When Jesus reiterated the teaching to ‘Love your neighbour’ he was asked ‘Who is my neighbour? ‘, and we got the parable about the Good Samaritan- an outsider who, to everyone’s surprise, does a good thing.
But when he says ‘love your enemy’ the question isn’t asked and for me it hangs there unspoken: ‘Who is my enemy’? I’m not an ancient king, or a Shakespearean hero. No one is trying to poison me.
And how am I supposed to love them, if I don’t?
We humans are contradictory creatures. There may be moments when everything is going well, and we feel a general sense of warmth toward humanity as a whole. Then somebody pushes in front of us in a queue, and we feel intense annoyance toward that particular person, drowning out all that positivity.
On the other hand, we may have real animosity toward an entire group, like homophobes, or racists, for the harm that their attitudes cause. Yet we know and love individuals who hold such views. Up close, the whole person is so much more than their prejudice. Perhaps a shift in perspective may be the key to this challenge of loving our enemy.
Here are a few approaches that might help.
The Buddhists use meditation practices to cultivate positive feelings toward those people we find difficult to love. For example, you can call to mind someone who you love in a simple, uncomplicated way, get a sense for how that feels, and then try to extend that feeling to others. Buddhism also teaches that people are not fixed. They always have the potential to change, and we can meet them afresh each day, open to the possibility for a different, healthier kind of relationship.
Ephesians 6 speaks of struggling ‘not against the flesh but against the powers and principalities of this present darkness’. We might see this as a call to direct the energy of our anger toward fighting the systems and cultures which oppress, but love the individuals caught up in those systems.
And the theologian Paul Tillich taught that we must accept ourselves, accept that we are accepted, and allow that to transform us. He saw this as our first duty. When we can do this, we may find that we feel more compassion and humility, and it may enable us to more easily accept others, with all their flaws, and in spite of the harm they may sometimes cause, as fellow, suffering human beings.