hate with hate, getting even, treating others as they have treated you, then reject Jesus’ teaching as misguided. But if that kind of world of increasing violence and hatred sickens you, then maybe it is time to follow what the Lord commands. Maybe it is time to love our enemy, to forgive the one who hurts us, to do to others as we would have them do to us.
Assessing the Alternative
February 18, 2007
Today’s gospel is one that no preacher wants to face. It contains what is perhaps Jesus’ most difficult teaching: that we are to love our enemies. Now there are many things about Jesus and his teachings that are attractive. We love it when he blesses the children, when he promises us eternal life, even when he asks us to love one another. But when he asks us to love our enemies and to pray for those who mistreat us, that is a different matter. That is a difficult teaching. But before we dismiss this teaching out of hand, before we conclude that it is an impossible teaching to follow, we might want to consider what is the alternative. What principle will guide us, if we reject what Jesus tells us we should do?
During the Korean War, a group of American GI’s decided to hire a young Korean boy to clean up around the barracks and to prepare meals for them. The boy who they hired had a delightful personality, always upbeat and easy-going. No matter what the soldiers did, he only smiled and continued his work. So the soldiers decided they would compete to see who could make the boy angry by playing practical jokes on him. One time they nailed his shoes to the floor of the barracks. But the boy simply took out some pliers and pulled up the nails. He smiled and kept on with his work. Another time they put a pail of water on the door so that, when the boy came in, the water fell on him and completely drenched him. But he dried himself off, smiled and continued with his chores. They tried one practical joke after another, never with an angry response. Finally, they felt embarrassed about the whole project and decided it needed to stop. So they called the boy in and they said, “You have such a wonderful personality, such a forgiving nature, that we are not going to do any more practical jokes.” The boy said, “No more joke?” “No more,” they said. “No more nail in shoe?” “No more,” they said. “No more water on door?” “No more,” they said. “Good,” the boy said, “then no more spit in soup.”
This story presents the alternative principle to Jesus’ teaching. It is a principle summed up by a phrase which I am sure you have heard: “Don’t get angry, get even.” Getting even is something we all understand. When people hurt us, we want to hurt them in return. There are many ways of getting even. Often it takes the form of withholding love or breaking off communication. Is it not this action which so often destroys our families? One of my greatest privileges as a priest is to meet with families at the time of death. Generally those meetings are blessed, wonderful experiences of sharing the qualities of the deceased person and what that person meant to the family. But every once in awhile in those meetings, there is a member of the family who is absent. When I ask where the person is, the rest of the family sometimes sheepishly responds, “Well there was bad blood between Mom and Patrice,” or “Stephen has never got along with his sister.” Then when I ask, “Well what was the cause of that rupture?”, the family is often unsure. There was some kind of dispute, some kind of argument over money, some kind of disappointment. Now it has been ten, twenty, thirty years, and these two family members have never talked. They were both hurt, and they both dug in their heels and refused to communicate in an attempt to get even.
Does not that same principle explain so much of the violence that we find in our cities and in our country? Somebody is betrayed in a business operation. Someone cheats in a marriage relationship. Some kind of thievery occurs. The offended person has a gun and uses it. “There,” they say, “now we are even.”
Are not most of the world’s wars also the result of this principle pushed even further? One faction attacks another faction and the response is to attack with even greater force. One atrocity provides the opportunity for a greater atrocity. Before you know it a whole society is caught up in an escalating circle of violence. Bodies lay in the streets, and the fabric of society is destroyed.
No one needs to explain to us the principle of getting even. We all seem to take it in with our mother’s milk. It is one of the most basic human responses. When we are hurt, we hurt in return. When someone hates us, we hate back. When someone approaches us with violence, we respond with greater violence. Responding to hurt in kind is the most common response in our world: personally, interpersonally, and internationally. It typifies the way we usually act.
Now, if Dr. Phil was here now, he would say, “And how’s that working for you?
Do you like the results that you are getting by responding to hate with more hate and to violence with more violence? Are you pleased with the outcome from following the principle of getting even?” Each one of us has to answer for ourselves, but look at the world around us. Getting even is destroying us.
Now Jesus’ teaching offers an alternative, a striking alternative, but an alternative nevertheless. Jesus’ teaching calls us to break that ever-escalating cycle of hurt, hatred and violence. Jesus dares to tell us that if we are hurt, we should not respond in hurt but instead forgive. If someone hates us, we should not hate in return but should instead love. When someone treats us violently, we should not match that violence, but instead choose non-violence.
Now is that easy? Not at all! Is it possible? Not all the time. But before we dismiss the teaching of Jesus as something that is undoable, we had better admit that the present policy that we are following is getting us nowhere. It is leading to disaster. Loving your enemy is not an easy teaching but before we say that it is impossible, we had better think again—especially when we realize that the alternative is insanity.
Imitating God’s Mercy
February 24, 2019
A man who lived a very immoral life died and found himself standing before the gates of heaven. Saint Peter was already looking up his record in the book. “This doesn’t look good.” said Saint Peter. “You were cruel, unjust, selfish, and manipulative. What is even worse, I can’t find a single action of generosity or kindness in your entire life.” “Wait a minute, wait a minute.” said the man, “I distinctly remember twenty years ago I saw a homeless child on the street, and I gave that child a quarter. Look it up. It should be there.” “Ah, you’re right,” said Saint Peter, “it’s here. I missed it because it was in a footnote. But it still it is not very much.” “But it’s there,” the man said, “it has to count for something.” “I’m not sure.” said Saint Peter. “I’m going to have to take this upstairs. Excuse me for a minute.” Saint Peter left to discuss the matter with God. When he returned, the man asked, “What did God say?” “Well,” St Peter said, “God told me to give you back your quarter and tell you to go to hell.”
The Christian life is not mathematics. It’s not about calculating all of our good deeds and weighing them against our sins. It is not about measuring ourselves against some perfect performance. This is why we must read the last line of today’s gospel, “The measure by which you measure shall be in turn be measured out to you” in light of Jesus’ words earlier in the passage. There he tells us to be merciful as our heavenly father is merciful. The Christian life is not about measuring one thing against another. It’s about imitating God, about being merciful to others because God is merciful to us. God does not desire to calculate our sins and achievements. God wants to change us so that we can love and show mercy even as God loves and shows mercy.
This after all is the only way that we can make sense out of Jesus’ commands in today’s gospel. He tells us that we are to love our enemies, that we are to do good to those who hate us, that we are to bless those who curse us. No one of us could follow any of those commands on our own. If we were making a list of our achievements, we could not enter any of these commands in our success column. If we are to love our enemies, God has to change us. God has to give us a new heart, a new way of seeing, a new way of loving.
This is why the most practical command that Jesus gives us in today’s gospel is: “Pray for those who mistreat you.” Pray for your enemies. If we take that step, if we bring the person who has hurt us, our enemy, before God in prayer, we open the possibility not only for God to change our enemy, but for God to change us. So we should bring the person that we cannot forgive before God in prayer and ask God to show us something, to give us some understanding that can move our heart closer to forgiveness. We should place the member of our family who has severely disappointed us and hurt us in God’s presence and ask that God would give us a new way to love that person. We should take the friend who has betrayed us and spoke evil against us and before God ask that we might find a way to soften our judgement so that we might forgive as God forgives us.
On day we will find ourselves standing before the gates of heaven, and this gospel tells us that God does not expect us to come with a list of good deeds. The only thing we need to do is tell Saint Peter, “I was helpless, but I prayed that God would change me so that I could be merciful as God is merciful.” Because of that prayer, the gates of heaven will open wide.