Reading John Caputo’s On Religion while the media muse over whether this year’s presidential election campaign is the most divisive in American history has me thinking.
In the book, Caputo takes up the Augustinian question “what do I love when I love my God?” and points to the statement ‘God is love,’ for illumination. Some simple substitution might hint at an answer to the question: when you love God, you love love. I think that, semantically, this makes the question a lot more accessible. It allows for the possibility that this question (and indeed also the Great Commandment) belongs to absolutely everyone regardless of labeling and affiliation.
If you’re getting worried I’m going to wander down some kind of theological rabbit hole, never fear. Let me just say that the question is unanswerable anyway. Defining and delimiting love simply isn’t possible. So we bear the onerous task of living in love without being able to define it. And yet love’s very limitlessness gives us a clue as to how to live in it.
Jesus’s celebrated (but underheeded) exhortation to love our enemies challenged a view that debased love by confining it to an in-group. And this wasn’t a mere call to welcome strangers and to treat them kindly, this was a true unchaining of love, a thrust in the direction of love’s limitlessness. To me, this is not some incidental quirk of Christianity, but rather lies at the heart of its fundamental value. It demonstrates how we are to live in love and therefore how to live in God. To love, we must love limitlessly, to love limitlessly, me must love our enemies. In short, if we do not love our enemies, we do not love our God.
Coming down from the rarefied air of this lofty pronouncement, let’s turn to the social climate I mentioned earlier. The media are keen on dramatizing and playing up (and even inflaming) divisions along political, ideological, religious, and other lines. But the media aren’t some altogether separate entity, entirely distinct from the rest of society. They are part of a feedback loop in which the narrative of who we are is created and recreated.
For all kinds of reasons, this story-telling process is like a rock-tumbler, making rough, many-faceted realities sleeker and shinier. Along the way, we lose nuance because it’s too time-consuming to contend with. We end up with convenient fictions like the Red State versus Blue State dichotomy. We then pick sides or perhaps see ourselves as ‘naturally’ belonging to one side or the other and circle the wagons despite the fact that it’s a bit like reading a description of your Chinese Zodiac animal, picking out the bits that fit you and being amazed at what a Tiger you really are.
It is obvious that groups of people cohere around certain constellations of ideas and values, but it is important to recognize at the same time that we are all threads in the social fabric of this country. In a way that eludes description, we make up America. We make it up in that we comprise it, but also in the sense that we are actively creating it, together, whether cooperatively or antagonistically. We as Americans are perpetually engaged in the task of creating America and that is the endeavor that unites us.
Any time people with diverse opinions and convictions collaborate, there will be disagreements. Disagreeing about something, however, even vehemently, should not be confused with enmity. Disagreement is the recognition of differing interests, emphases, and approaches and that’s it. It’s what we do with disagreement that’s critical. It’s clear in the case of our joint American project that something’s gone awry. There are Americans who deeply hate other Americans because of their beliefs or perceived beliefs. There are American who see other Americans as their enemies.
Let me put forward that November’s elections are not a reality TV show or a sporting event. And if we’d like to characterize them as battles and wars, then we’re warring against ourselves, against the interwoven social fabric of this nation. It’s one thing to hear despicable campaign ads on TV from both parties and from outside groups — deceitful, intentionally misleading memes that worm their way into our heads and fester, but what is truly alarming is that everyday Americans are becoming willing mercenaries willing to don the same armor and wield the same weapons of untruths, smearing, and vilification.
It starts with taking aim at a candidate and before long, even our neighbors, friends, and family are collateral damage. The mildest among us are busy unfriending anyone who expresses this or that opinion about a given issue. The more vociferous are saying things too ugly to repeat and even perpetrating physical and emotional violence. We’re picking sides, growing thirsty for a fight and all the while forgetting we’re a deeply interconnected network of hundreds of millions of people creating America through our actions and our words.
And by ‘we’, I do mean we. I feel very visceral apprehensions about the implications of these upcoming elections, of the choices we’re making and the actions we’re taking in America today. My knee-jerk reaction is to jump right in there, to dismiss as crazy or as ignorant the people who have views that differ from my own. I feel relief when I hear about a ‘victory’ for ‘our side’ and get angry and frustrated when I hear about setbacks in causes I believe in. But at the same time, I hear that still, small voice calling me to love love and to love my enemies. I also hear the same voice — a voice of reason — reminding me that I am threaded into this grand collaboration and that clawing madly at it, trying to destroy a portion of it, is causing the whole thing to unravel.
I’m not calling anyone to milquetoast moderation when it comes to the passion s/he feels about what is truly the best direction for society. You don’t have to set aside your values to see the humanity in the other people who have a stake in this country, the people you disagree with, the people you may even think you hate. But you do need to question your hatred which is thinly-veiled fear. You need to question how that hatred got there and who’s fueling it (and even with what money, especially this election cycle). You need to look in the mirror, in the texts that inform your beliefs, into your conscience, and ask if how you’re handling your legitimate concerns about your future in a counterproductive way that’s not only hurting others, but hurting you too.
So let’s make sure when we’re sharing and retweeting, repeating and rephrasing, that we are conscious about facts and about rhetoric. As someone who believes in the exhortation of Christ to love love, something that requires me to love my enemies or my perceived enemies, I feel compelled to take a little extra time to try and understand why people who believe so differently from me do believe what they do and, as importantly, what they fear. I have to ask also what they fear from me and what I can do to dispel misplaced fears. When I truly don’t understand, which happens more than I’d like, I still have to retain that this person, this fellow human is of value. My ideal self wants the best for them and wishes them no ill, but ideals mean nothing if they’re not lived out.
Beyond the suggestions that can ultimately be summed up as ‘stop and think before you act and speak’, I can’t answer for you how you should love your enemies, American and otherwise, this tumultuous election cycle. What I can tell you is that what you love when you love your enemies is love itself and so you absolutely must rise to the occasion, no matter how difficult or impossible it seems.
Michael Carl Budd writes, thinks too much, and doesn't stay in one place very long. He occasionally shares his thoughts at michaelcarl.wordpress.com, where a version of this piece was originally posted.