Loving Our Enemies
Scripture: Luke 6:27-42
[Following is the transcript of a homily delivered by congregation member Chad Moore on July 9, 2017. No audio is available.]
My parents divorced when I was seven. By the time I was eight, they were each remarried. Almost overnight, I had a new set of stepparents and a new collection of stepsiblings. It was a lot of change, and all in less than a year! All that rapid change produced an enormous amount of anxiety for everyone involved.
One of these new siblings was a stepbrother named Jordan. Jordan is three-and-a-half years my elder, and for the first few years of our new family’s life we weren’t exactly chummy. Looking back, I realize now that much of my anxiety from that period of rapid change found an outlet in feelings of bitterness directed at my older brother. During those turbulent early years, I blamed much of my discomfort and uneasiness on what I saw as Jordan’s coldness, rudeness, or meanness. I convinced myself that he must not want me in the family, and that’s why things were hard.
Like a lot of kids, one of my favorite things to do when I was younger was to dress-up like one of my favorite TV superheroes and reenact their battles. However, even after I had dressed myself in whatever strange garments I could find to resemble my hero of choice, I knew something was missing. Almost instinctively, I realized that I needed more than just a cape and underwear on the outside of my pants to be a hero. I needed an enemy! I knew no hero is complete without a sinister enemy to fight against!
So, when a younger me set out in search of an enemy, Jordan came instantly to mind. Wasn’t he basically my enemy anyway? Plus, even though Jordan was older than me, he wasn’t all that much bigger. I could probably take him. Besides, I was the good guy in this scenario. I was the hero. Of course, I’ll win! Good is on my side! So, I went to Jordan and convinced him to take part in reenacting some of my favorite superhero brawls. With a smirk, he agreed.
Well… let’s just say I was a bit over confident. On some VHS tape, somewhere in my parent’s house is a video of Jordan body-slamming a strangely dressed me off the couch like a pre-teen WWE star. I remember watching the footage with my family a few years later to audible gasps, roaring laughter, and out loud musings about how one could hit their head that hard without becoming concussed.
Later, I would get a bit more clever in my attempts to take down Jordan. In my desperate state, I reached out to my younger brother, Connor, to form an alliance against Jordan. Unfortunately, I failed to account for the fact that by introducing the much younger, much smaller Connor into the picture, I had basically just given Jordan a projectile to use against me. As I watched Jordan hurl Connor into the air directly toward my face, I realized the flaw in my plan.
Exploring Social Dynamics:
As we’ve grown older together, I’ve come to realize that Jordan and I both thought we were the “good guy” during the battles of our youth. We both thought we were the hero defending our rightful family from foreign intruders. But, come to find out, we were really just kids, anxious because we were suddenly living with strangers, and we had no idea what was going to happen next. That’s enough to make anyone anxious, and Jordan and I both translated those anxieties into a fear of the other. We convinced ourselves that the other was the enemy, the source of our pain. Only later, after many a body slam and a headlock, did we realize that overtime we could come to love and understand each other, even if we still didn’t always like or agree with each other.
Believe it or not, this goofy story about my childhood wrestling matches illustrates a couple of the psycho-social dynamics that I research on larger, social levels and spend probably too much time thinking about.
These dynamics deal with two strange and surprising truths: First, that fear actually feels more comfortable than anxiety. And second, that sometimes we come to think ourselves as heroes or saviors first, and then only later do we go out searching for enemies. Like me during my childhood superhero games, we think “of course, we are the heroes,” and then we go out searching for enemies we can defeat to prove that we are indeed heroes. Strangely, when we enact this second truth, we actually use our enemies as a vital part of our self-understanding: having enemies becomes the key to maintaining our identity as the hero.
So, I know these two things sound a bit strange, so let’s explore them further for just a minute.
First, let’s think about anxiety and fear. I know it sounds strange, but one of the best ways to deal with the nagging discomfort that comes with anxiety is to convert that anxiety into fear. To understand why this is, we need to distinguish between anxiety and fear a little bit more precisely than we do in our normal, everyday use of the terms.
Psychologists define anxiety as “the perception of an ambiguous, non-localizable, yet persistent threat.” Those are all big words to try and get at that deep feeling you sometimes get, the one almost in your bones, that something is wrong, that something’s off, but (and here’s what makes anxiety so uncomfortable) you can’t figure out exactly what it is that’s off. You know that feeling? There’s a fundamental sort of uncertainty about anxiety. Something’s wrong, but we just can’t put a finger on it.
Sometimes a threat is unclear because we genuinely can’t name any possibilities of what’s wrong. But more often than not, that sense of threat is ambiguous because we can think of millions of possibilities of what could be wrong or could go wrong later! At that point, our brain just wants to shut down and hole up for a while. Neuroscientists have figured out that when we’re experiencing anxiety, the parts of the brain associated with curling up in the fetal position start to glow. Left unattended, anxiety can overwhelm us. Sometimes anxiety leaves us just wanting to sink into the couch with a blanket, a box of Oreos, and a funny Netflix show. Which, right now, sounds pretty nice! But too much of that can be debilitating.
