On Loving the Enemy

In the wake of tragedy, in the wake of hateful actions, it is easy to turn to anger and thoughts of violent retaliation. It is easy to say that ‘love won’t win this battle’ as many have said. It is easy to fall prey to that human, all too human desire to enact justice through strength. It is easy to think that now, uniquely, is the time to use force against hatred – easier still to draw simple comparisons between the current day and a past era when force seemed to work to bring about justice. Finally, it is easy to hate those that committed the crimes, the injustices, and the hate. But what is easy is not always the correct course of action. The heat of the moment quickens the emotions but misleads them, we must stop and feel; we must stop and think.

In the wake of recent events, there are calls for an aggressive reaction and the aggressive is always the hateful; one does not ‘aggressively’ fight cancer out of love for the disease but out of hate for it. It is striking to find comments “reminding” people that “love did not defeat Hitler;” thus, we are told, “love” won’t defeat this fresh threat. Yet, here is the trap of the easy; it is easy to think that loving the enemy is inaction, easy to think that love is passivity, easy to think that only hatred and aggression are active; easy but false. To misunderstand loving the enemy as passive acceptance is to misunderstand the purpose and method of love.

To love the person is not to love their misdeeds; in fact, loving makes the hatred of misdeeds all the stronger. To love the person is not to overlook their actions but to examine their actions, understand their motives, and empathize with their emotions; all the while despising their hateful actions. This may seem a bit paradoxical, for how can one empathize while simultaneously despising? In the same way that one loves the person while simultaneously hating their actions. To give a concrete example, one must love the murderer, understand their motives, and empathize with those factors (moral, psychological, environmental, and social) that contributed to their choice of action, but maintain a hatred of the action. To love the person is to hold the person in the holistic view humanity demands; this holism of love is one of the reasons that it is so hard and why it is much easier to hate the person and hate their misdeeds.

In holding everyone in the holistic view, in seeing them as whole people, as complex products of ever more complex situations, there is an uncomfortable necessity. A necessity to examine those complex factors that contributed to the hateful action; to consider the moral and social environments giving rise to such thoughts and deeds, to examine the psychological underpins that may have played a part, in short, to look at the variety of causes that resulted in the hateful action. Rather like the chemist may examine those chemicals that played a part in a violent reaction; we must examine those factors that lead to hate and hateful actions. This is deeply uncomfortable for in examination of these factors, one might find unsettling conditions that one has been complicit either in maintaining, supporting, or writing off as just part of the system. This is not to blame any individual or group of individuals; indeed, perhaps, most unsettlingly, everyone is to blame, because everyone is, in at least some small way, complicit in some hateful action or another. For hate and transgression are spiraling things; one action of hate leads to another, abyssus abyssum invocat [1].

For this reason alone, one is compelled to love one’s enemy; perhaps, in loving one’s enemy one can quell the spiral of hatred; in dwelling in the light of love one might be able to drive out the darkness of hatred. Yet, there is not only this reason to love one’s enemy. For loving one’s enemy is not only, not even primarily, about this fleshy experience termed human life. It is not a tactic to win battles; it is not a banner for the new revolution; loving one’s enemy is, in fact, about souls. Perhaps, this is why the idea is so sneered at today, in the increasingly secular world that rejects the “silly” notion of the soul (a different discussion for a different time). Maybe there is something here, maybe talking of souls is too grand, call it the heart or the mind or whatever else one wishes; the principle remains the same. Hatred degrades and ultimately destroys the soul. This is why, hatred spirals, the degraded soul seeks to degrade, and in degrading is yet more degraded. It might be said that the task of loving one’s enemy is as much about oneself as about one’s enemy. Indeed, hateful actions are designed to generate hate, thus in responding with love the hateful act is sapped of some of its power. However, there is a mistaken interpretation of this that must not be made.

Loving one’s enemy is not excusing one’s enemy. Loving one’s enemy is not always pacifistic appeasement. At times, a violent response to violence is justified, perhaps necessary (though this is a thorny claim); actions have logical consequences. However, rather like the good parent, who in punishing their rebellious children does not cease loving them, one must not, in violently responding to violent action, stop loving their enemy. We must love but we must condemn; we must understand but we must never excuse. We must neither stop loving and understanding our fellow humans, yet we must, in no uncertain terms, denounce injustice and hatred. To do either is to do precisely what we decry. The former is to hate the criminal; the latter is to hate the victim. We must do neither. Ἒνθεν μὲν Σκύλλη ἑτέρωθι δὲ δῖα Χάρυβδις [2]. Here, again, is a reason that the task of love is so difficult. Compounding this is that love must constrain our actions; we must, in accordance with love, only ever use defensive violence, and never aggressive violence; for, again, aggression necessitates hatred of those aggressed against. To beat this path is hard, at times painfully hard, for it is natural to want to enact harsh punishments against unjust, but it is necessary to beat this path, we can do no other.

