What, are you saying, that I should love my enemy?
Don’t worry. This essay is not an exhortation. It refers to a dialogue I’ve been having with myself recently, and I’m sharing it with you, my readers.
My issues are focused mostly on the contemporary political front. For example, am I telling myself I should love Mitch McConnell? The Mitch McConnell who did everything in his power to thwart the legislative agenda of Barack Obama and now is doing the same thing with Joe Biden?
I believe the sprouting of this inner dialogue is seeded by my Catholic background and my studies in psychology. Both sources are shouting in my brain: For your own spiritual and emotional well-being, you need to practice “Love your enemy”!
I have found many psychological studies on the subject of hatred of others. One is titled, The Deeper the Love, the Deeper the Hate (Psychology, 12/7/2017) and explores the complexity of intimate relationships. Another smacks me in the face:
“Holding onto hate is like letting someone live rent-free in your mind. Hateful feelings are normal when they occur sporadically. However, the effects of feeling hatred over a long period of time can have devastating effects on your mind and body. … If continued, it leads to conflicts in relationships and to bodily disease.” (“Holding on to Hate only Hurts You,” Joanna Kleovoulou, Psyche Matters).
The teachings of many world religions about “loving your enemy” have been very influential in human history. In part, this is because they are “commandment-like” teachings and therefore very powerful in shaping their follower’s behavior. However, I find that religious texts on loving your enemy are often violated by the religion’s followers.
In Christian Scriptures Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor but hate your enemy.’ But I tell you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew, 5:43)
Historically, how well have Christians carried out this command? The Crusades (1096-1271) are a cautionary tale. Various Popes recruited loyal Church members to go to the Holy Land to “liberate” it from its Muslim occupiers. If they did, they would be granted Plenary Indulgences — all your sins wiped away. Historians estimate that the death toll ranged anywhere from thousands to millions.
Then there was the Inquisition, started in the 13th Century in Spain, which lasted into the 19th. The Popes (yes, once again) appointed “inquisitors” to go out into troublesome regions, question people intensively, conduct tribunals and mete out punishment, like burning at the stake. The targets were so-called heretics, Jews, Muslims, Protestants, rationalists and people with “superstitious beliefs.” The estimated death toll during the long history of the Inquisition vary between 500,000 and 1,000,000, including Blacks and Indians in Spanish America.
Buddhists are, in my mind, the most emphatic about the importance of loving your enemy but even its followers do not always practice it. One of the most complete and concise expressions of Buddhist teaching on the subject is contained in a 24-minute YouTube video from the Dalai Lama. (Pulitzer Prize winner, 1989).
Summarizing, genuine world peace must come out of inner peace, out of compassion. It extends not only to friends and loved ones but also to someone with whom you have deep anger, turned into hatred. Compassion helps you move beyond hatred about what someone is doing or saying to a recognition that the person is a fellow human being. This attitude is unbiased and promotes emotional and physical health.
Sadly once again, that religious teaching has been violated in Myanmar beginning in 2017 against the Muslim Rohingya, led by Buddhist monks and sanctioned by San Suu Kyi (Noble Prize winner 1991). The UN called it a “textbook” example of ethnic cleansing (New York Times, William Dalrymple).
I found a YouTube video of a Quaker who advocated loving your enemy. He put this teaching into practice when he participated in the lunch counter sit-ins, inspired by the Civil Rights Movement over 50 years ago. The speaker describes a moment when a white supremacist threatened him with a switchblade, pledging that if he didn’t leave immediately, he would plunge it into his chest. The Quaker, with barely two seconds to think, said to the knife-wielder, “Do what you have to do.” The man backed away. What an example of loving your enemy!
As far as I know, there has never been an instance of a Quaker inflicting violence on another.
New York Times columnist Michelle Cottle recently called Mitch McConnell and Joe Biden “frenemies” (5/12/2021): “But political friendships aren’t necessarily like normal friendships. Mr. Biden and Mr. McConnell have known each other for a long time. … They have grown to respect each other’s political savvy, horse-trading skills and knowledge of the Senate’s arcane rules and folkways.”
She writes that McConnell was the only Republican senator to attend the funeral of Joe Biden’s son, Beau, who died of brain cancer in 2015. He later arranged for a cancer research bill to be named after Beau. In 2011, Joe Biden spoke at the University of Louisville’s McConnell Center. In Biden’s final weeks as vice president, McConnell delivered an uncharacteristically funny, touching, and humane farewell tribute to Biden whom he called a “real friend.”
If you will, call it “friendship, Washington style.” Cottle’s article helps me return to the beginning of this essay.
I will deal better with Mitch McConnell’s policies and legislative actions by making him a political “frenemy.”
Joe McDonald is a longtime Oak Park resident and the author of a memoir titled, “Making a Name for Myself.”