I'll never forget the time I heard a colleague of mine talking about when he was doing peace work negotiating with loyalist paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland. The one thing he said which struck me was this: that he genuinely found the loyalist terrorists to be nicer people than the peace activists; that within the peace organisations there was more “politics”, more backbiting, more bullying than in the terrorist organisations.
That's always stuck with me because it reminds me that an organisation can have a noble purpose, and yet have totally screwed up interpersonal dynamics. You can belong to an organisation that's purpose is peace, and yet one that acts in an ultimately violent way, even if that's just the violence of words.
This is the danger that is always present for any group of people trying to seek the Beloved Community.
Churches can be places of nasty gossip.
Peace organisations can be places where people get bullied.
Climate activist groups can act with huge amounts of white privilege and unreflective white supremacy.
And politically progressive men can treat the women they are dating with sexism and abuse.
What do we do about this? Just shrug our shoulders and admit we're hypocrites? Or say “nobody's perfect” and just keep going? (In church this is expressed in the version that says “the church is full of sinners, there's always room for one more!”) Or do we “call out” this wherever we see it? And if we do, how does that not just become another form of dysfunction fuelled by anger and guilt and fear?
I suggest we find something of the answer to this in ferns. Yes, ferns! adrienne maree brown, in her book Emerging Strategy, talks about a fern as an example of a fractal. Fractals are “infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales”. This means that when you look at a fern you see one long stem with branching green leaves sprouting off, but when you look at those leaves you see the same pattern: one long stem with branching green leaves, and again if you zoom into those leaves you see the same pattern again. Applying this principle to human organisations adrienne maree brown says, “How we are at the small scale is how we are at the large scale.”
I think Jesus had this intuition too. I think that's how we need to understand the most difficult thing he ever said: love your enemies.
Interestingly “love your enemies” is the one phrase that the Jesus Seminar thinks is most likely to have actually been said by the real living breathing historic Jesus. Now, not everyone is on board with the Jesus Seminar project, where they look at every word in the Gospels and judge how likely it is to have been actually said by Jesus, but at least on this one, I think they're probably right. I think if there was any chance this didn't really come from the lips of Jesus then someone would have quietly found a way to get rid of it from the record. But because it was so well-attested they just couldn't do it.
Of course there are days when we wish we could get rid of it from the record: when it's challenge is just too much for us. But there it remains – the unreasonable challenge.
How can we possibly respond to this challenge? First, let's understand that to love enemies, you gotta have enemies. Now that's not too difficult for folks who suffer under an oppressive system. If your body is threatened in this society, then I'm pretty sure you know who your enemies are. If you think you've not got any enemies to love, I gotta tell you, you're not doing it right. If you think you've not got any enemies, then you've likely got a lot of privilege. You're going to need to work at getting yourself some enemies. Don't worry, it's not that difficult, listen to the experience of others: of black lives, queer lives, trans lives, women's lives, you'll find your enemies soon enough!
Once you have enemies you've gotta start fighting against them. Jesus said, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword”. That doesn't mean violence, but it does mean fighting. It means condemning the kind of peace that is really just quiet streets, a submissive population, a passive society that does not speak up about injustice. That's not true peace. That's just silence. And “Silence = Death”. That's what the signs said at AIDS activist marches in the past, and what they say now at Black Lives Matter marches. This is the silence/peace that is white silence that just wants people to be nice and not cause a fuss, even while black bodies are sacrificed. To this silence/peace, Jesus says, “No, I have come to bring a sword to this peace, I've come to name the enemies, the Powers, the systems we need to make war with.”
So once you've found your enemies, and started fighting against them, then you're in a position to love them. How do we do that? Firstly, not the easy and cheap way. Again, we have to be aware of privilege here. There's an easy and cheap way of loving enemies if you've not really experienced them as enemies – as people threatening your body, your rights, your dignity. This has been shown in some Extinction Rebellion protests when white activists were chanting “Police, we love you, we're doing this for you too!” This was cheap enemy love, done with no understanding of police brutality, and the historic institutional racism of the police, particularly in London. This was harmful to black people who have been protesting about this police brutality for decades.
This is not what real enemy-love looks like. Real enemy-love is super clear on the enemy, and exactly what violence they are responsible for. It names, describes, and condemns that violence. It demands the end to the violence. But ultimately it refuses to manifest the violence back on the enemy. Ultimately it responds with love.
