While searching for images for this week’s services examining Leviticus 19 and Matthew 5 (parts of the Law and Sermon on the Mount), I came across a number of images regarding the idea of loving your enemy. I started with laughing at some of the funny stuff I found, and then realized – we don’t really know what this means, do we?! I’ll see quotes regarding “Love your enemy … it really pisses them off/confuses them/it makes them so damned mad/etc”, and “Love your enemy, but oil your gun”. Another made me giggle until I thought about it further – “Love your enemies in case your friends turn out to be a bunch of bastards”. Granted, there is definitely some truth to these memes and quotes, however, do we really know what Jesus meant when he tried to tell us to love our enemies? Then, I’ll find others saying “That Love your enemy thing … I meant that” or “Love your enemy and you won’t have any” and my ever favorite “Love you enemy probably doesn’t mean kill them”. And I start to think some of them might be at least be going in the right direction. So what does it really mean to love your enemy?
I’ve asked myself this question for a good portion of my life. At the same time, I’ve struggled with the question of self-esteem and my own personal desires. Without truly understanding the phrase “Love your enemy” or the ability to separate myself from my enemies enough to truly love them (and myself), I ended up in some abusive situations. One of the reasons I bring this up is because I imagine there are many other women and men out there who missed a key part of this message in a similar way as I did. Loving someone does not mean consenting to their actions. You can love someone, and not agree with them and their decisions. Just imagine how you felt when a loved one started down a path you did not agree with – your mother, father, brother, sister, son, daughter, best friend, lover, etc. In that split second when you realized what they were doing, before you made a choice of how to react, you felt the love for that person. You worried that they would be hurt. But what was the next step? Did you seek to understand why they took that path? Did you try to dissuade them from going that direction? Did you try to manipulate them or in some other way force them to choose another path? Did you say nothing and hoped that it would go away, or they might change their mind, or that maybe you were just wrong about it being the wrong path? That choice, even if the choice is not to act or speak, says a great deal about how you chose to love.
When I sought to understand how to love someone, I let my lesser natures guide me too much without having recognized them as lesser natures – I sat back, I told myself that my opinion didn’t matter, or that no one would listen to me anyway. Or my own personal favorite, I’m probably wrong so why open my mouth and prove it? In really bad situations, I would hunker down in my own introverted shell and try to withstand the blasts coming my direction. I ended up in some very unhealthy places until I began to understand why I reacted to situations in this way. I also had to learn how to love myself, with all my flaws and all the ways I shined. I was the enemy that I needed to love because I continued to sabotage myself. I didn’t trust myself, nor did I value myself. The funny thing was, the more I realized this about myself, the more I learned to recognize this in others as well – many of the people around me didn’t trust themselves either, or if they did, they put too much trust in themselves leading them to be their own enemies in other ways, and usually the enemy of those around them as well. I began to recognize too that many who seem to be “normal” or “have it together” are faking it – even to themselves – and living in constant fear that they might be found out.
And yet … some seem to actually have found out the magic message to living a fulfilling life, trusting themselves without becoming their own enemy, having faith in their own abilities while not being too arrogant, finding love that lasts and being able to grow in love in healthy and fulfilling ways. So it was possible, I kept telling myself, because some of these people aren’t lying to themselves … at least, not that I could tell. What’s the trick? First, “Know thyself”. It sounds so simple, but it is so very true. Know your strengths, but know your weaknesses too. Don’t let either truly define you. The better I understood my inner nature, thought processes, and strengths/weaknesses, the more at peace I grew inside. Second, “Trust in a greater power”. I’m not saying everyone HAS to believe in God as I understand God to be. My own understanding has developed over time, but the more I put my faith in the world as a place for positive growth, despite its inherent faults, the more at peace I grew in that world, and the more I wanted to be a force for more good things in that world. I grew more invested in it. The more I loved myself, the more I loved those around me, and the more I loved the world I inhabited.
So how does all that fit back in with Jesus’ command to “Love your enemy” or with domestic abuse for that matter? How can we expect to truly love one another if we do not love and truly value ourselves in a way that honors who we truly are. I don’t mean that we need to celebrate mediocrity, as America loves to deliver trophies to those who merely show up to participate. I mean that we need to say to ourselves, I am good at this, but you are good at that. Or to say, I grew up in this way and so I understand that I see the world in a way that makes sense from that perspective. If you can’t be honest with yourself, and see yourself in a non-judgmental way, how can you expect to do this for your enemy, or even your family and friends? In the realm of domestic violence, the pair entangled are both caught up in mutual hatred of themselves, and play the stage beautifully. “I hate myself, therefore I will put you down.” To which the response is usually “I hate myself, so I will let you”, or also “I hate myself, so I will fight back with you”. Both of these result in the parties being unable to stop fighting long enough to see that, in reality, they don’t love themselves enough. If they did, they wouldn’t put up with this behavior. I don’t mean that they would fight back, or put the other person down and say “I hate you for doing this to me”. If given the opportunity to stop being caught up in the love/hate mixture that is this unhealthy relationship, they would then have the space to start to love themselves. Once this happens, each has a choice. First, they must look at the other person and try to love them through new eyes. If they truly reach that point, the next thoughts become I love this person, and I understand why they are doing these things because I understand too why I do what I do. If I love myself, I can love this person. I do not have to consent to be treated this way anymore. However, this is where the process can tend to break down when there isn’t a good foundation built. The person may start to agonize over how to leave their abusive lover, or make excuses for them without actually seeing them for who they are. I can look at an old lover and say to myself, “wow, he really did love me as much as he was able to, but I know that even his best right now doesn’t keep me safe”. I need to love myself enough to treat myself right, and surround myself with people who will do this too.
This discussion can go on much further, and many have written books on the subject, as there are many forms of abusive relationships in our lives that we might need to handle. Our mother may manipulate us, or we may have spent too much time letting our son have what he wants, and now we fight him on everything because he’s never known it any other way. Our coworker or boss might have an idea of how something must be exactly a certain way. It is certainly a very rich area to delve into, with intricacies for each situation. Although, discussing romantic relationships, even in this general way, is often the most familiar to begin to look at. Ultimately, however, our ability to love one another, and our enemies in particular, comes down to one very simple thing in my mind – Know and love thyself. Without this, we will not know how to love others.