Want to Love Your Enemies? Start by Learning to Like People Who Don’t Like You
Christ tells us to love our enemies. That’s hard enough on the face of it, you’d think. But living as privileged Westerners in peace, comfort and safety makes that commandment even more challenging. Because most of us don’t have any enemies. Not really, in the sense that Jesus meant the word. We might have rivals, opponents, ideological foes, alienated ex-friends and even online stalkers, but few of us have deep, personal enemies — individual people we know by name who have deeply wronged and damaged us, who threaten our lives and our families. Apart from victims of rape, domestic violence and other crimes, how many of us actually have such enemies?
Things were very different in Darfur, when I visited as part of a mission to dig new wells so the victims of Muslim ethnic cleansing would have access to drinkable water. People I met there would point someone out and say, “That man used to work for a warlord. He and the other soldiers killed my brothers and sisters.” Can you imagine living in a dusty village where you’d walk to the marketplace and run into someone like that, several times a month? As the kind of person I am, I fear that I know what I would do: Hack off his head on the spot and use it as a soccer ball.
And of course, such acts of vengeance were not unknown. But in societies like Sudan’s, where so many crimes piled up in just a few short years, it would have been utterly impossible to reestablish peace without an almost miraculous level of forgiveness. And I saw such miracles happen. I saw people meet and speak with their blood-enemies, and learn to work together to build a future. So I know that with God’s help it can happen.
In fact, the example of those forgiving African Christians kind of shames me, when I read some stupid or vicious thing that someone has said about me and find myself muttering warrior oaths to “eviscerate” that person. In the absence of genuine enemies, how can we break sinful habits like this?
I think that I’ve found a way. It entails starting small, using the opportunities that God leaves in my path. So I have resolved to try to like people who don’t like me. This is every bit as hard as it sounds at first. When someone rejects my ideas, or mocks one of my projects, or rolls his eyes disdainfully at things that I’ve said in earnest, it hurts of course. That’s perfectly natural. So I’m schooling myself to silently remember the following questions:
- Was the way that I phrased that needlessly sharp and divisive? Self-aggrandizing and boastful? Perhaps even incoherent?
- Is my “big” personality part of the problem? Is this person a quiet introvert, who is tired of high-volume extraverts like me hogging the spotlight?
- Could this person simply be having a terrible day, or going through a soul-straining personal or financial trial?
- Might God have sent me this person as an obstacle in order to teach me patience and forgiveness?
I’ve found that after running myself through this long gauntlet of questions, it’s virtually impossible to muster the gumption for hatred or even anger. Instead, I feel a lot lighter, as if I’ve been freed of a dark and ungainly burden — the “duty” to despise this other person and dismiss everything that he says.
Even better, I then have the privilege to gain from the experience. I can learn from whatever might be (unfortunately) valid in that person’s criticism. I can better gauge what I say in the future, so it appeals to a wider range of people. And in cases where I’d previously liked the person because of some admirable quality that he has, I can go right on liking him — even though he doesn’t like me!
You might call what I am doing a baby step, and you’d be right. I can’t make any promises what I would do if I were presented with a genuine, Darfur-level enemy. But in an age where social media and political divisions are turning us all into schools of piranhas, I know that my spiritual health demands that I do at least this much, go at least this far today on the long, slow walk of grace. As the AA handbook tells us, “One day at a time.”