“Love your enemies.”
I’m reflecting on this, the hardest of Jesus’ commandments, as I grieve my own nation’s policies of war, exclusion, vengeance, and cruelty — policies envisioned through the lens of enmity.
The lens of enmity warps our vision, inverting it so that the outside world is obscured by our inward fears. It contorts the human faces in front of us into monsters. It magnifies our own pain and obstructs that of others. It blinds us with lies.
Blinded by enmity, our nation terrorizes children out of playing outside on sunny days by flying death robots through the Middle Eastern skies. Blinded by enmity, we shut our doors to those whose countries we bomb with impunity. Blinded by enmity, we condemn children to school-to-prison pipelines. Blinded by enmity, we round up undocumented immigrants for deportation.
To truly contemplate how much of our policy is built on a perspective of enmity is both mind-numbing and heartbreaking. Over half of our discretionary budget is dedicated to defense – protection from “others” – despite the fact that investment in war robs from potential budgets that could promote peace and prosperity through education, infrastructure, and healthcare; despite the fact that war and war machines are rendering our planet uninhabitable; and despite the fact that war fuels the cycle of violence and hostility that further erodes our safety.
Militarized police and the prison industrial complex are hallmarks of a culture that builds and feeds upon enmity. Weapons are among the chief exports of the United States, which sells more instruments of death to more countries than any other nation in the world. Even international alliances are premised upon mutual enmity of others. Such a culture of enmity shapes a subconscious fear and distrust of our fellow human beings, brothers and sisters in God.
Enmity builds walls around hearts, around nations, forming constrictive identities. When we identify ourselves over and against others, we narrow the possibility of who we can be. We are all formed in relationship, but when that relationship is hostility and exclusion, we close ourselves off from learning and growing. Instead of letting others awaken ideas and understandings within us, opening our minds and hearts, we form identities over and against caricatures and stereotypes of people we don’t really know. We may also experience hostility on their part, mirrored back to us in the self-perpetuating cycle of enmity. It is a suffocating cycle, choking out room for love.
“Love your enemies.”
How is this possible?
I think the Sermon on the Mount, culminating in Jesus’ command to love our enemies, subtly reshapes our perspective of enmity by infusing us with compassion. Those on the underside of oppression are comforted by Jesus’ proclamation of blessing because it is assurance that there is no divine justification, no godly ordination, of their suffering. God does not proclaim winners at the expense of losers, but instead extends love and mercy to the outcast and marginalized. In Christ, God directs our attention to the overlooked and discounted (and those of us who are among the overlooked and discounted are the most honored members of the body). By orienting us toward those who suffer – the poor, the meek, those who mourn – God calls us to more than recognition of their full humanity. God calls us to relationship. In relationship with those who experience oppression or marginalization, those of us who have advantage or privilege may come to recognize our participation in unjust systems and work for change, for reconciliation and restoration and peace on a foundation not of conquest, but of justice.
Those of us with white privilege, for example, would come to understand how generations of de facto segregation built upon the lie of white supremacy at the foundation of our culture influence a subconscious fear that fuels discrimination, a school-to-prison pipeline, and police shootings of African Americans as we build meaningful friendships across racial divides. We would see how a lifestyle of consumption leads to environmental racism as pipelines are built through poor, minority communities and pollution-producing plants are set up in areas that have little political or financial recourse. Friendships with refugees and immigrants might help us to understand how our wars on drugs or terror devastate communities and render nations dangerous or uninhabitable. Building friendships with those on the underside of our privilege not only helps us reflect on how we participate in systems of injustice, but also opens us to listening and learning so that we may find ways to live more just lives.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus leads us from recognition of the victim in the Beatitudes to recognition of our own sin before giving us the command to love our enemies. When we can see how we participate in systems that harm others, we become more aware of our own need for forgiveness. This naturally leads us to an awareness of the need to forgive those who oppress or hurt us. An orientation of compassion leads naturally to self-reflection, repentance, and forgiveness. It helps us to love our enemies by helping us to see, and turn from, the ways in which we act as enemies.
When Jesus says, “Love your enemies,” I think he means, “Let love heal your enmity, so that you do not act as an enemy to others. Make a space of forgiveness so your enemies may become your friends.”
A reorientation from enmity to compassion would change everything. Contours of identity – be they color, gender, sexuality, nationality, religion, or ideology – would no longer be walls of exclusion but threads that bind us together in the diverse and beautiful tapestry of humanity. Our hearts, long diseased by fear and distrust, would expand and heal in relationship and love.
A spirit of enmity is destroying us. Only following Jesus’ command to love our enemies can we be saved from our own hostility and brought to the fullness in which we are meant to live with each other and with God.