Wednesday, October 20, 2010

What Does it Mean to Love Our Enemies?

Several weeks ago, Richard Beck of Experimental Theology made a post that I have not been able to stop thinking about. He talked about the disconnect between the love Christians preach to the love Christians practice. The reason I appreciated this post so much is it put into precise words a phenomena which I had difficulty describing, but whose existence helped drive me away from Christianity.

I grew up going to conservative Southern Baptist churches and love was frequently the topic of sermons. This included God's love for humans, our love for God, and our love for each other. It was the last one which bothered me. Countless times I was reminded that Jesus said "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:43-44).

No matter what happened, we were to love our enemies. No matter how we felt, we were to love our enemies. No matter how they insulted us, stole from us, or physically harmed us, we were to love our enemies.

In words, it sounded great. It still does. But I did not see it practiced. At least, I did not see it practiced in any substantial form. What I repeatedly saw felt more like judgment. Anyone whose views or lifestyle did not conform to the church's was demonized. Unfortunatly, I experienced much of this personally, from my step-father. Liberal politicians on the nightly news were accused of murder and sexually deviancy. Homosexuals and feminists were blamed for destroying families. Even strangers were targets. If someone cut him off on the road, the string of insults that would follow could be rather nasty. Yet, when I would ask why he hated these people, I would always get them same reply: "I don't hate them. I'm a Christian. I love them."

So what exactly was this love? How could love allow for such seeming cruelty? In his post, Beck wrote that:

"As best I can tell, [loves] means the following: To love someone is to wish that they go to heaven."

Personally, I felt it had even a narrower definition. To love someone is to wish they would convert to Christianity (and, of course, to claim conservative our views). To love someone means to proselytize them, to "save" their soul. It did not mean to truly listen to them. It did not mean to learn about their life and to have compassion for their unique sufferings. It did not mean to forgive them when they actually harmed you (since I do not believe mere disagreement on political or social issue can usually be classified as "harm").

Love became some strange ideal, something that existed only in theory, not a concrete action with practical value. 

As a universalist, I believe God's love for us is not only unconditional, but involved. It is not just an emotion He possesses for us, but an action He directs at each one of us individually. He supports us during periods of suffering. He teaches us lessons throughout our life to forge us into better people. He even forgives us when we screw up, and helps us return to the correct path. God's love is NOT passive, and ours should not be either.

For me, to genuinely love your enemy can be quite hard. Our first instinct is towards anger or revenge. But love demands it must be towards understanding and forgiveness. People injure others when they have been hurt themselves: they are suffering, so they force others to suffer. Love stops this viscous cycle. To love your enemy represents that you have a profound desire to help end their suffering NOW, not a hope they will be blissful in some distant afterlife. It means you must see past the exterior of anger, greed, jealously, and hate, to an interior person who is in deep pain, allowing you to forgive their transgressions.

How often have you accidentally hurt someone when you have been preoccupied with your own pain? I know I have. Maybe that guy who cut you off today just lost his job. Or the woman who is rude to you is preoccupied with how she is going to afford food for her children this week. Or the person who roughly bumps into you and walks away without apologizing just found out their child has a terminal disease. If we truly knew the reasons behind people's bad actions, I believe we would be sympathetic more often than judgmental or wrathful.

Unfortunately, we cannot see people the way that God can. In some ways, it might be easier for Him to love us than for us to love each other. He sees our pain and suffering, so He understands why we lash out at others. We do not have that luxury. When we love our enemies, forgive them, and offer them our help, it means we are giving them the benefit of the doubt. They might have hurt us, but that does not mean they are bad people. It means we sympathize with their hidden pain, because we too are human. It means we recognize that love is not just a dream for the future, but a healing force in the present.

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