My cell leader apprentice, Holly, is a college professor and she has invited me to speak in her philosophy class for the last two semesters. It is has been a treat each time. This time, the subject was rather complex… in essence, how do you love your enemy?
Beyond the recent current events (attacks in Brussels, hi-jacking in Egypt, attacks in Pakistan), it is already my proclivity to consider political enemies when I think about my enemies, and so I move toward peace and peacemaking as my way of solving this dictum from Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount. I told the students stories about how Circle of Hope’s love for peace saved my faith, why peace was still good to strive for even if it was impractical, how American exceptionalism is a kind of civil religion that may be idolatrous, and finally, how to love those that disagree with you.
I thought I was getting the attention of the kids, but when I threw around terms like “military industrial complex,” “Islamic State,” and “war machine,” and made references to some recent current events, I saw the eyes of some undergraduates gloss over. It wasn’t the beautiful weather, I suspect, that caused them too zone out. I think I assumed they were following international affairs as closely as I was. Mistake!
I don’t think they were totally lost, but when our enemies are far away and attacking Europe and the Middle East, it doesn’t seem to be so hard to abstractly love them or even to be engaged in hatred toward them. “Terrorists” get lumped into large categories, and considering ideological and systemic reasons for their actions is just not as urgent. My Christian responsibility causes me to care for suffering around the world, and it does help that my brown skin automatically relates me to much of the violence in the Middle East. When an EgyptAir flight gets hi-jacked, it is personal for me. I have family in Egypt. I’ve been on an EgyptAir flight! I can understand why it isn’t personal for others.
There were some hypothetical questions (“Do you support the military?” “What do you do if your country was attacked?”). I don’t think of myself as a policy expert and much of my political interest is akin to my sports fandom. I don’t feel responsible to make the violent system of the state work; I don’t even believe in it. It isn’t surprising to me that our heads of states don’t have good ideas beyond violence, because I think nation-states necessitate wealth and domination goals. So I’m often at a loss for peaceful political solutions. Terrorist attacks often leave me at a loss for words, asking questions that I can only answer with prayer and the transformation of Jesus. I’m a Christian, and that is the rod by which all of my actions are measured and the fountain from which my thoughts and actions spring up. It wasn’t an interesting political discussion, but it was a real one for me. My peacemaking conviction is rooted in the Gospel, not in a practical political ideology.
But the discussion did get interesting when the students started asking me questions that were more personal. Not sure why I did not start there, but lesson learned. The personal ones were more interesting: “What would you do if an intruder came into your house and threatened your family?” I did acknowledge that the best weapons I had were a nail gun and an eight-inch chef’s knife, so in addition to my lack of combat skills, my weaponry just wasn’t up-to-par. I’d probably call the cops if that happened. But if it were up to me alone, I might act violently. I’m an emotional guy and I love my family.
I don’t think Jesus’ clear call to nonviolence, his submission to the cross being the cornerstone of his example, is a requirement for perfect action. In fact, it is because of the cross that we can fail and try again; that we can sin and be forgiven. But grace, like Paul says, is not something to be abused. It is not a license to sin. So we try to move with the transformation of Jesus while we still remember the echoes of the ways of the world.
One basic strategy for not reacting angrily and violently when tragedy strikes us is to mentalize and discern what action and life God has for us. We can use the community that we have, the minds we’ve been given, the experience contained in the Bible, and a developed interior life to consider alternative ways of acting, and to imagine creative ideas to act nonviolently. Premeditating this course of action with a sober mind is perhaps the best time for clear thinking and discernment.
Suffice it to say, that without relating to God, much of this will seem desperately impractical and unsolvable. Victims of gun violence in the U.S. and of terror attacks internationally probably do not want to hear some intellectual discussion on the merits of nonviolence. They may want vengeance, safety, or security. The state has monopolized how we even consider these things, so it is completely understandable to me why, when tragedy strikes, the thoughts of peacemakers can quickly come under fire.
I suppose then, the first things I can hold to are faith, hope, and trust in God. If I do not have those, I think the high calling of a Christian peacemaker is just distant and irrational. Let’s start there then.