A Return to a Central 606 Question: How Do We Love Our Enemies?

Hi Joel,

It’s been a struggle lately (or, more honestly, I’ve often just given up) to love my enemies. I think you know what I mean: when people we once cared for us disappoint us so intensely that we question whether there was love there at all.

But, for Christians, this is an order from Jesus: We must. This is just another variation on his theme: Love God, love thy neighbor as thyself, and love your enemies. Jesus is clear about who are neighbors are: everyone. And he’s clear about who our enemies are: those who would persecute us. He also gives us many examples of loving our neighbors and our enemies: He feeds them. He suffers with them. He heals them. He doesn’t use violence against them. In fact, he treats his friends and his enemies pretty much the same—perhaps most clearly illustrated in his treatment of Judas.

But how? How now? How interpersonally? How collectively? For what reasons? And how, when these people are espousing terrible, even genocidal, ideas?

And, for practical reasons, how do we do it now, with Homecoming bringing us back to our high schools and colleges and Thanksgiving bringing us back to our families?

These are big questions, and I hope we keep coming back to them. (I’ll be coming back to them, anyway, and I hope our readers join us.) But, first, some caveats: what I suggest here isn’t for everyone or for every situation. First, non-Christians are under no mandate to love their enemies. Second, loving your enemies is not a code word for accepting abuse or ignoring injustice. Mennonites in particular have used the concepts of “forgiveness” and “community” to protect abusers (which is to say, to a very great extent). A millstone around every neck that has abused Jesus’ words this way. (Is hoping that people drown unloving? Shoot! You see how complicated it gets when we start quoting Jesus?) Third, there are many ways to combat hate, and we don’t all have to employ each of them.


For more than a dozen years now, I have worked in the field of hate studies, which means that I think a lot about this kind of question—what can/should/do we do with/to people we deem hateful—a lot . As an area of study, hate studies includes a lot of criminologists and sociologists interested in deviance. They do important work tracking hate groups and examining hate crimes. In general, they frame hate activity as deviance, the breaking of a norm. It is seen as exceptional to the human experience. Those who hate are labeled as deviant, unworthy, sometimes criminal. When they hurt someone, they are called outsiders, drifters, not “like” those in the communities from which they come. “This,” the community says, pointing fingers at the reviled hater, “isn’t us.” (See Clara S. Lewis’ fantastic book Tough on Hate? The Cultural Politics of Hate Crime for more on this.)

I argue against this framework, which says that hate is felt and hateful acts committed by certain “kinds of people” (bad guys) and opposed by others (good guys). Hateful acts aren’t merely the aberrant act of a morally deficient social outcast. Hate is deeply embedded in our culture, including our institutions and structures. Rather than asking “What kind of person hates and how do we neutralize them?” I am interested in the questions like “What fertilizes the ground that hate falls on? Who ignores its growth? Who benefits from it? Why does hate so easily align with our American values? Why is it such a comfortable fit in our culture? And how do we change our culture so that hate becomes not just impossible but unthinkable?”

One way we can love our enemies is by changing the ground. We can change our culture so that it is not a fertile place for hate to grow. We can’t necessarily prevent someone else from sowing seeds of hate, but we can prevent the culture in which they fall from nurturing them.

This is true in a heart-to-heart way. It’s why we adopt anti-racist, feminist parenting strategies, for example. It’s why I teach.

See the source imageAbove, yes, it would be easy to mock this young man or to vilify him. Doing either may have strategic value at some point. But what if we instead see him as mistaken? If we structured our society so that he has better options than the hate he has chosen–and so that the hateful options are unthinkable?

But we can also structure our culture differently so that hate just isn’t appealing. We can make it nonsensical, silly, archaic, disgusting, or even bemusing. We can undermine hate by poking fun at it, by treating it as abhorrent (which, ultimately, is why I’m okay with yelling at politicians in restaurants), or by approaching it analytically, with a kind of condescension that we use on things that are a puzzle to us. In my own research on anti-hate demonstrations, those protesting hate use three frames that rhetorician Kenneth Burke identified: tragic, comic, and burlesque. Tragic frames position the hater as an opponent to be defeated; burlesque ones position the hater as one to be mocked. Both have their places. But I find the comic frame most compelling. It positions the hater as one who is mistaken but can turn away from their mistake.  When you see, says Burke, “that all people are exposed to situations in which they must act as fools, that every insight contains its own special kind of blindness, you complete the comic circle, returning again to the lesson of humility that underlies great tragedy.”

So, how do we do that?

I don’t have a great answer for that yet, but we know it can be done because we’ve seen the reverse done: Trumpism has recalibrated the scale of what we are willing to tolerate as “hateful.” Trump didn’t just reveal or tap into the deep misogyny, ableism, racism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia of our culture. He and the culture he promotes are also persuasive in making people into haters. Indeed, there are people who are new to this culture who wouldn’t have been part of it before. Trumpism normalizes this behavior—and then works to codify it, for example with attacks on the ADA or efforts to erase trans people.

We don’t have to wait for these changes to our cultural ground to just happen. We can be strategic about making them happen. In fact, I think we have to and I think that this is part of loving our enemies.


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