Dangerous Idea: Love Your Enemy

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Dangerous Ideas is a recurring segment where we give our notable guests a platform for their most provocative or playful ideas — revolutionary thinking that could change the world. You can hear more here.

Hello, I’m Karen Armstrong, author of Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, and my dangerous idea is that we should love our enemies.

This is a very famous saying of Jesus, of course, but it’s often misunderstood. The word “love” in the ancient near East was a political term, a legal term used in international treaties. Two kings, who had previously been enemies, would promise to “love” each other, which didn’t mean that they would fall into each other’s arms and feel tender affection for one another, or even like them. But that they would look out for one another and give each other practical help. That they would come to their aid whenever they were in trouble, even if this went against their short term interests. And that they would live together in peace.

I think now, in our dangerously polarized, globalized world, that unless we learn to treat all peoples — whoever they are — as we would wish to be treated ourselves, we’re not going to have a viable world for the next generation. We need to treat our so-called “enemies” in that way, giving them practical help rather than guns, and understanding their real situation. Why? Because very often, the people who are our enemies have been injured by us.

I’m thinking of the story of Jacob and Esau in the book of Genesis. This is a political allegory; Jacob represents Israel, we’re told, and Esau represents the neighboring kingdom of Edom, with which Israel had trouble. But they were brothers — that is the point. The story shows they could not live without one another, nor with one another easily. They were brothers, they were also twins. Very often, when we meditate on our enemies’ faults and failings, we tend to become like him. We look into our enemy’s eyes and we see ourselves.

We British, for example, have helped to create the mess in the Middle East, and did much to destabilize the social relations in the Indian subcontinent. Our histories are therefore intertwined. These enemies of ours are almost our own creation. And when we look into the eyes of our enemies, sometimes we see the results of our disdain. We learn to love our enemies by realizing that we ourselves are also at fault, that goodness rarely presides on one side only, that the doctrine of karma comes into play, that actions always have an effect. And it means that we have to have a certain self-knowledge, and be prepared to come off our high horse. We have to remember that a lot of evil results from suffering and humiliation of which we might be one of the causes.