I lean towards being a people-pleaser and peacemaker, yet I have managed to have enemies. Some conflicts resulted from my carelessness and a few from standing on principle. When I wrote an editorial defending the rights of women to make their own choices for reproductive health, a few people thought I was a demon spewed straight from Hell.
When I went through a divorce, I expected my ex-wife’s anger, but I was shocked how quickly people divided for or against me. I did not count on how some friends felt betrayed and cut me off. I was equally surprised by who came out of the woodwork with support. I put effort into getting along with people. But later in life, I realized that some people just don’t like me. I’m too liberal for some and too moderate for others. Too Christian or not Christian enough. As a pastor, people sometimes project their anger with God onto me. It’s nearly impossible to be a leader and not make a few enemies. As FDR once said, “Judge me by the enemies I’ve made.”
When hatred radiates towards me, it still feels dreadful. Hate is like a gas leak. It smells like rotten eggs, and I don’t want to breathe the toxic fumes. I move carefully, not wanting to ignite the fetid air. Hateful people seem on the edge of combustion, and when they burst into flames, I don’t want to get scorched. I want to get away and find a place to breathe fresh air. Being around hatred suffocates the soul.
Except when it doesn’t. I am not immune from hatred seeping in. I admit to occasionally enjoying righteous outrage. Hatred goes beyond just having a good rant or enjoying Steven Colbert skewering some politician I dislike. That’s the tip of the iceberg. The mark of hate is finding satisfaction in dehumanizing someone. For most of us who aren’t neo-Nazis, such things lurk in the shadows, out of conscious sight. Hate can hide in a desire for justice while demanding punishment for wrong doing. I may think I have righteous anger, like when Jesus turned over the tables of the money changers or called the Pharisees a brood of vipers. When I get angry at anti-vaxxers and Second Amendment advocates of assault rifles, isn’t my righteous anger just being like Jesus?
Anger isn’t evil on its own. Anger tells us something important. It alerts us that something valuable is threatened. Apostle Paul said, “When you are angry, do not sin.” He didn’t say, “Don’t ever be angry.” Some say, “use your anger for energy to do good things.” It’s not bad advice, but it is like using fossil fuels to propel your car. Burning stuff may seem quick and efficient, but it isn’t good for the atmosphere. Relying on anger for your energy will eventually burn you up and heat the emotional atmosphere around you. Self-examination is vital because hateful people don’t feel their hate. Nobody wakes up and says, “I think I will hate today.” They tell themselves that they are defending the truth against evil-doers, who are out to destroy everything they believe. I quickly see this hatred in others, but would I recognize it in myself?
In the NY Times last Sunday, Charles Blow wrote about dealing with his Covid-related anger. He’s frustrated with people who refuse vaccines and masks, allowing COVID to spread and new variants become more likely. We can’t move on because a minority of people refuse to act, so we all suffer. The comment section was fascinating. Health care professionals told anguishing stories of their sense of futility as they tended to the dying and their anger at the living. A nursing home administrator expressed her grief at the death of 40 percent of her residents despite their best efforts. A few people said they felt like refusing to treat unvaccinated people, make the unvaccinated go to the end of the line in the ER, charge them higher rates on insurance, or don’t allow them access to needed ventilators. This outcry is like a MASH episode where people get angry at Hawkeye for saving the life of a North Korean soldier in surgery. He’s the enemy who is killing us. Fortunately, a few Hawkeyes commented that doctors save lives regardless of their patients' moral or political positions.
The pandemic has us at each other’s throats; even Canadians declared a state of emergency because of vehicles blocking Ottawa and bridges into the US. Some congregations have knockdown, drag-out fights over masks, and safety protocols. People leave church, and pastors leave the ministry because masks have become a political issue. One Times commenter called out what he labeled “weaponized selfishness.” His example was Fox News, which requires all staff to be vaccinated, yet puts misinformation out to millions of people because it serves the political purpose of attacking the politicians they don’t like.
This is precisely why we need to hear Jesus’ words about loving enemies. Polarization has reached dangerous levels, not just because we have political disagreements. Polarization is the goal, a weapon in an agenda.
“To rally people, governments need enemies...if they do not have a real enemy, they will invent one in order to mobilize us.” Thich Nhat Hanh
Outrage is big business. It serves powerful financial interests to keep us angry over cultural issues while ignoring climate emergencies, inequality, and poverty. Podcaster Joe Rogan makes $200 million by keeping people outraged. Facebook monetizes outrage by steering us into inflammatory posts that make us want to be engaged in the argument.
What does Jesus want us to do when he says, “Love your enemies.”? It sounds wildly impractical to turn the other cheek and give to those who take from you. A few religious groups like Mennonites take this literally and practice pacifism. MLK and Gandhi made this kind of nonviolent resistance central to their view of social change. Honestly, most Christians just ignore it. I have wrestled with this growing up in the wake of the Vietnam war and registering as a conscientious objector as a teenager. The central struggle is how do I live the nonviolent and generous love of Jesus without enabling oppression and injustice? I wish Jesus had said more about issues like violence against women and how to handle addiction in your family. There are situations where misapplied forgiveness leads to more pain and suffering.
Most passages in the Bible dealing with enemies are in the Old Testament. People are deeply concerned about enemies invading and killing them. Many Psalms plea to God for protection from enemies or even ask to smite our enemies. (Smite is just a handy word killing people I don’t like.) Jesus wasn’t speaking in a vacuum.
Leviticus 19 lists the ten commandments and gives some commentary. Leviticus has lists of laws most of us never read, like don’t eat shellfish and animals of cloven hoofs. But here are some gems.
“Don’t profit off the blood of your neighbor. Don’t pervert justice.”
“You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Stopping the cycle of vengeance, which leads to escalating violence and bloodshed, is central to the Old Testament ethic. The passage “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” meant that retaliation in blood feuds should be limited. But as Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
"When you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey going astray, you shall bring it back.
When you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden…you must help to set it free."
"Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble" (No schadenfreude!)
"If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink;"
Even amid all the blood and violence of the Old Testament, scriptures encourage us to pull back from our animosity. The cycle of violence will end up hurting you as much as your enemy. Take advantage of the chance for peace. Save the donkey. Guard your heart against the spirit of hate and retribution, or it will destroy you too. Don’t become a gas leak.
Given our polarized environment, there is much left unsaid, so I will leave you with my most important rule of thumb for sorting out the love of enemies.
Micah 6:8 – “Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God.” The work of peacemaking, reconciliation, and forgiveness is at the intersection of all three phrases.
Love of the enemy must not be used as a cover-up for injustice. Don’t expect people to forgive too soon or without concern for their safety. But as you work for justice, nurture kindness in your heart. Pursuit of justice must not lead to becoming like the enemy we oppose. Walk humbly because occasionally, you could be wrong. You might learn something even from your enemy.
Jesus did not back off from speaking the truth or calling people out. But he also called people in and invited them to the Kingdom of God. He calls us to be better than loving those we like and find agreement. Anyone can do that. We are called to stretch and have the courage to lead with love, even as we encounter the dividing walls of hostility. We will end our service with a favorite song by Fredrick Faber:
“There is a wideness in God’s mercy, Like the wideness of the sea.
There is a kindness in God’s justice, that is more than liberty.”