Fear, on the other hand, involves a different experience of threat and involves different, more active parts of our brains. To put it in fancy terms, fear involves a “psychological and neurological reaction to an identifiable, localizable, and actionable threat.” In other words, fear has to do with threats that are clear. Something is wrong, but we know exactly what it is, we can point it out, and we have some ideas about how to deal with it. There’s a feeling of certainty that comes with fear. Compared to the cloudiness that accompanies anxiety, fear’s certainty about what is wrong feels comforting. So, while anxiety prepares our brain for the fetal position, fear fires up our fight or flight engines.
While it’s true that it’s psychologically pleasing to transition from the foggy haze of anxiety into the clear certainty of fear, it’s also true that the fears we mold from the raw material of our anxieties aren’t always the actual source of our anxiety. In fact, much of the time they’re not. These false fears feel good, but they’re not actually helpful.
Still, one of the most effective ways to collect our scattered anxieties into a fixed container of fear is to blame our anxieties on the schemes of an enemy. This is exactly what I was doing with my older brother. All the anxiety brought on by the rapid change and crazy circumstances was too much for me to handle or really even process. So, instead I made my brother out to be the enemy, to be the real source of my discomfort. Though, in reality, he wasn’t.
Here’s where the second of our strange truths comes in, the truth that we often use enemies as contrasts against which to see ourselves as the hero, as good. We define our identity against what we find disagreeable. We point at our enemy to say, “I am good because I’m not like them.” We think things like, “I can’t possibly be part of the problem, because I didn’t vote for them.” (I catch myself thinking this one all the time, especially when I’m with my family in Texas or South Carolina.)
This becomes even more troublesome when we use the presence of common enemies to define who’s really “one of us.” Like mine and Connor’s alliance against Jordan, defining ourselves against a common enemy can provide a basis for cooperation. However, while we may be united, we’re only united in opposition. Our relationship isn’t built on a shared respect for each other, its only built on a shared hatred of the enemy; and shared hatred is a shaky foundation on which to build friendships.
When our identities center on those we’re against, our identities actually become codependent on those very enemies: we need them to play the villain to our hero. We might also find ourselves with a scarcity of clear, positive values because our identities are defined almost wholly in negative terms: “against that” instead of “for this.” When we define our identities in reference to enemies, we let our enemies set the agenda. We end up only ever reacting to what they do. We empty ourselves of the power to lead or to transform a conversation. We’re always left playing catch-up.
We put ourselves in situations where we think the only way our identity can continue to exist is by remaining in perpetual conflict with our enemies. And we forfeit the idea that maybe one day, after many a body slam and headlock, one-time enemies might come to understand each other and, just maybe, relationships could be transformed.
Some Thoughts on Loving Our Enemies:
Still, to be honest, I don’t really know exactly what all Jesus meant when he told us to “love our enemies.” It’s a crazy commandment! On the surface, it makes no sense. Aren’t enemies by definition those we don’t love? I don’t think Jesus meant that we need to make ourselves completely vulnerable to those who want to do us harm. Nor do I think Jesus meant that we have to let everything go and just be nice to everyone or accepting of everything. Actually, I think loving our enemies often does mean holding them accountable, speaking out against their harmful actions, and even defending those our enemies may seek to harm. But as we do these things, I think we have to do them believing (or at least acting as if we believe) that even our enemies have the possibility of being transformed for the better. Isn’t that at the core of the Christian message: a hope against hope that even the worst of all sinners might be transformed?
Part of believing that our enemies could one day be transformed means that we need to learn how to define our identities in a way that does not always rely on comparisons to our enemies. We should define ourselves positively by the values that we do hold dear, the virtues we strive to embody, and the better world we hope to create. When we do that, we can invite our enemies to be a part of that world. If they refuse, then they refuse. We can keep working to build that better world regardless. But, when we define ourselves wholly in opposition to our enemies then we spend so much of our time trying to defeat and destroy our enemies, that we forget how to actually build a better world. If we’re too obsessed with being heroes out to destroy the enemy, we may forget how to be good siblings, good friends, good Christians, good colleagues, good citizens, and good neighbors. I think this is part of what Jesus means when he calls us to “remove the log from our own eye before we try to remove the speck from another’s.”
Lastly, I think part of loving our enemies means learning to forsake the easy comfort of fighting or fleeing simplistic fears. Stoking up these simple fears feels good, but it only makes divides grow larger and wounds cut deeper. Instead, we have to take up the more difficult and less glamorous task of negotiating complex anxieties. Living among other people is always complicated, and it always produces anxiety. It just does. Its natural. So, when those anxieties come, it’s often tempting to reduce those complicated anxieties into simple fears that we can blame on an enemy. This feels good, but it’s not always helpful. It feels good to wear your underwear on the outside of your pants and wrestle your brother, but it doesn’t solve the problem of how to live together as part of one, new, big, complicated family.
So, this is my prayer for us today:
May we learn to define ourselves not for who we are not, but for who we are and for who we hope to be. May we resist the temptation to too quickly give in to the comforting temptations of simple fears. And may we love our enemies by acting with hope in the possibility of their transformation, even when that possibility seems non-existent.