I think one of the most courageous things a person can do is to love one’s enemy. That phrase, “love thy enemy,” can imply a lot of different things, though, so let’s parse out more precisely what I mean.
There’s a version of “love thy enemy” that I think is more like “tolerate thy enemy,” an acceptance that those whose interests are opposed to our own are, at the very least, entitled to have interests and to pursue them. Right off the bat, that’s more than many — if not most — people can manage. For example, I find it very difficult to muster any sympathy for someone who would vote for just about any Republican for public office right now. I recognize that they have every right to support whomever they choose, but I think that choice is so deeply flawed and immoral that “tolerate” is about the best I can do. But “love”?
There’s another version of “love thy enemy” that is more akin to what I see from many religious conservatives, which manifests as a kind of paternalistic condescension. These poor, misguided people, they don’t see how much I love them and their immortal souls, and they don’t understand that all the things I’m doing are so they can get right with God. I suppose a conservative could turn this around and say that secular liberals are doing the same thing to them, pushing them to live under our progressive moral system for what we say is their own good. (They could do that, and they’d be wrong, but that’s another thing.)
Maybe in between these there’s a “love thy enemy” that is more hopeful, a kind of wish that one’s enemy will see how they are wrong (in wronging you, wronging others, wronging themselves), with a sincere desire that said enemy will become what one believes they can be. At best, it’s wanting something better for one’s enemy, but it’s conditional. To truly receive the love one has for one’s enemy, that enemy has to work for it and have something to show. It’s like love in escrow.
In none of these variations is one asking anything of oneself. The onus is always on the enemy.
What got me thinking about this was a recent piece by Alan Jacobs, who I might describe as my cognitive hero. (His book is literally titled How to Think.) There, he addresses white Americans who feel boxed in by the recent awakening for racial justice, anxious that they feel unfairly cast as villains and that, no matter what they do, they just can’t win. His response is to drop some Jesus on them. From Luke:
But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.
This bore into my heart when I read it. I’ve written before about how love is not a feeling but an act, a process, and this little Jesus-bomb here is just about the most radical expression of that idea. Does someone steal from you? Slander you? Hurt you? Love the shit out of them.
It’s easy to feel love for people who are good to us! It’s much harder to affirmatively act on that love, to engage in the process of loving someone, even those about whom we care most deeply. But this goes much, much further. By these lights, we have to do more than just feel love for our enemies, do more than just have sympathy or empathy with those who seek to do us harm. We have to act out of love for them. We have to engage in the process, the work, of love for the benefit of those who seek to make us suffer — and with no expectation or wish of anything in return.
I mean, holy crap.
That takes courage. A lot. It may well be beyond my capacity, I honestly don’t know. But what a thing to aspire to!
Now, there’s a spot where I get a little hung up. Here’s the end of the quote from Luke:
Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Shit. There’s that word. Reward. Barf.
Now we’re back into transactions. Engage in the utterly selfless act of affirmatively loving your enemy with every particle of your being, because in the end, you’ll get the big payoff from God.
If you truly believe with certainty that there is an afterlife, overseen by the creator of the Universe, that is available to those who meet the behavioral requirements of carrying out one’s earthly existence, then loving one’s enemy ceases to be courageous. It becomes an investment, meant to maximize the value of one’s biological retirement.
I love the idea of an ideal to which we can aspire, even if we can’t reach it. This is one of the things that distinguishes a belief in “making America great again,” which imagines that there is a perfection that has been lost and must be recovered, and the aspiration to form a more perfect union, the unending quest of reaching toward something better than we have yet known.
When we act out of love for our kids, we work to help them become the best versions of themselves they can be, and there is no reward for us as parents. When we love our country, we engage in the work of shaping, tinkering, adjusting, experimenting, and improving so that it gets asymptotically closer to being that more perfect union, long after we’re gone and able to see any of the benefits of that work.
To love our enemy is to work toward their benefit, knowing that they will never reciprocate. It’s remarkably straightforward. As Jacobs writes:
There’s a simplicity about this that’s immensely liberating. Just knowing what I’m supposed to do relieves me of the burden of worrying about other people’s intentions, other people’s morals. It doesn’t matter what their intentions and their morals are: my job is precisely the same whatever the state of their souls.
That’s utterly radical and almost unthinkably courageous. But to do any of these things because we think that after it’s all over we’ll get some sort of divine compensation, well, then it’s something less.
As I write this, the 2020 Republican National Convention is about to get underway. I do not believe I have the capacity to love those who will be responsible for whatever lies, hate, and rage will be broadcast. I expect nothing from them, but nor do I have anything to offer them. I wish I did.
I don’t know if John Lewis loved the men who beat him, imprisoned him, or spat on him. I suspect he might have. I can’t imagine having the courage to do the things he did without the conviction that he was performing an act of love for them, as much as for those who were already on this side. Sure, as a Black man in America, he stood to gain from the advances in equality he doggedly pursued. But what he was truly winning was a new level of enlightenment for all of us, and all that he did and endured will reverberate long after him, long after anyone who is alive today. It wasn’t for him. It was for us, and yes, it was for them.
And I don’t think he did it to secure his place in the great hereafter, either. I can’t know that for sure, of course. But from here, I saw the act of love without expectation of reciprocation. I saw radical courage. I believed.