Loving Your Imaginary Enemies (Matthew 5:43-48)

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(This post was inspired by a TED talk by Ronny Edry, telling the story of how he accidentally created an online movement for peace in the Middle East. It’s well worth a listen.)

“Love your enemies” Jesus said, but it’s not always that easy, is it? What about the people who troll us and bully us, who betray and abuse us? Taking that terrifying initial step towards forgiveness is important, yes, but easy? No way, and I don’t want to trivialise that.

But there are two kinds of enemies – the real ones, the individuals who have genuinely caused us harm, and the other kind. Or rather, the Other.

In the talk I linked to earlier, Israeli Ronny Edry describes how he posted a Facebook poster of himself saying “We love Iranians”. This was when war between the two countries seemed inevitable, and yet the poster had an unexpected reaction – people reciprocated, seeing those from the other side as individuals and giving them the opportunity to relate to each other as human beings, not as some amorphous group of enemies.

A while back, I was in Cairo on business, and on the flight home, I overheard a conversation in which people were blaming Israel for shark attacks in Sharm el-Sheikh. Now, I’m not going to pretend to be an expert in Middle Eastern politics, but I’m pretty sure Israel doesn’t command a navy full of remote controlled sharks. It’s a story of what happens when one group perceives another simply as the Enemy, the Other – the truth of the situation, the humanity, gets subsumed in conspiracy theories and prejudice and fear.

And so we get proclamations that gay people are responsible for hurricanes, that Muslims are all barely-undercover terrorists, that Israel hypnotises sharks to attack Arabs. In the UK, attacks on the disabled are increasing and those claiming state benefits are somehow responsible for a precarious global economy. “Look at them,” say the whispers in the media, in pubs, on Facebook, “They’re the Other. They’re the Enemy. Fear them.”

Fear. This is what all this is rooted in. An enemy has been created and we’re told to fear them, and let’s not kid ourselves, the Church has been complicit in this thinking. For all we say we believe in the supremacy of God, we act awfully scared sometimes.

“Perfect love drives out fear,” wrote John, and maybe we can link this to Jesus commanding us to love our enemies. Because how often are our enemies not a genuine threat but people we’ve been told, for no good reason, to be afraid of? How often did Jesus reach out to ‘enemies’ and outsiders, simply because he loved them as individuals? He wasn’t scared of the Other – why should he be? He wasn’t motivated by fear.

It’s a new year. Maybe it’s time to take a fresh look at how we view the world, to re-examine some false dichotomies and see people as people, individuals to be loved and enemies no longer.

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