Who Are My Enemies?
When I was in high school, I remember taking a class on “Christian Ethics” in my senior year. During one class, we were considering passages such as what we hear today from Luke’s gospel, and Jesus’ absolute and categorical instruction that, as his followers, we are called to forgive our enemies completely and without reservation. Most of us were familiar with these teachings and agreed that they were both lofty and inspirational. But then the teacher asked a question: What if “your enemy” was someone who had done something incredibly heinous, such as broken into your home and killed your family? Would you be able to forgive? Woah! Suddenly, things got real. Some asserted that they would still feel the obligation to forgive, though most of us were sure that it would not be so simple. I realized then that this matter of forgiveness and indifference, let alone active love and generosity toward someone who was opposed to you, was rather complicated. The very idea of quickly forgiving someone who was guilty of a terrible crime seemed obscene, even a violation in itself of a greater ethical standard of justice. I could not honestly predict how I would react if someone very close to me were harmed by another.
Jesus had a reputation for making rather extreme statements. Today’s Lucan passage is a collection of several “hard” statements about an absolute ethic of care for the other regardless of our own personal convenience or cost. Christians have struggled with this ethic for millennia, but others have as well. No one has articulated this more starkly than the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who, drawing on the Talmudic tradition, spoke of an ethic of an infinite responsibility that every person has toward the other person. It is a kind of giving which neither anticipates nor even accepts something in return. I think Jesus would approve.
But what are we to do with such an extreme mandate? Well, most of the time, we simply ignore it! Or, at the very least, we find ways to dilute its impact. Some scripture scholars have even given us an easy way out by pointing out that Jesus was probably employing a rhetorical style common to the itinerate preachers of his day: hyperbole and exaggeration for the sake of impact. Thus, we might comfortably conclude that even Jesus didn’t fully believe what he was saying, but I think that’s a risky assumption.
We can debate these philosophical issues most easily at a distance. We might wonder if a terrorist could be forgiven, or if people living in opposing communities who feel constantly under threat from one another—such as the Palestinians and Israelis—could ever really forgive. To take one of the more extreme examples, could Hitler and his minions ever be “forgiven” for what was perpetrated against Jews and other populations in the Holocaust? As I mentioned earlier, the very idea seems almost obscene. But what about the injuries which hit closer to home? If you’ve ever been assaulted, robbed, abused or betrayed in any way, you appreciate how quickly the intense feelings of shame and anger seem to render the idea of “turning the other cheek” absurd. We never know when “the enemy” might pop up, and even the most trusted and beloved relationship can easily turn into one of abandonment and betrayal.
There is something profound and distressing that can occur even in the closest of relationships, when one feels injured by the other. The more intimate the bond, the more rapidly the beloved can become the “enemy,” at least in the heat of passion. Many a parent has faced the confusion and pain when the cherished child suddenly turns and becomes an adversary who seems to abandon all love for the parent in the face of disappointment or hurt, and of course, that moves in the opposite direction as well. Many if not most children go through a period when the parents become the enemy, at least for a period of time. No turning the other cheek here! And, of course, love can seemingly turn to hate astonishingly quickly when the one who we rely on for support seems to betray us, even by apparently refusing to recognize our point of view on some matter. The problem is that we have both a conscious and unconscious understanding with those we love. We expect to be cherished and cared for—understood and appreciated. When that breaks apart, even in subtle and undramatic ways, the impact can feel huge. In most cases, we repair the rupture—perhaps quickly—but sometimes only after both time and effort. Some betrayals are never repaired.
Jesus may not have had these domestic situations in mind when he admonished his followers to pray for those who persecute you, but I am certain he was not simply mouthing a platitude about how we should all just get along. It is true that scripture is filled with examples of extraordinary generosity, ranging from the Genesis story of the unilateral gesture of reconciliation by Joseph toward his rather sketchy brothers, to the image of Jesus on the cross asking God’s forgiveness of those who killed him. We hear stories about acts of astonishing generosity of spirit, such as a few years ago when members of a Pennsylvania Amish community publicly forgave the man who had shot their children in a schoolhouse. But true forgiveness and the commitment to extend care to toward the enemy or even just the stranger is sometimes very hard to do, and we all blow it all the time. Yet no one appreciates this more than God.
At the heart of Jesus’ difficult challenge to really “love one another” regardless of the cost is an ethic of relationship which can only be thought of as an ethic of transcendence, which begins with the capacity to see the other not only as we see ourselves, but as someone who possesses their own right to live and thrive, and who struggles, just as we do, to find what they need. This does not mean that there aren’t people in the world who seem incapable of operating with a true conscience—who do horribly bad things apparently without remorse. Loving does not mean a suspension of accountability. As we learned from the massive effort to heal South Africa after apartheid, genuine reconciliation requires a capacity to face the truth. And relational healing also requires a capacity for both sides to recognize their part in the story. This is why it can be so difficult to really forgive and heal in the face of those who are not present or capable of accepting their participation in the injury of the other. Yet Jesus seems to be calling on us to unilaterally love, which in my mind means a commitment to engage the other, to seek to work through disputes and injuries, and to create something more than existed before.
In recent times, we have been swimming in a culture of accusations and admissions of bad behavior. Perhaps this is all part of the emergence of awareness and a telling of the truth. But the process does not stop there. Turning the other cheek or even praying for those who persecute you doesn’t mean we simply claim the high moral high ground and then go have lunch. It also doesn’t mean a kind of moral masochism in which we presume we deserve what we get and avoid confronting when confrontation is warranted. It means we commit ourselves to engaging the other in gestures of repair and reconciliation. I think Christian love is most exemplified by action rather than attitude, but attitude prepares us for the possibility of action.
Sometimes, we may find it impossible to forgive. It is usually a sign of a deep wound. But if we practice the orientation towards Compassion and transcendent love, we might find the burden of life to be a bit easier, more expansive, and deeply gracious. It’s not just some heavenly award that awaits us, it’s really the release from a life of grudges and judgementalism that sets us free.