You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. -Matthew 5:43-45
To be genuine, compassion must be based on respect for the other, and on the realization that others have the right to be happy and overcome suffering just as much as you. On this basis, since you can see that others are suffering, you develop a genuine sense of concern for them.
... Genuine compassion should be unbiased. If we only feel close to our friends, and not to our enemies, or to the countless people who are unknown to us personally and toward whom we are indifferent, then our compassion is only partial or biased.
…, genuine compassion is based on the recognition that others have the right to happiness just like yourself, and therefore even your enemy is a human being with the same wish for happiness as you, and the same right to happiness as you. A sense of concern developed on this basis is what we call compassion; it extends to everyone, irrespective of whether the person's attitude toward you is hostile or friendly. [p. 302-304] -Dali Lama
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” Mainstream culture demonstrates day after day that anyone who does something we don’t like is our enemy, and once they are our enemy, it is currently culturally normative to insult them, to bully them, even to threaten their lives and their families.
So Jesus knows he is calling his students to do something counter-cultural when he says “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” The Dalai Lama and many other religious teachers arrive at the same place following their own traditions. And I believe it falls to us, not only as people of faith, but as people of this particular community who have championed Universalism for over 200 years, to remember a different way of being in the world- to be leaders and role models in spreading the good news about the inherent worth and dignity of every person, even the people we love to hate.
This fall, the drama department at my son’s high school was preparing a production of “Hunchback of Notre dame.” Students were concerned about the fact that the female lead, Esmerelda, was to be played by a white student, and they protested the practice of “white washing” where white actors are hired to play people of color. (You probably remember some recent Hollywood movies which were criticized for this same practice.) Well, the drama department decided to change to a different play, and to try to address the underlying “longstanding” racial tensions in the department. [i]
Then it was picked up as a leading story on Fox News and other right wing forums, and the vitriol began to pour out in public comments. According to the Ithaca Voice, “The addresses and phone numbers of family members were posted by commenters on the sites. Both students and parents alike were contacted directly on social media with vulgar, often racist comments and messages, sometimes to their personal accounts. Their group’s Facebook page received numerous messages from commenters around the country, calling the students.” such horrible things I won’t repeat them here, one even suggesting that we return to the practice of lynching. [ii]
How easily we, who claim to be a Christian nation, have forgotten Jesus’s words: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”
Police are now involved, sorting out any real threats of violence from the thousands of comments. The school district is standing behind the students saying “First, we condemn the cruel and threatening attacks on our students, staff, families, and community. Our children deserve civility and love.
Second, we support our students and their right to protest. Our district leaders have encouraged just this type of analytic thinking and bold approaches to dialogue around inclusion. We may not always agree, but we greatly appreciate the important and complex conversation our students have started regarding issues of identity and inclusion in the arts.”
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”
Identifying any person, any group of people as the enemy leads us to build walls, to isolate ourselves, to commit acts of violence that would never feel okay if directed at someone “like us” at someone who was a neighbor or friend. Remember the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville where a car attack killed one person and injured 19 others?[iii] From the hateful slogans that were shouted and chanted, it was pretty clear that people of color were identified as the enemy I was filled with righteous outrage as I watched thee hateful actions and attitudes that swirled through that event and the aftermath. As a congregation committed to the idea that Black Lives Matter, it logically follows that the hate groups who marched in Charlottesville are our enemies, right? Surely we can hate the white supremacists who marched that day, right? Surely there is no insult too extreme for hate groups, right? Surely since we as a congregation are working to end racial prejudice and white supremacy, these guys are the enemy right?
Christian Picciolini[iv] was a white supremacist at 14 and by 16 was a neo-nazi leader, but now devotes his life to helping people leave extremist groups. He co-founded of a nonprofit peace advocacy organization called Life After Hate[v] . He was a lonely kid who remembers that when someone from a white supremacist group first approached him “it was the first time in my life that I felt like somebody was paying attention to me.” Picciolini believes that people join hate groups because the “wanted to belong and. they were marginalized that was the group that brought them in”
He explained in a recent interview that “The secret to stopping people from becoming extremists is to understand that in most cases they’re not monsters, they’re broken human beings who are doing monstrous things.”[vi]
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”
There’s such a strong drive in us to think of our enemies as monsters. There’s a kind of rush courses through us when we boo that other football team, when we make course jokes about the leader of the other political party. Don Bisson argues that this is partly because of the sense of unity this gives us – us against the enemy. We strengthen our own sense of identity when we know who we are not, who we are against. When we make the other guy into an enemy, part of the reason that feels so good is because we finally have someone to carry that part of our own shadow. It makes us feel clean and righteous to externalize our shadow onto the other. If a racist looks like all those images of white men holding tiki torches shouting hateful things, we can all focus on how to stop “them” and no means of confronting or attacking them is immoral. If they are the enemy, I don’t have to struggle with my own shadow, my own white privilege, my own participation in white supremacy culture.
