Loving our enemies is every bit as complicated as any friendship — and demands as much work.
Just one verse each day.
Today,Aleteia is very pleased to officially welcome another of our new regular contributors, Stephen Herreid, whose column will appear each Thursday. Stephen is currently a Fellow at the John Jay Institute (Philadelphia) and the arts editor for Humane Pursuits. He has been a Contributing Editor to The Intercollegiate Review Online and has contributed several chapters to the latest edition of ISI’s Choosing the Right College.
The other day, I got a chance to do something I haven't done since college: I sat down and watched Youtube videos late into the night. Two videos really stayed with me. The first was a Christian video about love, aiming, I suppose, at bettering the effectiveness of Christian evangelism. In the beginning of the video, the host complains that Christians are always ignoring Christ's command to love our enemies. Then a young group of Christian artists demonstrate how we always complicate the matter until we feel justified in being cruel to our enemies out of hatred or fear. In a brief skit, a father instructs his son to be tough and stick it to his enemies. The boy replies “But I thought you always told me to love my enemies.” The father is stumped for a moment, then stammers out his justification. “It's tough love. Yeah, that's it, it's tough-loving your enemies.” The video cuts back to the host, who rolls his eyes. “Jesus wouldn't want us to live with hate or fear,” he insists. “I know it's a really uncomfortable thought, but what if the only complicated thing about loving our enemies … is that it's not complicated?”
The real uncomfortable thought is that loving our enemies is every bit as complicated as any friendship (think of your least-favorite relative or friend of your spouse's) — and demands as much work. In a time that many Christian leaders now call “post-Christian,” with state and culture stacked against us, I've always been surprised to hear Christians admonishing each other for being “uncharitable” to the world far more often than I hear voices raised in righteous indignation against the enemies of Christ.
“Tough Love”: The Stuff of Saints
But we don't have to search the history of the Church very thoroughly to find examples of love that wouldn't seem “charitable” to many of us today. Look to find love in St. Nicolas whacking Arias in the face (love of Christ the God-Man, whose divinity Arias denied), or St. Peter striking a husband and wife dead with lightening-bolts for lying about their income (love of Christ the Truth and the community that this couple had deceived) — not to mention Christ overturning tables and calling the first pope “Satan” to his face. Surely, Christ and the saints weren't all acting out of vice. Once we see love in these varied shades, we see the complexity of the command to “love thy enemy.” It is not so simple as speaking softly or being nice to those who taunt us. In fact, we cannot risk equating love with common kindness.
St. Paul writes: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.” According to the Apostle, “God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” Paul is writing about all people. It seems that God refuses to be ignored even by the pagan, whom he presses with the unavoidable responsibility that comes with being human, namely to come to know the truth and to conform one's life to it.
So What Are We to Do?
It would be a mistake to desire above all else simplicity and the avoidance of confrontation. It would be all the worse to confuse these two desires with virtues, and worst of all to conflate them with charity. Charity calls for an urgent concern for the advancement of wisdom in one's neighbors. In the Book of Proverbs, wisdom cries out to “all mankind” and can be found in “public.” Wisdom is that “truth” and conformity with truth that St. Paul presents as the eternal standard by which all men can be judged. But this wisdom is accessible to “all men,” who are “without excuse” in their responsibility to strive for it, whether they have the benefit of revelation or not.
The Christian, on the other hand, is a member of the favored people, the “heritage” of God, and is privileged to have not only revelation but the wisdom of Catholic Tradition, sacramental means of grace and many other gifts, manifest and hidden, lavished upon him to advance his efforts. Wisdom cries out to the Christian in Scripture: “Leave your simple ways!” (Proverbs 9:6) And Christ himself, whom St. Augustine recognized as the Wisdom who was begotten before all ages, called on his followers to “love one another…”
I'm not recommending that we be unkind. Rather, I would suggest that to replace love with kindness is, in the end, cruel. By removing from love the duty to think and speak carefully and critically together, we may do true love a great disservice — amounting, if love is indeed as high a virtue as our tradition claims, to a kind of sacrilege. This danger has always existed, but in this dark time it shows so clearly its special morbidity that those who fall into it by their own lack of caution may offer little excuse for their foolishness.
I recently lost my temper when reading a headline about the persecution of Christians in Syria. I uttered something unpublishable about President Obama, who supplies the guns and knives that “Syrian freedom-fighters” use to brutalize, torture, and slaughter Christians by the hundreds. A friend of mine heard me and shouted “Hey, that's mean!” I explained to my friend the situation of Christians in Syria and our president's status as the unanimously feared and hated enemy of those Christian leaders who survive there. “Would you tell Syrian Christians your opinion that it's mean to call Obama names,” I asked, “or wouldn't that be 'mean' of you?”
