Thursday, February 13, 2020

The Politics of Loving Our Enemies

Christians who are serious about following Jesus seek to view the situation in the world today with the "eyes of faith." What we see, and endeavor to respect and promote in every way, is the inherent value, the unique preciousness of every human person created in the image of God and loved by Jesus. This recognition doesn't provide any easy solutions to the enormously complex problems people face in our world, but it invests with ardor and focus our commitment to engage these problems.

In politics and in the work of building a more just and equitable society, Christians collaborate with people of other religions or existential stances, with anyone who is dedicated to the transcendent and inviolable dignity of the human person. Not surprisingly, we have very real opponents in the current political and social realm. This ideological and practical opposition involves more than differences of opinion (of which we have plenty among ourselves). We have opponents who are aggressive, who want to undermine our work, and who actively perpetrate violence, confusion, and disorder in the world. Their efforts (in practice at least, if not in theory) attack the dignity of the human person.

In a certain respect, we cannot help perceiving them as "enemies" even if we are determined not to judge people, but rather to focus on the good and foster it as best we can in society. Even when we try to view individual persons and their motivations in the best possible light, we cannot deny that there are people and groups who engage in or advocate some very bad things in many societies. They sabotage the work of others who are struggling to live in peace and in economic and cultural conditions worthy of their humanity.

Indeed, we see all over our world forces trampling over the good with raw and obvious contempt for human dignity. We may try to seek justice from our current governments, but all too often these destructive forces are permitted, favored, or even unleashed by political leaders themselves.

What can we do?

We certainly cannot capitulate to being redefined by the ongoing social and cultural "revolution" fueled by the desperate alienation of our confusing times. (And it should be noted that this revolution — even as it claims victory and promulgates itself as the new measure of normality and common sense — is already breaking into fragments, engendering new forms of dissent, new factions, and new animosities.)

This makes it pretty clear that we have to regard some political leaders, groups, and cultural influencers as "enemies" — not in their humanity-as-such nor with regard to the good that is in them (and often they have very much good, and accomplish good and admirable things in certain contexts) — but only insofar as they actively promote an inhuman agenda or their own selfish whims or a pathological cult of personality as the norm for the common good in society. And even though they are "enemies" to the degree that they participate in destructive activity, we must still love them as human persons.

We cannot permit ourselves to hate — that is, to will evil precisely as evil toward any human person. Hatred is never an option for the Christian or for anyone who seeks the good with a sincere heart. But we must do more than refrain from hatred. We must love our enemies. This love is not a sentimental or emotional state, but a firm commitment of our freedom, to will what is truly good for them as persons, as brothers and sisters. We can love our enemies and still be "angry at them" because of what they are doing. But the work of cultivating agape as active love seeks to encompass all the natural human impulses and transform them into vital energies at the service of love. This is difficult work, but Christians have confidence that they will make progress in the ways of love through the One who is at work in them.

Loving our enemies is fundamental to political action, and we shall return to it again and again. Love — the commitment to the good of the person and the actions that flow from it — is the only dynamic that can generate change and true progress in the world.

We have seen the most obvious way to identify a "political enemy." But when we look to other public figures who claim to oppose some of the bad things our "enemies" want, we soon find that these would-be allies are not much better. Usually, if we're honest with ourselves, we realize that we can't trust them. They may in fact be our "enemies" in other respects that we don't yet perceive as such. They may be trying to co-opt our desire for justice and goodness into their own (ultimately violent) ideology. Or perhaps they are persons of such poor character or psychological instability that they are virtually insupportable as political custodians of the common good.

In any case, today's political game involves using the enormous power of communications media to "get inside people's heads." Political campaigns forcefully (and mendaciously) manipulate images to generate impressions (and illusions) about the office-seekers they promote and their opponents. As a result, we increasingly find ourselves at election time in a situation where all the candidates on the ballot are demagogues playing on the diverse, particular needs, fears, and overall sentiments and prejudices of their factions.

What can we do when the scramble to attain (and hold onto) public office inevitably favors politicians who are in one way or another inimical to our core convictions? We may face situations in which all candidates are likely to obfuscate, violate, or work against what we are convinced is the essential, integrally human approach to preserving and fostering the common good of a society of human persons called to live in communion.

When it comes to politics, I think many Christians stick with the "lesser evil argument" and therefore have no political enthusiasm. They try to withdraw from association with any of the shady characters of the political class, but they will "hold their noses" when election time comes and vote one way or another, for the candidate whose victory seems to them to be the "lesser evil."

This is an understandable strategy. But in this time of immersive, pervasive, invasive multimedia, once you pick a candidate it's harder than ever to escape the pull of partisanship, of wanting to belong to the winning tribe. Christians and other very fine people in my own country and elsewhere inevitably feel this force.

We must be aware of the influence of this pull toward factionalism, and how it can subtly manipulate our inclinations and constrict with an unwarranted narrowness the contours of our perception of political and social life. In our times, new and belligerent "tribes" are emerging, united by common orientations of sentimentality, desire, fear, and unconsidered impulses and aspirations driven by images of a violent "victory" over dehumanized "enemies."

If we allow the impulses of the new tribalism to take over within us, it will become harder and harder to recognize our political enemies as human persons worthy of love. And if we forget to love them, we will be drawn into an arrogant, dismissive hostility toward them. We will begin to hate them.

We must guard ourselves against these things. We must remember who we are. We must pray, humble ourselves before the Lord, and beg that in politics as in all things we might be grounded in the merciful and loving heart of Jesus.