Rob Wheeler thinks about... Loving your enemies

I was discussing forgiveness with a Jewish friend who objected to the smug way Christians frequently talk about loving their enemies. "It's all very well for them", he said, "but no one has tried to wipe out their entire race. Am I supposed to love Hitler?" He wasn't advocating unrestrained vengeance but I think he felt that feeling love for someone as monstrous as Hitler was somehow a betrayal of his moral values in general and his own race in particular.

Of course the standard Christian response is to assert that Jesus was not talking about love in the usual sense entailing intense intimacy and warm emotion. His love was a matter of attitude and did not involve "feeling" anything in particular.

But what kind of a love is it that involves no emotional element? Have you ever seen it depicted in a novel? Elsewhere, Jesus talks about the need for his followers to "hate" their father and mother (Luke 14:26). Is this supposed to be a species of "emotionless dislike"? Surely the formula "unemotional love" is just a fudge invented to rationalize what is clearly an absurd imperative. But perhaps that's what it's supposed to be.

I think what Jesus was getting at can be illuminated by considering three features of his teaching that are frequently overlooked.

FIRSTLY, Jesus was not an ethicist let alone a philosopher. He did not promulgate a theory of good action or a systematised code of conduct. He was a rabbi in the Wisdom tradition uttering pithy aphorisms and parables. He had far more in common with Aesop than Aristotle. That's not to say that Jesus did not have general moral principles. He was a first century Jew (not a Christian - note) and derived his ethics from his Judaism. However, when his fellow Jews did not take up Christianity in a big way the apostles, and Paul in particular, altered their marketing strategy and tried selling it to the Gentiles instead - with spectacular success. However, being severed from its Jewish roots, all that was left of Christian ethical teaching was a loose set of out-of-context sayings and stories - hardly enough on which to run a civil state, let alone a private life. Consequently, Christian ethical teaching has, since the earliest days, been a cobbling together of whatever ethical ideas were current in the host society, decorated with the sayings of Jesus to provide them with a specious authority.

The fact is, aphorisms do not embody general principles. They are literary "snapshots" depicting in a vivid manner typical human scenarios and plausible responses. We make a mistake if we treat them as codes of conduct rather than goads to thinking. Take, for example, two very cliched English sayings: "Too many cooks spoil the broth" and "Many hands make light work". If we understand them as general principles they contradict each other. But that's not how they work. They are intended draw our attention to "typical" human situations not "general" ones. "Love your enemies", therefore, should not be read as a universal moral rule. Rather, it is intended to suggest that we adopt the simple attitude of generosity to others - even those with whom we are in conflict. It does not prescribe specific behaviour.

SECONDLY, Jesus, being more of a litterateur than a philosopher, frequently used figures of speech such as deliberate paradox and hyperbole (eg, camels going through eyes of needles and beams of wood in neighbours' eyes). In the case of "loving your enemy" the absurdity and over-statement, and the way that it flies in the face of common sense, is a way of stimulating the listener into reflecting on their relationships with their enemies.

THIRDLY, when Jesus uttered an aphorism it was frequently declared as an antithesis to conventional interpretations of the Jewish tradition. ("In the past you were told... but I tell you..."). In this case Jesus is contrasting loving enemies with the old rule of an eye-for-an-eye. Mind you, the latter was an improvement on previous codes in the Ancient World where it was legitimate to impose greater suffering on the offender than they had caused you in the first place. Here Jesus is saying that we should rachet-up our response to the next level which is to renounce strict calculations of revenge and be open-handed.

So is that it? Is Jesus merely saying "be generous"? Yes - I think that's all it amounts to. Everything else is a reading-back into the words of Jesus our current values and ideals. But "love your enemies" is not a trivial point. It's simply not a complete philosophy of life which, I am afraid, many people look to Jesus for.


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Anonymous said...

Agreed more or less 100% with your 'Jesus' theories - most of this I've tried to teach my classes over 30+ years (what the sown seed ever brought forth is another question).

