During a recent visit one of my family members was recounting a trip they had taken to Europe. On the trip they had visited several churches. In one of them the congregants had written letters to members of ISIS and read them to the congregation.
This family member was recounting with shock and amazement that these parishioners would call members of ISIS “brothers” and claim to be “praying for them every day.”
I was a little shocked that the family member was shocked.
One of the most well-known passages of the New Testament is Christ’s invitation to “love our enemies.” Maybe we tend to muffle that passage by thinking it refers to fans of the other team or a colleague vying for the same promotion. Not literally those who would kill us if they could.
It seems like an impossible standard. But that’s only true if we stay at our default level of consciousness in which we cling to our various identities – nationality, family, ethnicity, faith community, and so on. If these become obstacles to compassion for others – for any others – they are to be cast aside.
The implicit assumption in my family member’s story is that, as Christians and as Westerners, the members of ISIS are no longer people, but an unmitigated evil, a clear and present danger to not only our freedom, but our faith. They are not the lovable enemy, just the enemy.
But someone in the church they visited took the gospel as something more than a marketing strategy to get other people to be more like us. They chose to see through the external labels and the layers of unconscious behavior down to some kind of shared essence.
A different kind of love is meant here than the way we usually understand the term. Love means at all times seeking the wholeness of others to whatever extent possible. At times we will have deep inner resources to help bring this about. At other times we won’t. But the goal remains the same. And it requires seeing through to the common rootedness in spirit of every being, however distorted their actions may have become. Naïve? Unrealistic? At a lower level of consciousness, absolutely. That’s why the contemplative path stresses a disciplined practice of letting go of those aspects of ourselves that prevent this way of being.
The phrase itself “to love an enemy” introduces two different levels of consciousness, the dualistic and the unitive. To have an enemy is to see the world through the surface dualism only, to split it into mine vs. yours, into us vs. them. In unitive consciousness there is only us. It’s a call to a kind of radical selflessness, a radically inclusive embrace, which may require us to shed the identities that keep us separated from others. But, as Richard Rohr puts it, religion is one of the best places to hide from God. It can create more categories of separation rather than foster a spirit of inclusion.
As the Eastern teacher Shunyamurti says, when people join a religion they immediately want to start converting others so they can avoid the hard work of self-awareness and transformation.
Eckhart Tolle tells the story of a pastor preaching about the passage on loving our enemies, and asking the congregation “Is there anyone here who doesn’t have enemies?” A little old lady raises her hand. “Won’t you come up and share with us how to live in such a way as to not have any enemies?” The old lady comes up, takes the microphone gingerly and says “I outlived all those bitches!” Not quite what we’re after.
The contemplative path, the mystical journey, these are metaphors for the process of genuine divestiture of the self. This process is by no means immediate or even linear, but it is very real, and requires intention, dedication, and commitment.
Once we tap into that little lower layer, that deeper awareness that says all matter is rooted in spirit, we take a much different approach to our relationships with others. We extend a grace to others as vast as the grace we enjoy ourselves.
Once we see our own hidden processes at work and understand the extent to which our destructiveness and addictions, our anger and misuse of others is rooted in some form or other in our own unconscious wounds, it changes how we see everyone else, too.
We tend to apply teachings like this to ourselves. Christ forgave a murderer from the cross. No matter what we’ve done, we still have access to grace, is what we hear, and we feel reassured. It’s a little more difficult to be the one capable of this kind of forgiveness.
We see distortion for what it is. That doesn’t mean we don’t take steps to fight injustice or protect ourselves and others using common sense and reason. But as an overall orientation and posture towards others, this is a radical move from our ordinary awareness, our normal patterns, our default consciousness. Getting there requires diligent cultivation.