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”
Perhaps Jesus is calling us, as Christina Picciolini is suggesting, to separate the broken human beings from the monstrous things they do. Because love doesn’t mean letting people walk all over you. The monstrous behavior absolutely has to be named, and we have to create cultural limits for what behavior is allowed. But can we love the broken human being underneath? Can we look at that mob and - simultaneously- resist those ideas and oppose those actions, AND have compassion for whichever of those white supremacists might be like Christian Picciolini, a lonely confused person who has the potential to turn himself in a more compassionate and constructive direction?
What would it look like to love your enemy? Probably not a Valentine’s day style profusion of hearts and colored hearts. Perhaps like Rev. Rebeca Parker’s words at the Starr king president's lecture back in 2014 “Love makes and re-makes connections where connections have been broken”
Megan Phelps Roper[vii] grew up in the Westborough Baptist church, you know, the people who show up at funerals to yell hateful things? She eventually realized that these hateful tactics were not only ineffective, but actually were hurtful. She left the church, even though that meant leaving her family behind. What made the difference? It was her Twitter critics, her online enemies who eventually turned her around. Megan began a dialogue with them that eventually changed her mind her heart and her life. She even ended up marrying one of her trolls. It was by making and remaking connections with the very people she had cut herself off from that she was transformed. When hate rips, tears, slashes those connections to ribbon, Love begins the slow process of re-weaving connection, like scar tissue in a wound.
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you
When I hear the tragic news about another shooting, I think – please, let’s finally do something about gun laws. And yes, let’s provide so much more support for folks with mental illness. But I also wonder, is there something we should be doing about all the hate bouncing off the walls in our culture? Is there a way we could teach our children and model for one another, that there are other possible responses for that swirling feeling of hate and rage inside us than bullying the objects of our hatred on the internet? Than chanting hateful slogans at marches? Than, god forbid, picking up a gun? What if someone had taught that young man in Florida to love his enemies? What if someone had loved him?
What would it be like to love our enemies? I find it hard even to hold those two concepts in my heart at the same time… enemy.. and love. I must confess that there are when I see the face or hear the voice of certain political figures, when I hear certain ideas, I turn away, I turn the channel, I walk out of the room. This is going to take intention and awareness. The Buddhists suggest that we start with a ground of compassion and openness. That is one reason why we begin the traditional Metta Meditation by calling to mind a person we care about. [insert song lyrics here] We remember that feeling of caring, that feeling of compassion. We make room for it in our bodies and hearts and establish it there. The traditional Buddhist practice does not rush this process. You cannot will yourself to feel compassionate, you can’t force yourself, you can only open yourself up to it, soften and allow it in. You can take as long as you need to establish that foundation of compassion- days, weeks, years. When you are ready, you extend compassion to yourself. Even the parts of myself that judges and hates my enemies. Even the part of myself that is hard as a rock with hatred and anger. I invite that part of myself into my heart, into the stream of compassion like a child climbing into his mother’s lap. And like a parent listening to their child tell of the cruel playground bully, just listen, returning again and again to the ground of compassion. And that takes as long as it takes. And if you choose, if you are willing to consider that maybe each of us has some small role to play in increasing the compassion in the world, in reducing the number of enemies in the world, in creating the kind of collaborative solutions this world needs, you can invite someone who feels like an enemy into that space of compassion,
This is what it means to love unconditionally. This is the core teaching of Universalism. As Richard Rohr puts it: “[Jesus] teaches what they thought a religious leader could never demand of his followers; love of the enemy. Logically it makes no sense. Soulfully it makes absolute sense, because in terms of the soul, it really is all or nothing. Either we see the divine image in all created things, or we don’t see it at all.” This kind of love is not necessarily affection, nor desire, but perhaps a deep knowing that we are all interconnected; despite our personalities, despite our politics, despite even hurtful actions, actions which we do not condone or accept, stripped naked of all we have ever done or been, we are one. As Rohr says “trusting that love is the bottom stream of reality.” [Everything Belongs p. 70] and touching into that stream.
The culture around us shows us, day after day, what happens when we lash out at our enemies with hate. What happens when we love only our neighbors and hate our enemies. Perhaps it’s time to break that vicious cycle of retribution and violence, and turn instead to the slow, vulnerable work of cultivating compassion, of weaving and re-weaving connections. We are called to love one another as the early Universalists believed that God loves us- unconditionally and without exception. We are called to trust that at the bottom stream of reality is love, to enter that stream, to let love fil our hearts, and let it flow out to friend and enemy alike. Let us step into that stream as our prayer for one another and for the world.
“[Jesus] teaches what they thought a religious leader could never demand of his followers; love of the enemy. Logically it makes no sense. Soulfully it makes absolute sense, because in terms of the soul, it really is all or nothing. Either we see the divine image in all created things, or we don’t see it at all. Once we see it, we’re trapped. We see it once and the circle keeps moving out. If we still try to exclude some: sick people, blacks, people on welfare, gays (or whomever we’ve decided to hate), we’re not there. We don’t understand. If the world is a temple, then our enemies are sacred too. The ability to respect the outsider is probably the litmus test of true seeing. It doesn’t even stop with human beings and enemies and the least of the brothers and sisters. It moves to frogs and pansies and weeds. Everything becomes enchanting. One God, one world, one truth, one suffering and one love. All we can do is participate. [Rohr p. 51-52]