After a recent visit to my hometown of St. Johnsbury, I told a friend of mine of the conditions in which my neighbors back home live, trapped in an endless cycle of welfare checks and unemployment benefits. “They are failures, but even the consequences of their failure are erased with state and federal funds,” I said. “With constant management by social workers, they soon lose sight of the meaning of their actions. By the time they grow up, they're completely demoralized. Many of them are obese, and they're encouraged to develop bad habits that send them constantly to the emergency room for treatment that they can't pay for. Soon they owe their very lives to the state, but having lost their dignity they don't even mind anymore. All they care about is that there's a big-screen TV in their filthy, government subsidized apartment and a McDonald's Restaurant within waddling distance — they're reduced to living like rats.” My friend was very indignant at my “conservative rhetoric” and demanded to know how I could use such “dehumanizing language” about the poor. While I was outraged that people's lives are being ruined, my friend was offended that I was being rude about the fact.
We should keep in mind that we are complex creatures ourselves, designed with a rational faculty for navigating complicated problems. Love is often defined as a “gift of self.” In giving ourselves, we should not hold back this faculty. If we are commanded by Christ to love, we should persevere in the task with all the strength of our minds, and not only with our hearts. We ought to see wisdom as a necessary component of love, and haphazard foolishness as inexcusably uncharitable. St. Augustine once wrote that we should not only pray as though everything depended on God, but also work as though everything depended on us. The complicated task of loving our enemies hinges more on our own efforts than we may like to admit.
One good “work,” which the Christian ought to do as though everything depended on it, is to examine his life. The principle “know thyself,” developed in Plato's “examined life,” is a duty inherent in rational human nature — something we all can easily know. It is also the way to attain wisdom. Men knew this before Christian revelation reached them, and Socrates didn't let fools off the hook. Whether they would admit it or not, he demonstrated to them that they were capable of discerning right from wrong, and he called them to strive for wisdom with an aim to virtue. Plato and his student Aristotle represent the early development of a natural law tradition later embraced by Christians, who insisted that right morality is “written on our hearts,” and that men who ignore tenets of natural law are thereby condemned by their own consciences. It wasn't because of his adherence to the supernatural, revealed law of God that Job, a pagan, was described as a very wise man. He was called wise because he chose not to ignore the natural law that was written on his heart. In Christian Revelation, St. Paul not only affirms that right morality is knowable to all men; he suggests that all men will be held accountable for knowing it in the final judgment.
Human behavior, especially if unexamined, can be wicked and harmful, both to evildoers themselves and to their neighbors. It's good for the Christian individual to examine himself, but it is not a specifically Christian duty; only the basic human one known universally by pagans and Christians alike. It is a uniquely Christian work to insist also that others give an account of themselves, not only for the sake of each individual, but also out of a charitable concern for the threats each individual can pose to the innocence of the community. This concern was behind the “benevolent harshness” with which Saints Augustine and Thomas believed rulers should punish criminals, since “a little leaven corrupts the whole lump.” To paraphrase Socrates, “the unexamined life” should be considered “not worthy of living” among Christians.
“Tough Love” and the Work of Evangelization
If we see love as nothing other than taking care not to offend, how can we hope to correct, to convince, to move, to evangelize? This question brings me to the second YouTube video that stayed with me: a film of the brilliant Dr. Ben Carson speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2012. With President Obama sitting in his trademark pose (head tilted back, literally looking down his nose at the world around him) just a few feet away, Carson spoke against political correctness in public discourse. If everyone is muzzled by a constant dread of causing offense, Carson argued, then there will be no one to speak boldly against evil when it most urgently needs to be warned against. It is not boldly speaking out that we should worry about, he said, but the sensitivity that discourages boldness by threatening to be “offended” by it. As the president shifted in his seat, Carson went so far as to condemn that sensitivity as “dangerous,” and make a plea for getting rid of it. While the approach of the makers of the first video was to honor the sensitivity of others, Carson's is to beg them to leave their sensitivity behind and move toward a life more open to the truth. One of my favorite things that the current Pope has said is that politics is “one of the highest forms of charity because it seeks the common good.” Ben Carson is the embodiment of that statement — an unmistakably loving man, a caring man, who engages in political disputes from the bottom of his heart. He also confronts evil courageously — even the evil lurking in the heart of our president — and condemns it to its face.
In the public square today, wisdom like Dr. Carson's is very much ignored. As Christians, we could claim we are not up to the task of setting the public straight, because we are “confused” by the “post-Christian” world we find around us. The makers of the love video presented ages of tradition regarding charity as so much confusion — characterized by complications and cruel confrontations. They caricatured efforts to reconcile love with the need to confront the sins of our neighbors and enemies. Confusion is an enemy of love, but we should confront and dispel it, not flee from it. Indeed, “confusion” covers a multitude of sins — perhaps more sins than does love. But love is a gift from Christ the Light, and calls us to take responsibility for the health of others' lives as well as our own, while “confusion” is a tool of Satan the chaotic enemy, and calls us to abandon our responsibilities not only as human beings who are in any event “without excuse,” but as Christians who are called to charity. Getting along with a world rife with evil will not make Christianity more likely to succeed among non-believers. As Christians, to fall far beneath the standard to which even pagans are held, and to do so in the name of love, our highest calling and most unique gift as children of God, is a great scandal.