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.