“Love has the capacity to bring peace inside of conflict and the capacity to stir up things in order to make things right.”—John Lewis
John Lewis in 1964. Credit: Library of Congress.
To live in a pluralistic society, one must cultivate at least some degree of tolerance for difference. If most of us were not capable of at least a baseline tolerance of those with whom we disagree, who seem to be different from us, and whom we do not understand, we wouldn’t be able to get through the day. We would find ourselves constantly confronted with enemies
Unfortunately, that’s exactly how many of us feel. Particularly in terms of politics and cultural issues, when someone holds a position that conflicts with our own, it often doesn’t feel like a mere difference of opinion but like a direct attack on who we are. And frankly, given how nonchalantly some right-wing figures advocate that certain groups of people simply shouldn’t exist, this feeling is rather understandable.
Meanwhile, a surefire way to signal one’s tribal status is to actively cultivate enemies—the right kind of enemies, of course. The social media space is rife with political and cultural foe-finding, as status-seekers vigilantly scour for villains from without and traitors from within, hunting for heretics, subjecting them to a public pillorying, and thereby burnishing their own credentials.
There has always been enmity between (and within) groups, of course, and for just as long there have been those who cynically exploit people’s fears and ignorance to harness that enmity for their own purposes. Though I do wonder if this moment in history is different, unique for a shared sense of being constantly beset. Social media, the internet, and cable news have made it feel to so many of us as though the enemy is always all around us, growing in power, and closing in.
The worst part is that in some cases it’s true.
All that being said, let’s talk about love.
Lest we get too tangled up in semantics and a multitude of nuanced definitions, I mean love both as a feeling and as an act, a choice. We can feel love toward someone or something, such as the love for one’s child, one’s spouse, or a closely held ideal or principle. That kind of love is a mélange of sensations, a cocktail of emotions experienced entirely internally. Then there is love, better expressed as a verb, or better yet, a series of choices.
We can choose to act on our feelings of love: nurture and protect a child, be a steadfast partner to one’s spouse, strive to advance one’s core beliefs through activism, and so on. Whatever the object of one’s love, what makes it what it is, in my opinion, is the consistent choice to show up and the willing sacrifice of one’s time, energy, and attention for the benefit of the recipient—the child, the romantic partner, or the cause. One can certainly reap benefits from these efforts, but as a fortuitous byproduct, not the purpose, of love’s labors.
Let’s get back to enemies. Remember that thing that Jesus says about our foes—“Love thy enemy”? That’s a big ask, isn’t it?
I would speculate that when many of us hear “love thy enemy,” we interpret it as something closer to “tolerate thy enemy”; accepting that those whose interests are opposed to our own are, at the very least, free to have interests and pursue them. It’s sort of the moral equivalent of saying, “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion” before utterly dismissing said opinion. It’s table stakes for a pluralistic society, but it’s also more than many of us can manage. For example, I find it very difficult to muster any sympathy for the public figures and institutions who peddle dangerous lies and conspiracy theories. I recognize that they have every right to say and believe whatever they choose, and I also feel strongly that the choice they are making is so obviously destructive that toleration is about the best I can do. And that alone can be really hard, and it asks that I tap into my deeply held values concerning the quintessential importance of free expression and free inquiry.
There’s another version of “love thy enemy” that manifests as a kind of paternalistic condescension, the kind of thing you might see from certain religious conservatives. O, behold these poor, misguided people. They don’t see how much I love them and their immortal souls, and they simply don’t understand that all my harsh and oppressive efforts are bent toward bringing them into the light of God. Perhaps seen more generously, this variation on “love thy enemy” is one that is imbued with hope. It’s a wish for one’s enemy to see the errors of their ways and make amends, thereby earning our approval. This at least implies a chance for one’s enemy to be welcomed back into the fold, but it’s conditional. To receive this love, they must work for it and have something to show. It’s tolerance that has the potential to become love. It’s like love in escrow.
In none of these variations is one asking anything of oneself. The onus is always on the enemy.
Civil rights leaders meet with President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, 1963. John Lewis is fourth from left. Credit: Cecil W. Stoughton – Wikipedia.
Cheeks and Two-Handled Saws
Let’s go back to what Jesus says in the gospel of Luke. Here’s the whole passage:
But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
Oh man, this is serious. This guy wants me to show love to those who actively oppose me, who seek to thwart my efforts and perhaps even destroy me? And for what? So I can have happier enemies? I’m tuckered out just from my day-to-day expenditures of love—caring for my kids and trying to be a good person and whatnot. Can’t I get a little credit for that?
No, says Jesus. I can’t:
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.
And this call to act out of love for one’s enemy, no matter what, without expectation of any benefit to you, is not unique to Christianity. Look what the Buddha said to some monks:
Even if low-down bandits were to sever you limb from limb with a two-handled saw … you should train like this: “Our minds will remain unaffected. We will blurt out no bad words. We will remain full of compassion, with a heart of love and no secret hate. We will meditate spreading a heart of love to that person. And with them as a basis, we will meditate spreading a heart full of love to everyone in the world—abundant, expansive, limitless, free of enmity and ill will.” That’s how you should train.
Wow, there’s not even a Two-Handled Saw Exception! At least Buddha doesn’t say we have to then freely offer up our freshly severed limbs to our attackers as tokens of affection.