On forgiveness: I would go further.
1. It is neither logically nor morally required (even by Christianity I think) to forgive what is heinous. By definition that is UNforgivable.

2. A 'person' (moral agent) can be forgiven, but only if forgiveness is (genuinely) sought, and usually for crime or bad behaviour of lesser magnitude. Forgiveness, like promising, is surely a two-way process. It is a meaningless gesture (and one which brings ridicule on Christianity) to say into thin air that you forgive the unknown or impenitent or psychopathic perpetrator of serial murder etc. because that's what Jesus wants.

3. Finding explanations and mitigating circumstances may reasonably engender feelings of warmth or understanding in victims or observers but this doesn't amount to forgiveness. Often 'forgiveness' may not by any stretch of the imagination be an appropriate moral response to heinous crime or behaviour.

4. So 'Hate the sin, love the sinner' could be useful rule of thumb in the moral life, but this stance does not either entail or require 'forgiveness' in any but the weakest sense.

5. Weakening the meaning of forgiveness weakens the understanding of what can be one of the most powerfully healing (whole-making) of human responses to 'evil'.

Alison McRobb

Peter Knight said...

I agree and I disagree with Rob Wheeler. I agree about the nature of many of Jesus' sayings - that they do not constitute an ethical system but rather are devices to make us think and see anew or, like Keats' Grecian urn, "tease us out of thought". But, I do think he lets us all off too lightly in his treatment of "love your enemies".

The word for love attributed to Jesus in this case is agape, which is very different from erotic love or affection for family and friends. Instead it is about service, risk, giving of oneself and sacrifice; that love which is said to be the very life of God (meaningful to both realists and non-realists?); that love which takes us in the Way of the Cross and prays, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. Therefore, to say that love is not necessarily or all about feelings is not to say an empty or sterile thing.

Agape requires an act of the will. If I am to love in the agape sense, how I respond to anyone who opposes me or even attacks me may well be despite how I immediately feel. I must be concerned for my enemy’s welfare. I may have to take defensive action, but it must not be about revenge or retaliation. Despite my enemy’s apparent lack of respect for me, I must respond in a way that is respectful, compassionate and conciliatory. I must endeavour to discover why my attacker is attacking me and see if that can be changed. I must work for shalom. If only this had been the response to 9/11.

So, I suggest that “love your enemies” is much more than an aphorism or an attempt to prompt new thinking by means of contrast, paradox or overstatement. Neither is it a statement of an unrealistic ideal. It is a radical challenge and the stories of those who have taken it up to great effect are among our greatest reasons for hope. I have no desire to claim it as unique to the teachings of Jesus in the gospels, but neither do I believe that it is just one of the many pithy or stimulating things Jesus says. I do believe it is central to the Christian Way, even the human way, and that it is an authentic call for the best that we can be.

Ray Mutch said...

Hi Rob
Just a thought on your post:

You say: "But what kind of a love is it that involves no emotional element? Have you ever seen it depicted in a novel?"

What about a Tale of Two Cities, or Braveheart (film) or Sommersby (film) or A Christmas Carol?


John Bulman said...

I suggest that we will embrace more warmly the 'Love your enemies' doctrine, as we take in the gathering evidence that we human beings are not motivated by an inner 'self', any more than is any other object in the universe. We are governed by a a physically determined brain.
The implication is that no one can be 'hated', because they can't help being and behaving as they do.
This does not mean however, that as members of society we do not have to condition them, by whatever means we think best, to adopt our values.
The paradox, that however we feel we 'choose' the way we react to them implies our free will, can only be resolved this way: whatever our reactions, they are the workings of the universe through our entire organism. For us as for our enemies "It is 'God' who made us and not we ourselves".

Anonymous said...

I think you are right, Rob. What concerns me, though, is the sophisticated reasoning needed to reach this understanding. How is the unreflective person supposed to get there?

