Love My Enemies? Surely You Jest

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Surely not.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus commanded us to love our enemies. He then practiced what he preached in the deadliest of situations—he broke bread with Judas at his last supper and forgave his executioners from the very cross itself.

Okay, fine. But surely Jesus just meant one’s personal enemies, not one’s political antagonists? Again, surely not. After all, the Romans crucifying him were his political foes.

Yeah, right. But surely that goody-goody stuff doesn’t apply to our country’s current political brouhaha? Can’t Republicans justifiably hate Democrats and vice-versa? Again and again, surely not, though this time I can’t cite biblical chapter and verse. What I can cite is a very fine book by Arthur C. Brooks, Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from Our Culture of Contempt.

In a sense, Brooks and I might be considered enemies: he has just stepped down from directing the American Enterprise Institute, a leading think tank for promoting free-market capitalism, and is as philosophically conservative as I am liberal. But in two much more important senses, we are meant to be friends. One, Brooks is an entertaining writer and thoroughly likable nerd; I would love to live next door to him. Two, we agree we need each other. Our democracy thrives best when we debate competing policy views rather than trash an opponent’s character or impugn her motives.  Brooks writes:

We need Republicans and Democrats to argue fiercely over the best ways to combat poverty, reduce dependency, and give more Americans the opportunity to achieve the happiness of earned success. We need conservatives and liberals to fight vigorously over the best ways to protect our national security while also preserving our individual liberties.  We need the left and the right to debate energetically the best ways to improve education so that the next generation has the tools to pursue and achieve the American Dream.

Okay, Pollyanna, I’ll give it the good old college try, but how on earth can I give up the contempt I secretly enjoy and feel my enemies so richly deserve? Brooks asked his friend the Dalai Lama that very question. The response? “Practice warm-heartedness.” 

That’s the response Jesus gives too; it’s a truth that, if enacted, may set our souls and our politics free. How to practice warm-heartedness? “Go find someone with whom you disagree; listen thoughtfully; and treat him with respect and love. The rest will flow naturally from there.”

So let’s get down to hard cases: how about the gun debate? Brooks writes: 

The truth is that both sides of the gun debate want fundamentally good American things. One side wants to protect what it sees as a fundamental freedom and the right to self-defense. The other side is seeking the most effective way to protect children—and they believe that gun control is effective. Neither side is morally bankrupt; they just disagree. When either side uses those values to attack the other side, they neutralize the moral content of their argument and alienate potential allies.

I hope that people of good faith, but with different experiences and views, would agree that the present incidence of mass shootings is far too high and that sharing our stories and ideas might lead to some practical steps to curb that rate incrementally. Suppose we practiced warm-heartedness with those on the other “side” of the divide? Suppose we broke bread together; listened thoughtfully to each other’s stories, fears, and hopes; and treated each other with respect and love? Would the rest naturally flow from there?

Maybe. But maybe is better than the “surely not” that will continue to rule our roost if we keep honking each other off.  

Contempt has failed. In the words of William Penn, “Let us see what love can do.”


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