It is hard enough to make the affirmative choice to act on love, to engage in the process of giving and doing, even for those about whom we care most deeply. But this goes much, much further. By these lights, we must do more than just feel love for our enemies, which is counterintuitive and psychologically daunting. Rather we must act out of love for them. We must engage in the process—the work—of love for the benefit of those who seek to make us suffer, those who oppress, injure, or torment us, with no expectation or even desire for anything in return.
That takes courage, to say the least. Perhaps more than I am capable of mustering. Yet there is something energizing about the idea of giving of oneself so fully without even the hope of recompense. It’s the kind of thing that could make it worth getting up in the morning. Theological baggage aside, this is something I feel like I can embrace as a secular humanist. I want to believe.
And about that baggage. After telling his followers to expect nothing in return, Jesus says, “Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
Shit. There’s that word. Reward.
The message is now: Engage in the utterly selfless act of affirmatively loving your enemy with every particle of your being, because in the end, you’ll get the big payoff from God. If you truly believe with certainty that there is an afterlife overseen by the creator of the universe that is accessible only to those who meet the earthly behavioral requirements as laid out by said creator, then loving one’s enemy ceases to be courageous; it is no longer a sacrifice. It becomes a long-term investment, meant to maximize the value of one’s biological retirement. What began as radically meaningful becomes merely transactional.
At least the Buddha didn’t make any promises of paradise to his monks. Yet even within Buddhism, there’s a little wink-wink, nudge-nudge, saw-saw going on. Tibetan Buddhist monk Robert Thurman mused on this question, explaining to Krista Tippett of On Being why it’s rational for Buddhists to love their enemies:
The Buddhist worldview is that we live in a much larger continuity than a single lifetime. We’ve all had infinite previous lifetimes, and we all will have infinite future lifetimes. … And so even if you win one round in one life over one enemy, then you have become like that enemy by being violent, angry, whatever it may be, and then your rebirth will become something more appropriate to an inner state of anger and violence and hatred. And therefore, you’ll be more in conflict with your environment and with others. So, therefore, to love the enemy is highly rational from your own inner perspective, in that sense.
So even here, we’re loving our enemies to prevent being reincarnated into a situation that’s crummier than the one we’re already in. It’s a hedge.
When we act out of love for our kids, we work to help them become the best versions of themselves they can be, and there is no reward for us as parents—satisfaction and gratitude, perhaps, but no prizes. When we love our country, we engage in the work of shaping, tinkering, adjusting, experimenting, and improving so that it gets asymptotically closer to becoming that more perfect union, the benefits of which will largely manifest long after we’re gone.
What if we put the whole cosmic payoff part of “love thy enemy” aside? There is something palpably animating to me about ideals to which we choose of our own volition to aspire, even if we can never reach them. This is one of the things that distinguishes a sentiment like “make America great again,” which imagines that there is a perfection that has been lost and must be recovered, from a declaration of a shared intent “to form a more perfect union,” the unending quest of continual improvement, always reaching toward becoming a better version of ourselves.
‘You Never Give Up on Anyone’
When I think of courage and love, I think of John Lewis. In the documentary about his life, John Lewis: Good Trouble, the late congressman and civil rights pioneer recalled a 1960 sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in Nashville, Tennessee.
“I sat at the counter and asked the waitress for a hamburger and a coke,” he said. “All together it was a moving feeling within me that I was sitting there demanding a God-given right and in spite of all this, I had to keep loving the people who denied me service.”
He and his fellow activists were trained to do more than merely endure the abuse of their oppressors; they were trained to try to feel their pain. In 2013, he told Krista Tippett:
We, from time to time, would discuss if you see someone attacking you, beating you, spitting on you, you have to think of that person, you know, years ago that person was an innocent child, innocent little baby. And so what happened? Something go wrong? Did the environment? Did someone teach that person to hate, to abuse others? So you try to appeal to the goodness of every human being and you don’t give up. You never give up on anyone.
“If someone kicks you, spit on you, pull you off the lunch counter stool, continue to make eye contact,” he explained. “Continue to give the impression, Yes, you may beat me, but I’m human.”
Take a moment and think about how radical this is. Imagine the raw force of will that was required of each of those men and women who took those blows, who bled on the street, whose bones were broken, whose freedom was stolen, whose lives were lost. Amid all that agony and terror, they chose to keep acting out of love for those inflicting these horrors on them.
I can’t know for certain if Lewis truly loved the men who beat him, imprisoned him, or spat on him. I choose to believe he did. I can’t imagine mustering that kind of strength and courage without the conviction that he was performing an act of love for his tormentors, just as much as for those he sought to liberate. As a Black man in America, he obviously stood to gain from any advances in equality that might occur in his lifetime due to his sacrifices. But what he was truly winning was a new level of enlightenment for all of us, and all that he did and endured will reverberate long after him and long after those of us alive today.
And while I know that Lewis was a religious man and believed that “we all have a spark of the divine” within us, I don’t think he did what he did to secure his place in the great hereafter, either. I can’t know that for sure, of course. But when I hear his story, I see acts of love for one’s enemy without expectation of reciprocation. I see radical courage. And I believe.
“Love has the capacity to bring peace inside of conflict and the capacity to stir up things in order to make things right.”—John Lewis To live in a pluralistic society, one must cultivate at least some degree of tolerance for difference. If most of us were not capable of at least a baseline tolerance of …