Loving our enemies: why?


The gospel reading from today features Jesus answering the question, “Why be merciful?” I have just spent the last few days and indeed am writing this blog post from a philosophy conference in Denver, where along with speaking on my own book on vulnerability, I have attended a number of talks on ethics and justice. Although Jesus is not presenting an extended philosophy of mercy in his sermon, he is offering an account of mercy and love.

Jesus asks us to love our enemies. Loving our enemies might seem to be “wrong” or irrational for any number of reasons: first, it might seem to be unjust. If I think my enemy is wrong—for example, he holds political views and advocates for policies that I think are actively harmful —then it would seem to be a lack of justice to love him. After all, isn’t loving a person also implying support for what he does or who he is, or at least being passive? For example, if I strongly believe that we ought to expand immigration for refugees fleeing violence, and my political enemy thinks that the refugees ought to stay in camps, to love him might seem to be advocating for his position.

Second, loving our enemies is a deeply vulnerable thing to do. We risk being hurt when we express care for those who have previously hurt us, in other words, where the enmity is a result of a prior harm to myself. If you have hurt me, then to love you seems to be irrational because love tends to open us up more, when a more rational response to harm would be to be self-protective.

Jesus answers these objections to a degree, in how he speaks about love of enemies. First, he separates the personhood of he who has enacted harm from the act itself. Pray for the person who has hurt you, or bless him or her, he says. Jesus does not say to affirm the wrong action itself. Rather, Jesus asks us to have a trust and faith that the person beneath the action is good in a way that may not be apparent. Jesus asks us to trust in the basic goodness of other people.

Second, Jesus puts the focus not on the recipient of the good action, but on us as moral actors.  Jesus wants us to ask the question: what kind of person do I become through loving my enemy? What kind of person do I become if I enact revenge? What happens to me if I am asked to do something I should not have to do—like give away my cloak—and I respond with even more generosity? In other words, Jesus shifts the focus away from: “what did you do to me?” to “what kind of person do I want to be in how I respond?” Jesus asks us to grow into becoming more loving people. We grow in love through enacting loving actions—even and maybe especially in challenging situations, like loving our enemies.

Jesus also says that we ought not love others in order to get something in return. Again, this is about the kinds of people that we want to become. If I love another person for what he or she will do for me, it might turn out to be the case that I don’t really love her. Maybe I am only manipulating her in order to get what I want, offering up a bargain of some kind (“love me and I will love you”). But when I love without asking anything in return, I know that my love for the other person is pure. For example, when mothers love their children and the children are affectionate in return, that is a delight, of course. But when the child becomes a moody teen, and the mom still loves the moody teen who thinks his or her mom is awfully annoying, then there is a kind of purification of love that focuses only on the good of the other. Love of an enemy is a yet more extreme case of the same sort of phenomenon: when I can love the person who is actively undermining me and still enact his well being, then it is exceptionally clear that my love is not about what I get from him. It is really about wanting his good, period. Love attends to the good of another.

The last section of what Jesus says in this excerpt might seem to say the opposite: he tells us to love others and forgive, because the more that you give to others, the more God will give to you. This might look like the same kind of “getting something in return” that Jesus was just saying not to do–only this time, the motive is to get the good return from God! But given that Jesus’ overall focus is not a “tit for tat” arrangement, I don’t think that Jesus is saying to be loving so that God will reward you. Again, this would not be love for the sake of the other, but only selfishly for myself.

Rather, I think Jesus is speaking about abundance: God will give the loving person more of the love and care that she or he needs. Jesus is reassuring people: don’t worry about whether your enemy loves you back. Don’t worry about whether the person for whom you are enacting care is giving back to you exactly what you are offering to them. Rather, trust that God will give you a “measure that overflows” when you offer love without thought of return. God provides. Jesus is offering us a remedy against the natural human fear of not being loved in return, and promising us that God will provide in abundance. For example, there is an innate joy in the very act of loving that connects us more closely to God. Love is already its own reward. 

Jesus also seems to recognize that justice itself does not naturally grow out of retributive contexts. Rather, love is more powerful to enact the work of justice than retribution. Love looks weak but it is strong.

One reason is that when I build up relationships with my political enemy, the groundwork is laid for real dialogue and conversation to move forward. I can’t control the person who asks for my cloak or for me to carry the bag longer, or who strikes me, , but I can show love. Love is in my control. When I do show love, then the groundwork for longer term relationship and therefore longer term engagement over what is just or good is laid down. Perhaps my opponent will be disarmed when I give him my tunic as well as my cloak–then maybe he will lay down his weapons, and the real work of dialogue will begin.