In the wake of injustice there are easy choices and there are good choices. The choice to hate those that enact injustice, ultimately, only leads to more hatred. Degradation leads to degradation. To love the person is not to love their actions, but to hate their actions. To comprehend the origins of the hatred is not to excuse the hatred; to love our enemy is not to spite their victims; indeed, loving our enemy is the same as loving their victims. To love is to oppose hatred and in opposing to turn the tides. To love is to understand the whole human and, in understanding, never to excuse transgression but evermore to despise it. To love is never passive, but always active. To love is never to refuse to punish but to limit our harshness, to avoid aggression. In all this, we mustn’t fall prey to false self-righteousness that in loving we are better than those who hate. We are all human, yoked together whether we like it or not [3]. To be self-righteous is to fail to see that we are all damaged, this is another reason that hatred comes so easily in response to injustice. In hating we are allowed to feel that those enactors of injustice are somehow separate from us; but, disturbingly, evil actions remind us that within humanity there is a capability to do both good and evil; within this thing called human life there are options to hate or to love. To hate and divide is easy; to love and unite is hard. Indeed, as Plato wrote: “χαλεπὰ τὰ καλά.” [4].


[1]: One misstep leads to another; or literally: hell calls to hell

[2]: On the one side, Scylla, on the other divine Charybdis (Homer); ‘between a rock and a hard place’

[3]: For those hardcore individualists tempted to deny that all people are inexorably linked to each other, may I say that such a position ignores human reality. It is one thing to advocate methodological individualism for analysis (indeed this is a useful method) and/or to advocate for individual agency and autonomy over and against collective authority; but it is an entirely different thing to deny that everyone is bound up together as fellow human beings and that the actions and words of one person affect another, and that this effect has a chain reaction. If one is tempt to quote that famous line of Genesis 4:9: “Am I my brother’s keeper;” one may well wish to recall that this is said by a man that has freshly murdered his brother, thus, clearly, God’s answer (if one is so inclined to belief), is that yes, you are your brother’s keeper.

[4] “The fine (or good) things are difficult.” [Republic; Hippias Major]

The Problem of Opinions

Stating one’s opinion on any subject, from the most mundane to the most profound issues, is a risky business; whether in speaking or writing any method of putting forth one’s thoughts into the world involves taking deep and grave risks. Beyond the obvious danger of finding oneself in deep disagreement with one’s fellows, be they colleagues, friends, relatives, lovers, or mere fellow interlocutors; there is a graver risk. For while disagreement can sometimes lead to unpleasantness, if handled correctly it can also lead to mutual learning, understanding, and interesting discussion; whereas, the graver risk of stating opinions has no real potential for benefit, at least at first brush.

The danger of stating opinions is that once stated there are two option one has, either to become rooted in this position, or one day to admit one was incorrect and state one’s new opinion. The first option leads on into a deep and unsettling intellectual position of either refusing to accept new information an arguments that go against one’s previously stated opinion (stagnation of opinion, obstinateness) or performing twists in thinking to make new arguments fit old positions (mental gymnastics). In short, this is intellectual dishonesty and a refusal of growth. Let me be clear, it is perfectly acceptable and intellectually honest to have strong opinions that one defends in the face of all new arguments; however, this is only commendable to the point that well principle stand firm there is still change. Having firm principles is honest and commendably, being an obstinate dogmatist that refuses to engage with other, different arguments is neither commendable or decent, intellectual behavior. Again, to be clear, I want to point out that there will be times that even the best will fail to not slip into heatedness, unnecessary fervor, and/or inflective dogmatism; however, I cannot stress enough, it is out of these failures that we must arise, do better, and be better, though we will fail time and time again, each failure must serve as a reminder to do and be better.

The other path in this option is no less odious and no less common. It is often called “mental gymnastics,” a term which though tending to be used negatively, gives a fairly accurate idea of what goes on. A new argument presents itself, one that would seem to require a change in opinion, but instead one just works around it, in a dishonest way. Often this takes the form of accepting premises but reforming conclusion by sneaking in new premises. This is dishonest; the honest answer to new arguments is either to find a reasonable challenge and critique of them, or let the new arguments shape one’s opinion. I want to be clear, one should not change their opinion based off the last argument they have heard, this is as dishonest as dogmatism; however, one must open their beliefs to round criticism and robust counterarguments, not necessarily accepting or rejecting criticisms; but countering with reformed, better-honed, more robust arguments. In creating more robust arguments one’s opinions necessarily change, if only slightly, for it is impossible to robustly respond to counterarguments from a place of mere dogmatism and poorly thought out principles. This is why every ‘school of thought,’ in any field, is a place to start, never a place to end.

