Recognize and Love Your Enemies

Apr 29th, 2012 • Category: Sermons - Rev. Charles Stephens, Minister Emeritus


Karen Armstrong’s last step to a compassionate life is a doozie. Love our enemies. It is a good thing she adds that a compassionate life takes a lifetime. Her how-to book is different from any other how-to book in that the process never ends. She warns that following her self-help book to live a compassionate life will not lead to a flat stomach and a compassionate heart. It is an unending journey.

It helps to review the process a little. Armstrong indicates that there is a great deal of learning involved in trying to follow the Golden Rule. The process challenges us to realize that we are not alone in suffering. We need to realize and accept that everybody has pain and suffering. A key to living a compassionate life is allowing the unhappiness and suffering of others invade our personal consciousness. We actually need to train ourselves to allow others into our hearts. Buddhists call this, “the ability to bear sight on another’s sorrow as our own.”

We need to wean ourselves gradually away from our addiction to old reptilian brain habits of me first for personal survival. To do this we need to integrate compassionate habits of mind and then actions into our daily practice.

Normally, we react to pain by trying to ignore it, our own as well as the pain of others. Our instinctual reaction is to shove pain out of our consciousness and try to pretend that it has nothing to do with us. You know, just smile and move on.

Why should we do otherwise?  For an answer, look at the Hebrew story of Jacob returning to the land of his twin brother Esau. Years before, Jacob had tricked Esau out of his birthright and had then run off. When Jacob wanted to return, he knew that his brother, Esau, had grown wealthy and powerful, and he feared that Esau would get even with him for his trickery. The night before he was to meet Esau, Jacob wrestled in a dream with what might happen. He feared the worst, but Esau was happy to have his brother back.

What happens when you react with fear, anger or resentment toward someone?  Armstrong says that when we do this, the other tends to inhabit our mind. When our negative, angry emotions focus on a personal or collective enemy, it becomes a deviant form of meditation and the enemy slowly becomes our twin, the shadow side of self that we come to resemble, like the twins Jacob and Esau.

How can we change?  The Golden Rule teaches that we can start by valuing ourselves. Then we can move on to valuing the people of our tribe and then valuing the people of our nation as much as we value self. Ultimately, we can strive to value those we consider enemies. We feel that we need to defeat them. Nationally, we may think that we need to go to war against them.

The Dalai Lama, however, challenges us with the concept that war is outdated. It does not make sense. Look at the history of war. When one people or country is defeated that country will very likely rebound and take vengeance. Even if we think that at one time war did make sense, we need to reevaluate it as an outmoded idea. In our interconnected world, violence always recoils upon the perpetrator.

Lao Tzu, an ancient and very wise teacher makes the point that war did not make sense thousands of years ago. The book attributed to him, the Tao Te Ching, is read by most as devotional writing. Yet, the Tao Te Ching was originally written as a manual of statecraft. Lao Tzu wrote:

The good leader in war is not warlike
The good fighter is not impetuous;
The best conqueror of the enemy is he who never takes the offensive.
The man who gets the most out of men is the one who treats them with humility.

That is not our instinctive response to opposition is it?

It is interesting to note, that Tai Chi, a form of moving meditation that I have practiced for many years is associated with Taoism. Some of the elements of Lao Tzu’s teachings set the climate for Tai Chi. Lao Tzu wrote:

Yield and overcome;
Bend and be straight. — Tao Te Ching (22)

He who stands of tiptoe is not steady.
He who strides cannot maintain the pace. (24)

Stiff and unbending is the principle of death.
Gentle and yielding is the principle of life.

Thus an Army without flexibility never wins a battle.
A tree that is unbending is easily broken.

The hard and strong will fall.
The soft and weak will overcome.

Armstrong mentions a word, Ahimsa, a Sanskrit word that literally means the avoidance of violence. It is an important part of the Indian religions of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. Fascinating for me personally, is that my father-in-law and-mother in-law, upon graduating from college during the beginning of World War II, started a small communal community that they called Ahimsa. The people who formed that group became active Conscientious Objectors to war and violence and thus participants in civil disobedience. For my father-in-law Bronson Clark, it resulted in a five-year prison sentence. The commitment to Ahimsa came to them through a professor from India who advocated the ideas of Mohandas Gandhi who practiced the avoidance of verbal and physical violence.

What are the implications for us?  Living a Compassionate Life is a process; it takes time and is never finished. It helps to understand that compassion is not a sentiment of emotional tenderness. When Jesus spoke about loving your neighbor, he used the word love or compassion as an agreement between two kings. To love each other meant to be helpful and loyal and give practical assistance and support. You need not even like the person with whom you are compassionate.

Our challenge is to practice living a compassionate life. So begin in stages. Start with self. Then move on to someone you really hate.  Remember, often we are twinned with them and may come to resemble them. Then recognize the distress of the enemy. Learn the history of their being oppressed.

Have faith, practice can change behavioral patterns, even of hostility and suspicion. Look into your enemy’s eyes and see there, the suffering and image of your very own distress.

The future of world peace is in the hands of everyday people like those I met in Israel and Palestine. They had lost children and other family members to hate, violence and unending war. Yet, they came together to work for peace – suffering can create a bond that transcends political divisions.

I challenge you to strive to practice living a compassionate life. Realize that to do so is a lifelong process.

Armstrong ends her book; with the following words; “There is no more to be said. We know what we have to do. This is the end of the book, but our work is just beginning.”

That is what I mean when at the end of our service I say, “Go in peace, but not for long.”

Rev. Charles J. Stephens