On the other hand, I think even the earliest Christian writings (Gospels, Acts, Epistles etc.) were designed to be explicated by teachers. Most people would have been illiterate, and depended on priests for their understanding. It looks as if they haven't done a very good job.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the thoughtful responses to my piece on Loving Your Enemies.

Peter Knight says:

"The word for love attributed to Jesus in this case is agape, which is very different from erotic love or affection for family and friends".

I'm not sure that is entirely accurate. I know it's the received wisdom that we tend to hear from pulpits but I've just looked it up and among the Greeks it was used to denote love of family and spouse and therefore did have a feeling component. Like the English word "love" it has changed and it's meaning has been stretched in different contexts.

"Instead it is about service, risk, giving of oneself and sacrifice"

These are all virtues, I don't deny, but they do not neccessarily entail love - or require love as a pre-condition. We can quite easily imagine someone acting virtuously like this without feeling any kind of love at all. Indeed a good Stoic would do all this out of duty without the slightest twinge of any feeling!

Ray Mutch suggests that Sydney Carlton's self-sacrifice at the end of a Tale of Two Cities may be a case of agapaic love in action. He offers this as an example of "emotionless" love from a novel in response to my challenge. Well - as far as I can recall SC acts out of duty not out of love. He certainly does not mention love.

I wonder if the Christian is not in danger of interpreting all virtue as "love" so that agape and virtue become synonymous? Or worse still - perhaps everything that's "good" must involve "love" at some point? Love is one virtue but it's not ALL virtues rolled into one!

"I may have to take defensive action, but it must not be about revenge or retaliation. Despite my enemy’s apparent lack of respect for me, I must respond in a way that is respectful, compassionate and conciliatory. I must endeavour to discover why my attacker is attacking me and see if that can be changed. I must work for shalom. If only this had been the response to 9/11".

It seems to me that you are doing the very thing I have been referring to - interpreting agape as a species of love which entails no emotion and "reading back" into the text what modern Christians want to see. What I am trying to do is *just* read the text to what is says on its own - and don't see a lot. For instance where in that little text does it say that we must be conciliatory? You also say that we may indeed resist an enemy. If he attacks me - may I take up arms and kill him? In what sense is that "loving" my enemy? Is it OK to kill my enemy so long as I don't harbour feelings of hatred while I do it?

What you say is a legitimate proposition as its stands and is worthy of consideration - but they are "your" words and ideas - not those of Jesus. It's not what *he* says. That's important for as soon as we start claiming that we are interpreting the words of Jesus we start arguing about authority. What's more important is to know what's the best thing to do in a situation - not what an authoritative source has uttered. It might have helped if he'd explained *why* we should love our enemies but all he does is follow up the saying with an obscure reference to getting a reward.

I wonder what would you say to my Jewish friend? That he should warmly embrace Hitler and the Nazis as fellow humans? Should he take no retalitory action? What the Jews and allies did after the war was to give the Nazi hierarchy a fair trial. They were not lynched by a mob like Mussolini in Italy. This was fair and generous and I would suggest is in line with the generosity recommended in the saying of Jesus. But surely it would be absurd to say that it amounted to "love"?

I think the danger of your position - that of taking the saying as embodying a substantive moral injunction - is that we *think* we have an answer to the issue of how to treat our enemies. What we should do is simply use it as a starting point to ask questions.

Rob Wheeler

Anonymous said...

Carol Sherrard says:

"I think you are right, Rob. What concerns me, though, is the sophisticated reasoning needed to reach this understanding. How is the unreflective person supposed to get there?"

I think the problem is that people come to the Bible (both believers and non-believers) with all sorts of presuppositions. They read back into the text what they expect to see there. The text is treated like a legal document, pondered over, and each word and sentence is squeezed like a sponge for deep meaning. My recommendation is that we take a simpler and *shallower* approach. Just read what is there and no more.

Rob Wheeler

Anonymous said...

John Bulman says:

"The implication is that no one can be 'hated', because they can't help being and behaving as they do".

