When people refer to something Jesus said about love, invariably the reference is to, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That is certainly a good lesson that is hard to practice, but did Jesus really say it?
The saying, or a form of it, is found everywhere all around the world in just about every culture. It is found in the book of Leviticus, the Analects of Confucius, the lessons of Zoroastrianism, and the practices of Buddhism. Jesus could have said “love your neighbor as yourself,” but a saying is not distinctive if it is a saying that everyone already knows.
It is far more likely that Jesus said, “Love your enemies.” This saying is not entirely unique, but its formulation is distinct. It carries the spirit of Leviticus where it says, “you shall regard the alien among you as a native born,” and the teaching to return love for hatred is consistently found in religions of the world. The Jesus saying, however, is distinct, and its paradoxical nature reflects other sayings that reject special treatment based on behavior, such as “the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike.”
Jesus narrated the lesson of loving your enemies with the parable of the Good Samaritan and, typically of Jesus, he relays the lesson in the reverse. It is not our cultural hero, in the parable, who acts admirably but a Samaritan. In the parable, we have to learn, even admire, acts of loving kindness from our enemy that the best representatives among us, a Priest and a Levite, failed miserably to do. Our enemy is our teacher, the one who overcomes enmity with us, even for us, and this upsetting act is the heart of the parable.
To love enemies, the parable underlines, is not equivalent to forgiving and forgetting. Forgiving is a passive act because it involves my internal feelings, and I might reluctantly choose to forgive someone, regardless of the other’s response, simply because I can no longer live with the debilitating resentment anger involves. Loving enemies, by contrast, requires actions. To love an enemy is to act with healing intentions to reconstitute a relationship that was hopelessly lost. The act of loving enemies takes courage, maybe even reckless acts, to overcome an abyss of hate. Loving enemies is not for the faint of heart.
There are good examples, today, of acts that involve loving ones enemies, and they are not any more exceptional than the acts the Samaritan of the parable was able to do. The task of reconciliation with Indigenous nations against a history of exploitation is the act that involves loving enemies; accepting same-sex marriage against a history of homophobia is an act that involves loving enemies; resolutely moving past anti-Black racism against a history of prejudice is an act involving loving enemies. The question in each example is, who is the Samaritan? Who is the one offering loving kindness against histories of violence?
Sometimes the answer to the question is clear. Heterosexual people have to be the “Samaritans” in relation to same-sex couples; like the Samaritan, heterosexuals carry (signal) the history of the persecution of homosexual persons. It is heterosexuals who must be the Samaritans who offer healing in reconciling acts of loving kindness. White colonialist and settler cultures are the Samaritans in relation to Indigenous nations, and White settlers are the ones who must offer reconciling acts of loving kindness. White people are the Samaritans in relation to Black populations, and Whites are the Samaritans who must offer acts of loving kindness to overcome a history of prejudice. Being the Samaritan does not mean being the “nice guy”; it means being the one who finds the courage to heal the wounds of enmity that should never have existed.
Sometimes it is unclear who the “Samaritan” is or should be, and sometimes it does not matter anyway. The Samaritan is the one who offers acts of loving kindness, but it can be that both sides in a given dispute need to be Samaritans to each other. The “Samaritan” is the risking healer, the body who is historically suspicious to the other, who surprisingly becomes a body of trust. The question holds this structure: if you are in a weak position, can you trust that stronger body who has persecuted you for centuries, and if you are equally strong, can both sides act to heal the other?
When we think about Israel and Palestine, about two peoples who are Samaritans to each other, it is perhaps impossible to unwind a complex history that must find a path to peace. Each side needs to love their enemies, each needs to offer acts of loving kindness, and each needs healing. In both Israel and Palestine, the leadership needed for healing appears not to exist, and that is the tragedy found in the paradoxical saying of Jesus. Loving enemies requires solving a paradoxical situation where there seems to be no way forward without also going backward. From Israel’s point of view, how do we enter healing with people who do not even recognize our right to exist? And from the Palestinian side, how do we enter healing with occupiers who have taken our homes and reserve the right to bear arms only for themselves.
Healing will not come from Hamas, and it will not be found in Hezbollah; it will take the people, the Palestinian people, turning to Israel offering loving kindness. Yet, the Israeli government cannot solve the problem of peace with the use of violence and displacement. It will take the Israeli people turning to Palestinians with acts of loving kindness. In both cases, from both sides, what is needed is a table to sit around, a meal to share, and a hope to define.
The words “Love your enemies” sound idealistic, unrealistic, and sappy, but they are not. The acts of loving kindness that the saying demands are those of reconciliation. The words require risk taking, courage, and an amazing level of verve. It is very difficult to face depressing histories and to find in them new energy for different results. Our natural inclination is to move closer to cowardice, where we need not imagine a different result, and where we can fall back into our usual habits of comfort but also of pain.
To love your enemies is probably what Christianity is all about, but Christians, it must be admitted, show little appetite to affirm their own heart. Jesus was Jewish, and arguably the saying equally highlights Judaism and its beauty, but Jews, like Christians, and like anyone from anywhere, face the same temptation, our shared temptation, to prefer our fears to our dreams.
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