I used to think that "love your enemy" was the most difficult, and most unreasonable, teaching that Jesus left us. That's because I was thinking about enemies I had already dehumanized in my mind, monsters like Hitler or Bernardo. Why should anyone love them? Surely, love would be too good for them.
But then I thought of a closer relationship, someone I knew too well to dismiss that easily--my own brother. As much as he hurt me, growing up, with his anger and his bullying, I knew he was not a monster. He was my brother. I knew he was hurting too. That's where his cruelty came from. He didn't hate me. He hated himself, and I was his nearest scape goat.
One evening we were left alone in the kitchen, doing the dishes. He was just entering his teens, with all the angst connected with that frightening passage. I was nine or ten. He started ragging on me about something, putting me down, calling me names. Here we go again, I thought.
Then a new thought crossed my mind. Wait a minute, I don't actually have to take this! Maybe I'd just seen a movie where the antihero rises up, I don't recall. But I punched him, hard, in the stomach, winding him. He doubled over at the sink, gasping for air. I should have felt victorious, having silenced my enemy. Instead, I was filled with remorse, having hurt my own brother. I ran to my room, and cried.
When someone hurts us, or hurts the people we love, of course we want revenge. We want to dehumanize them, just as we and our loved ones have been dehumanized. We want our enemy to feel what we feel. We want them to suffer. If we succeed, as we do in wartime, we say the enemy isn't like us, they do awful things, they're animals. It makes it easier to pull the trigger or drop the bomb. They deserve it.
But when we see them up close, and realize that they are not unlike us at all, but are in fact mirror versions of ourselves, with all the inner conflict that leads us to do bad things, too, our hate dissipates and compassion is born. We feel their suffering (which is what compassion means, to suffer with), and we desire not that they suffer, but that they heal. Suddenly, we find within ourselves the capacity to do unto others, not as they do unto us, but as we would have them do unto us.
If that proves impossible, if our enemies are incapable, or unwilling, to attend to their own healing, then alright, society should be protected from them, and they should take a major time-out, perhaps for the rest of their earthly lives. But to repay them, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, would only make the whole world both blind and toothless.
It's an odd ethical turnaround. Justice demands that bad systems fall and that bad people pay for their crimes. But love demands that we never do unto others what they have done to us. Loving the enemy, it turns out, is the only way to redeem us all.
Next Week: Looking back ...