This is the determist approach. If someone is not responsible for what they have done they cannot be blamed and so hating or punishing them is pointless. When the dog kills the child we regret the event and we may destroy the dog (for safety) but we dont *blame* it. It was simply acting in accordance with its nature. This is certainly one way of dealing with enemies and feelings of revenge. However, I am no sure that was Jesus' approach as he talks about forgiveness and that is predicated upon blame and responsibility. We don't blame the child-killing dog and so we don't forgive it.

I does raise for me, tho, the interesting question of Jesus' words from the cross, which are quoted by Peter Knight as a paradigm case of loving enemies.

Jesus says: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."

Now - taken simply as it stands - the utterance makes no sense. If indeed "they know not what they do" then no blame is entailed and so forgiveness is inappropriate. In courts of law we quite rightly excuse people from responsibility if they did not understand the significance of their action. For instance if a woman caring for he sick husband were to administer a fatal overdose of his prescribed drug due to faulty dosage instructions on the bottle then she would not be forgiven her action - she would be found not guilty.

The words of Jesus raise all sorts of fascinating questions:

Are the Jews around the cross baying for his blood thereby forgiven (and the Romans too)? If so - why have the Jews been persecuted as the "Murderers of Christ by the Church for so many years?

If they *are* forgiven then this is a demonstration of the possibility of forgiveness without either knowledge or repentence of sin on the part of the offender. If these few can be forgiven why not the whole human race? Does this not conflict with traditional Christian doctrine?

If they *are not* forgiven then we have to explain how Jesus could be praying for something that God, the Father, refuses to grant. This implies that Jesus is unaware of the will of the Father, which seems to go against the doctrine of the Trinity which asserts that the will of the Father and the Son are identical, being the same person.

These questions are, of course, ridiculouly pedantic - but this goes to show what absudities yiu get led into by an excessively close reading of scripture. The text just does not hold up to such nit-picking examination. You have to read it simply.

Jesus is not using "forgive" in the full meaning of the term, involving a two-way transaction of repentance and response. He is using it in the loose, everyday sense, simply meaning that he renounces resentment against his killers. The only important thing to note here is that Jesus does not die cursing his executioners.

Rob Wheeler

brownie said...

I like to think of love as a CHOICE, not a feeling.

Anonymous said...

You might like to think that the word love refers to a choice rather than a feeling. But is that what the word actually means? We cannot make up our own meanings for words. They gain their meaning from public use.

Imagine a friend were to say to you: "I love you but my heart is quite cold towards you. I simply choose to act well towards you". Would you feel that their claim to love you made any sense? The friend may act towards you kindly and benevolently - but why call that "love" other than for the reason I gave in my TBubble - that we need to render the words of Jesus literally true.

Rob Wheeler

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. Surely the teachings of Jesus were an attempt to break out of a constant cycle of hate reproducing itself. A Christioan friend of mine has recently saiud that she, and others are trying to make a better world. THis is the context in which platitudes such as "Love thy neighbour" come about.

But I think there is a second way of looking at this. recently, I have begun some assertiveness training and one aspect of this is when in a situation of conflict, to attempt to disarm your opponent, not to defeat them. I see a lot of this in religious teachings and it is a shame that they are not given more credence because they are counter intuitive. When I was at school, it was obvious that bullies acted the way they did because they wanted to provoke a reaction which they usually got. What better tactic to use against them than to not give them that reaction.

I see this problem a lot in western society. We are quick to condemn any approach which goes against the mantras of justice and revenge, yet when different approaches are tried, they frequently prove far more effective. An example being that careful handling of a problem child from a deprived background may turn them into a useful member of society, but our media presents this as a soft touch and a charter for rewarding wayward behaviour.

Away from any attempt to become philosophical about this and to summarise. The best way to break out of a cycle is to try something different (Go off at a tangent?). And secondly, the best way to defeat your enemy is to deny them what they seek.

To add to the list of films/novels etc. I would add "Ghandi". I think this sums it up perfectly.

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