And again, privileged people like me need to be super conscious of our white privilege in wrestling with this. We need to be careful we're not demanding nonviolence from the oppressed while excusing the violence of the oppressor (including economic, cultural, and spiritual violence).
But while keeping the nuance of this struggle in my mind, I do have to commit to enemy-love as a disciple of Jesus. We ultimately respond with love. Why?
Because this is the ultimate path to liberation.
Because “how we are at the small scale is how we are at the large scale.”
Because to fight against the violence of the world I need to fight against the seed of violence within me.
Because as Francis of Assisi said, “Can true humility and compassion exist in our words and eyes unless we know we too are capable of any act?”
We need to be able to recognise the violence within us, the white supremacy within us, the potential dictator within us, the abuser within us – to be able to liberate ourselves from these things. As Buddhist teacher and activist angel Kyodo Williams says we ultimately bring down violent capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy by “reclaiming the human spirit”. By operating out of what I would call our Christ-nature, rather than out of ego and fear.
We reclaim our own human spirit, and by acting out of nonviolence and love to enemies (while also fighting against them) we begin to reclaim the human spirit of our enemies, of the people who are the vehicles of that oppression and violence.
It's not just that this is a good tactic (though I think it is). It's that it plugs us in to the very nature of the Universe/God. This fractal universe where your veins look like rivers, and the swirl of your coffee looks like the Milky Way, this quantum universe where there's more mysterious entanglement than we can understand, invites us to awaken to this: how we are at the small scale is how we are at the large scale.
And in the spiritual practice of contemplative prayer, and the emotional practice of doing community, and in the mistakes, and the forgiveness, and the conflict, and the confession, and the repentance, we begin to reclaim the human spirit, piece by piece. And we begin to learn to love our enemies, and reject violence on the small scale, on the spiritual scale, on the interpersonal scale, as much as on the global scale.
This is how I try to practice this: When I've been at the Pride parade, and the religious protestors are there with their big old signs, I never forget to shout at them, “BLESS you!” And yes, part of me is pronouncing “bless” as a four-letter word. But I do mean it: I want them to be blessed, I want them to reclaim their human spirit and experience the gospel of love.
The other thing I've learnt to do is respond to cold callers and telephone scammers with love. For a while I was also getting the kind of calls that said, “We are from Microsoft and there is a virus on your computer that we need to get rid of.” It tended to happen every Monday morning. And of course if you let them, and do as they ask, they will take control of your computer and cause havoc. Now my immediate reaction used to be just to put the phone down. Because I really dislike confrontation, especially on the phone. That puts me right out of my comfort zone.
But then I decided to treat these phone calls as little exercises in being assertive. I'd get a phone call, and I'd play a game: I wouldn't let them take control of my computer, but I would keep talking to them for as long as possible. I would never hang up, I would always get them to hang up first, and as I long as they hung up first, I'd win the game. And I'd also just try to keep them on the line for as long as possible: five minutes, six minutes, seven minutes. I was always trying to beat my record. I would go slowly, ask them questions, just try to play for time. I thought that if they were talking to me then at least they weren't scamming some other more vulnerable person. Eventually they would get sick of me and put the phone down.
Then I saw a Youtube video where someone had actually got one of these people talking, and they said, “Yeah, I'm not proud of myself, but I don't have many options, I can't really leave.” And I realised that the people making these phone calls (my enemies in this game) were actually victims too: coerced to work for criminal gangs, probably in some kind of debt-labour, exploited. And since then, after wasting their time for five minutes, I started saying to them: “Can I talk to you as a human being? You're a human being. I'm a human being. I don't know you. You don't know me. But we are humans on this planet, and I just want to say: I love you. I love you. I am sending love to you. I don't know what your situation is, but it can't be a good situation. You're involved in this criminal act and it's not good. It's not good. I don't know if you can get out of the situation you're in, but I hope you can. There's not much I can do. But I want to say: you are a human being, and I love you. I am sending love to you. And please please get out of this situation. I really hope you can. I give you all my best.” And after a few moments of quiet they usually said, “Thank you” and we ended the conversation like we were friends.
Doing it once doesn't magically change the world. This is a lifelong practice. But to love enemies, to practice at the small scale what we want on the big scale, to live and learn in the messiness of human meeting, plugs us into the fractal nature of the universe. And that is the true liberation of the human spirit.