enemies Archives - St. Croix Church

Rockwell's painting of the Golden Rule

Loving Our Enemies – Pt. 1

By Articles
[In November, several of us gathered for three workshops to explore this foundational but difficult invitation. In three posts, I’ll summarize the content.]


Is it human nature that we gravitate toward dividing the world into “us and them.” It seems like it begins when we’re a few months old and start to fear strangers. Social psychologists have determined that you can divide people into groups based on insignificant reasons (e.g. preferences for one painting over another) and that’s enough to make us start idealizing our “in-group” and start seeing the worst in the “others.”

It may be human nature, but wisdom traditions around the world have invited us into something better; perhaps this is best known through the various versions of the “Golden Rule.” And Jesus, in particular, made sure to clarify that this includes our “enemies,” and he invited us to “do good to those who hate us” (Luke 6.27).Rockwell's painting of the Golden Rule

This invitation is a huge challenge. To remember the humanity of our enemy is to risk all kinds of confusing and risky emotions. And it unsettles so much of what is familiar and homey. What if we’re wrong about stuff! What if our enemies have some good reasons for hating us? And what if we start listening to them, and our friends and family start to hate us?!

It’s so much more convenient to stick with our inherited prejudices and dehumanize those whose sufferings and worldviews would be so troubling to acknowledge. Then we can bomb them when “necessary” or pretend our sanctions are non-violent. Or we can just turn off the friggin’ news and hope it all stays away from us!

If we’re going to take the invitation to “love our enemies” seriously, we’ll need a serious commitment to take up the challenge. We will face inner and outer resistance, and we will sometimes fail, but a commitment helps us get up, dust ourselves off and continue toward a better place. It is very hard, but it’s also very invigorating and inspiring! This is the kind of thing that can help us get out of bed in the morning and hope that there is something worth working for.

I’m going to suggest that a two-part commitment can get us started:

  • I will see and treat all other individuals as human beings worthy of consideration, compassion and respect equal to myself, and

  • I will not let my emotions, or my limited (skewed) perceptions, memories, or beliefs lead me to dehumanize those who oppose me or inconvenience me.

This commitment to avoid dehumanizing the other is really a modest one – a beginning, but it’s still very difficult. I have found that one real key to the second half of this commitment is the practice of creating a safe enough space for us to accept those emotions and limits. In our rushed and competitive world, we often feel too stressed to handle difficult emotions and acknowledge our weaknesses. We can intentionally slow down and remind ourselves that hard feelings are ok; they can be survived. In fact, facing and accepting difficult emotions strengthens our personal foundation, grounds us. It gives us the capacity to enlarge our world to the point where we can see everyone’s common humanity.

We’re so used to a panicky reaction aimed at stopping our painful feelings that we miss the larger world that they are trying to open us up to. Many of the best ways to slow down and accept reality are to be found in what are called “contemplative practices.”

When it comes to conflicts and disagreements, I like to think of contemplative practices as being the equivalent of getting well-coached in the corner of a boxing ring – except that our contemplative coach is not trying to help us defeat our opponent but to use healthy conflict to transform our enemies into fellow humans, worthy of compassion and care.

With the help of contemplatively accepting our difficult emotions, we can stick with our two-part commitment as a starting place to loving our enemies. We’ll explore a few other resources in part 2 and part 3.