In all this the second option for action after stating an opinion has shown through, namely to admit one was incorrect and state one’s new opinion. This is difficult and rare, for it is much easier, much more comfortable to remain stagnate, to stop at the point of first thinking and never push forward. At least in that case one runs no risk of people finding old statements of opinions and taking that as current statements of opinions. This is a real danger, especially of stating opinions in the public form; however, this should not prevent one from either stating one’s opinions publicly or changing one’s opinions publicly. For as Cicero wrote: “if we are not ashamed to think it, we should not be ashamed to say it.” Furthermore, any honest person will admit that continued thinking about any subject will often lead to some changes in opinions, slight to major; there is one simple illustration of this: since all thinking on subjects is essentially a conversation (cf. Richard Rorty; this is why, for example, the Platonic dialogues are dialogues), it is understandable that as one hears more voices in the conversation, one’s opinions will change; it is also understandable that one has not, at any one time, heard all the voices that have spoken, are speaking, on a subject. For example, if opinions were formed purely from reading, it would be nearly impossible to never be encouraging new voices with new arguments, given that millions of books are published, have been published, since the advent of printing. Thus, though it is dangerous to share one’s opinions at one time, it is worthwhile; it is also worthwhile, in fact, perhaps noble in some cases, to publicly changes one’s opinions based on new arguments, so long as one is always changing their opinions (this is empty-mindedness, not thinking). It is difficult to place oneself in this uncomfortable position, but as Spinoza says at the end of Ethics: “Everything excellent is as difficult as it is rare.”

Homosexuality and Abortion

I am a Christian. If one is tempted to stop reading at this sentence because one presumes from the title and the preceding sentence they know what I’m going to say, STOP. The point of this is not to expound on my own specific beliefs about these two subjects, but instead to decry that in the contemporary conversation in and around the Christian faith these two subjects have become possibly the biggest areas of debate. I feel that this is an abomination far worse than any other. These two issues have hijacked the faith and are doing a very good job of obliterating it. Ultimately the debate over these two issues within the Christian community and with the broader community is a distraction from the true message of the church.  

The message of the church is one of love and salvation, not hatred and damnation. When in the Gospel of Mark Jesus is asked “Which commandment is first of all?” his reply is “love the Lord with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12: 28-31; emphasis added). Notice that Jesus did not say, ‘the greatest commandment is the prohibition of homosexuality and the second of abortion,’ or, ‘love your neighbor, unless you have determined that you are the right judge and have determined them to be an unredeemable sinner.’ The point should be clear. The commandment of Jesus Christ, who Christians are supposed to follow, is one of love.

Furthermore, it is not the place of any individual however knowledgeable in the Bible or however self-righteous to judge their fellow humans. That job is reserved solely to God. But it seems because of homosexuality and abortion people conveniently forget about John 8: 1-11, the story about the adulterer about to be stoned to death for her crime. Do any of the most virulent haters of homosexuality and abortion recall verse 7? You know the one where Jesus says: “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” No? Funny, they must not have included that in the “I don’t want people to be Christians except if they parrot my every word” version of the Bible.

I could go on but I’ll cut to the chase. Whether or not homosexuality and/or abortion are sins in all cases doesn’t really matter. If they are and one subscribes to the view that all sins are equal before the eyes of the Lord, then why do these two things get discussed and decried more often than say disrespecting one’s parents. For that matter, if they are indisputably sins, then so is not loving your neighbor no matter what their sins are. Thus, if, as some that decry homosexuality and abortion so often imply, those living in sin are going to hell, I suppose they’ll have fun with the people they spent their lives hating. If these things aren’t sins then the issue is moot. Overall, they are just a cancer on the church that causes people to lose faith, to distrust the church, and to lose sight of what really matters. There are many other debates to be had that might actually matter than on things that in the scope of it all are trivial. I say they are trivial in the scope of things because if  they are indeed sins then they are no different from any other sin in that if one truly and completely repents one’s sins are forgive. That’s the message of the faith after all. And, again, if they are not sins, then they aren’t issues at all. Furthermore, the work of the church in the world is far more complicated than holding the “correct” position on certain issues. The work of the church is love for the world with the message of salvation. After all, love is the message of the faith, not hatred as it seems many are being lead to believe.