For two nights, my Christian friend Tony and I have been discussing Jesus’s teaching of loving one’s enemies. Tony observed that I don’t like Republicans or Christian fundamentalists very much. That is true.
In Matthew 5, Jesus did say “ You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Is Jesus asking us to do the impossible? We should note that loving is different from liking. A spiritual person does not have to LIKE his enemies. That is too much against human nature, and Jesus did not teach any method for doing so. Jesus himself did not seem to like the Pharisees too much. In fact, he cursed them. A Bible commentator made this remark about this interesting verse:
There are two kinds of love, involving the same general feeling, or springing from the same fountain of good-will to all mankind, but differing so far as to admit of separation in idea. The one is that feeling by which we approve of the conduct of another, commonly called the love of complacency; the other, that by which we wish well to the person of another, though we cannot approve his conduct. This is the love of benevolence, and this love we are to bear toward our enemies.
I can agree with this interpretation. Certainly, we don’t have to approve of our enemies’ behavior. But hatred does not solve any problem. It was Buddha who said that “Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love; this is the eternal rule.” Hatred breeds more hatred, and violence is reciprocated with more violence. When will this vicious cycle end? Returning hate with hate does not transform the situation. To love one’s enemy does not mean approval. But it means to regard them with benevolence. Responding to hate with good will is a radical strategy. It is counter-intuitive. But it works. Gandhi knew that. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew that. In one of Dr. Martin Luther King’s sermons, he shed light on this strange teaching of Jesus:
Because if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption. You just keep loving people and keep loving them, even though they’re mistreating you. Here’s the person who is a neighbor, and this person is doing something wrong to you and all of that. Just keep being friendly to that person.
Returning hate with hate does not solve any problem. It is also detrimental to one’s health — physical and mental. It is not healthy to be angry at someone or certain groups over a long time. But I have no problem admitting that certain people and certain groups don’t have my respect, and I have a good reason for that. How can one love someone or some group who are intolerant towards others and mistreat others? Are we expected to love Hitler or someone who commits genocide?
Loving one’s enemies does not mean that we like them or approve of what they do. Of course, if Hitler were alive today, we should fight him tooth and nail. From a Buddhist perspective, yes, that is a dualistic mindset. But then we do live in a dualistic world. If we don’t fight, resist and criticize inhumanity, then we are the enablers of evil. Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” A spiritual person is not someone who escapes the responsibility of stopping evil.
How can we be benevolent and/or compassion towards despicable people? I think we should understand them. To a certain extent, I can understand President Trump, although I do think that he is despicable. He did have a tough childhood. He is the way he is, probably due to the way his father was. I can have compassion towards him in that regard. But it does not mean that I won’t fight his policies. Zen master, Thich Naht Hanh, said, “When you look deeply into your anger, you will see that the person you call your enemy is also suffering. As soon as you see that, the capacity of accepting and having compassion for them is there.”
Spirituality does not mean that we have to like extremely greedy or corrupt people. We don’t have to tolerate bigotry or intolerance either. If we do, then we are not doing our part as socially-concerned and socially-engaged citizens. This is the pitfall of fake spirituality. It is just a subtle kind of escapism.
Make no mistake about this — Jesus got angry. Buddha got angry. I have studied this in some detail. There is such thing as properly motivated and justified anger. We fight certain people. We fight social injustice. It does not mean that we don’t have compassion towards our enemies. We may understand why they become what they are today. Still, we take sides and we fight what we know is wrong or evil.
Let us remember that Jesus stood with the downtrodden and marginalized of society. And Buddha fought the caste system. Spiritual people do fight. But they fight with awareness, wisdom and compassion.