The other day, my favorite professor read aloud from Frederick Buechner’s Whistling in the Dark. Buechner, a renowned theologian, explores different definitions for seemingly simple, understandable words. Much like the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, Buechner’s work gives profound power to simplicity, and in doing so, makes a relevant point about this year’s election cycle.
Given the amount of anger, sadness and intensity that’s swirling around our nation right now, I thought I’d offer an alternate perspective. Maybe, just maybe, try thinking of our enemies in the way Buechner suggests. Attempt to practice radical empathy. Attempt to be constructive and move forward in stride. It seems difficult, because it is difficult. For some, it may prove impossible. Just the same:
“Cain hated Abel for standing higher in God’s esteem than he felt he himself did, so he killed him. King Saul hated David for stealing the hearts of the people with his winning ways and tried to kill him every chance he got. Saul of Tarsus hated the followers of Jesus because he thought they were blasphemers and heretics and made a career of rounding them up so they could be stoned to death like Stephen. By and large most of us don’t have enemies like that anymore, and in a way it’s a pity.
It would be pleasant to think it’s because we’re more civilized nowadays, but maybe it’s only because we’re less honest, open, brave. We tend to avoid fiery outbursts for fear of what they may touch off both in ourselves and the ones we burst out at. We smolder instead. If people hurt us or cheat us or stand for things we abominate, we’re less apt to bear arms against them than to bear grudges. We stay out of their way. When we declare war, it is mostly submarine warfare, and since our attacks are beneath the surface, it may be years before we know fully the damage we have either given or sustained.
Jesus says we are to love our enemies and pray for them, meaning love not in an emotional sense but in the sense of willing their good, which is the sense in which we love ourselves. It is a tall order even so. African Americans love white supremacists? The longtime employee who is laid off just before he qualifies for retirement with a pension love the people who call him in to break the news? The mother of the molested child love the molester? But when you see as clearly as that who your enemies are, at least you see your enemies clearly too.
You see the lines in their faces and the way they walk when they’re tired. You see who their husbands and wives are, maybe. You see where they’re vulnerable. You see where they’re scared. Seeing what is hateful about them, you may catch a glimpse also of where the hatefulness comes from. Seeing the hurt they cause you, you may see also the hurt they cause themselves. You’re still light-years away from loving them, to be sure, but at least you see how they are human even as you are human, and that is at least a step in the right direction. It’s possible that you may even get to where you can pray for them a little, if only that God forgive them because you yourself can’t, but any prayer for them at all is a major breakthrough.
In the long run, it may be easier to love the ones we look in the eye and hate, the enemies, than the ones whom — because we’re as afraid of ourselves as we are of them — we choose not to look at, at all.”