Monday, September 15, 2008

do good

“Love your enemies, do favors for those who hate you.”
-- Luke 6:27

This is the hardest, most paradoxical of commandments. It makes no sense: how can I love an enemy? If I love him, he is not my enemy. Is that the point? That friendship is mutual, and enemyship the same? So if I love my enemy he is no longer my enemy. He might not be my friend, but he is no longer my foe. Is that what Yeshua had in mind?

Karen says (August 5), “I've always wondered if ‘love your enemies’ wasn't a mistranslation.” It’s a good translation, but English can’t convey the precision of the word “love.” Agapate: a commandment, an imperative verb-form related to agape, one of three words for love. Yeshua commands us to extend agape to those who hate us. How can he dare to command our feelings

Feelings, as your shrink will tell you, are what they are – we do not choose them, though we can name them, know them, lead them, follow them, deny them or disconnect them. But agape is the most rational of loves – it is the love that we can choose.

Eros is the body’s desire to unite with other bodies. Philia is a more generalized desire to “press the flesh” through fellowship and mutuality. The lexicon says that agape is not so much what we feel as what we do, based on “evaluation and choice.” Agape is what God gives us, and what God asks of us in return. God is sometimes angry with us for good reason, and we with God. Feel what you must – happy sad friendly hostile – but Agapate.

So the commandment is not about our feelings. I don’t have to cherish the lover who harms me. I don’t have to “feel the pain” of the comrade who betrays me. I don’t have to like Slobodan Milosevic. Yeshua says, “Don’t get bent out of shape. Don’t let your enemy deform you. Don’t descend to his lowest level. Don’t scrabble in the dirt just because she did.” Continue to love kindness, and do justice, and walk humbly.

There are foolish enemies and smart enemies. Foolish enemies are the ones we can laugh off. They fall on their faces and take nothing from us; or they take from us what we never wanted anyway. Sometimes we can make ambitious enemies foolish by withdrawing desire from what they want to take. We can even do this retroactively, by declaring that the thing our enemy took is something we never wanted. Or that we should not have wanted it – and then we thank the would-be enemy for teaching us that our better self never wanted what they took. Thus we deny foolish enemies the very status of enemy. We belittle and disarm them. They never harmed us, and thus we defeat them. “Love your enemies: it’ll drive them crazy.” So many people have said it that I don’t know who I stole it from.

But there are also smart enemies, who do irreparable damage. They steal innocence and savage souls. Like Mohammed Attah and Timothy McVeigh, they take from us what we ought most dearly to want, that cannot be restored to us. Sometimes they do this in a frenzy of false self-preservation. There are a few who do it for the joy of it. Such enemies wound us in vital organs of the soul, and no one – certainly not Yeshua – can tell us to laugh it off. I shall not turn my other cheek. I shall not go back to my abuser. Not until I know how to render my smart enemy foolish. I do not know when, or if, that day may come.

Agapate and agathopoieite. Love your enemies and do good. It’s not always possible to forgive, particularly where there is no remorse. More likely, I think, is to forget. No, “forget” is not the exact word: a holocaust must never be forgotten. But we can distract ourselves by doing good, until the injury is no longer our obsession. Survival, they say, is the best revenge. Survival with access to memory. Love those that can be loved. Render to enemies what is theirs, which includes justice but not vendetta. Protect from them what is precious. Agathopoieite.

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