I was sitting in a room full of people I knew mainly as acquaintances, though a few were friends. I have no idea who the speaker was or what he was talking about. I don’t know if I was paying attention. I was sitting there, and what I remember is Jesus suddenly saying to me, “Why do you think I didn’t mean it when I said, ‘Love your enemies’ (Matt5:44)?”
There was not one person in that room I would have called an enemy. As I looked around with these words ringing in my ears, I saw people I didn’t really respect. I saw many I didn’t agree with theologically or politically, but wasn’t that a flimsy basis for something as serious as enmity? I knew I had been nailed, though. I preached about love—and loving enemies—and I obviously needed to practice it. If I wanted to be a follower of Jesus, something clearly needed to change.
Had it been my ego speaking that day, it would have pointed sanctimoniously at those people who obviously didn’t take Jesus’ words to heart. To be honest, I’d had similar judgmental thoughts in that group on many occasions. I could tell you how those people really needed to practice what they preached. But Jesus pulled the rug out from under my self-righteous ego projections and defenses that day. There was no doubt in my mind who really needed to take Jesus seriously. Had the message been from my own ego needs, I would have stayed secure in my moral superiority over those people and assured of Jesus’ blessing of it.
When Jesus said to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, he was asked, “And who is my neighbor?” His response was to tell the Good Samaritan story (Luke 10:25-37) when everyone knew Samaritans weren’t real people and certainly none were good. Most of us do a pretty good job asking, “Who are my neighbors?” We have lots of answers for that question, and I suspect those answers continue to challenge each of us in different ways at different times. But can we as easily answer the question, “Who are my enemies?” If we claim we have none, we give ourselves a pass at Jesus’ command to love them. It’s hard work, and we don’t want to do it.
“Why do you think I didn’t mean it when I said, ‘Love your enemies’?” As I’ve worked with this question in the intervening years, I have gotten better at seeing and acknowledging enmity in myself and in others. The more I extend love to my worst enemy—and most of us are our own worst enemy, even if we blame everyone else—the more compassion and understanding I’m able to extend to others. But I would be lying if I claimed to be able to love everybody now. It’s a great goal and a long process. Loving our enemies is a practice, a discipline we choose to undertake. We make progress slowly.
Who are our enemies? Notice who or what are we doing battle with. Notice those people—or just that person—to whom we most want to do a “gotcha!” Notice who or what we most want to put down, to defeat, to see disgraced or diminished, or to squash like a bug. (Let’s give friendly team rivalries a pass for today.) But be honest and listen for the knife in the voice that exposes a desire to see another not only defeated but humiliated somehow. When we hear venom or axes grinding in our voices—if only the voices in our head—we do not desire love for another, or maybe ourselves. (Other than the friendly rivalries), if it’s a win/lose situation, it is not Love. The One who is Love transforms our battles into win/win opportunities. The point isn’t to deny or avoid the battle, but to stand in the relationship bringing transformation of our hearts and minds and spirits as we seek to love and to be love in a situation that might feel impossible or hopeless.
We really just have to listen to ourselves if we want to know who or what we have some sense of enmity for. It might be those people—and those people may change depending on how badly we slept or what the weather is like, but we all have them. It might also be someone or something close. If we’re trying to make a child or our own body go to sleep through sheer will power, we’re fighting, not loving. We talk about our bodies as enemies—our aches and pains, or getting angry when they don’t work the way they did at 20 without enough rest, or how our symptoms are traitors to be stamped out. In this country we’re very good at making our bodies our enemies, especially as we age. What would it look or feel like to truly love that enemy?
Any time we point out those people, though, we separate them from ourselves. And if we’re human and we’re good and those people aren’t like us, then they become less good and less human. Maybe we don’t hate them, but contempt is really worse in the dehumanizing process. Listen for the hate family of words and emotions. Contempt, disgust, revulsion, hostility, dislike, ill will, resentment, bitterness and antagonism are all synonyms for hate. Eye-rolling and sneering are common expressions of contempt. Mockery, disrespect, neglect, disdain, ridicule, deprecation and disparagement are all synonyms for contempt. These are all signs of enmity; expressing these as humor does not make them loving.
Now, when I talk about words exposing our enmity, some of us will automatically want to eliminate those words from our vocabularies in an effort to hold our images of ourselves as good people. Because how can we admit to hating people or having enmity toward someone and still be good people? Really! I urge us to see and to restrain that unconscious impulse. I urge us to see these words and feelings as friends and opportunities bringing information we need if we want to become more like Jesus. If we merely eliminate offensive words—and I know this the hard way of conviction, not just by reasoning it out—then we can feel morally superior to those people who use words like hate all the time or who have feelings of revulsion for other people or harbor resentments against those people!
Anything making us feel morally superior to another is not Love, however much we want to cast it as such. Once I started seeing it, I can’t not see it. Moral superiority, at least for me, is not different than contempt. It’s measuring myself against another person, instead of standing next to Jesus and asking how I’m doing being formed into his likeness. “Well, I may not be perfect, but I’m better than that person.”
It’s not about right and wrong. I can be right all day long, but Jesus doesn’t really care about that. Jesus wants to know if I truly love that person I consider wrong. When we stand in the One who IS Love, hearts and minds and spirits get transformed, including our own. Love here is not a feeling—we don’t have to like the person—Love is a choice. If we want to change the world, or just our small corner of it, we will take Jesus seriously and make the hard choice to begin to love our enemies.