Love your enemy, and love your neighbor as yourself has been a recurrent theme among many Facebook friends from different parts of the political spectrum. It’s good to see. Quite a change from incessant name calling. Perhaps it’s only coincidental that liturgical churches have for several weeks been hearing a portion of the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew’s gospel in which Jesus makes it a major point. I’d like to think the gospel message has had something to do with it. In any case, for Christians, loving neighbors and enemies dominates the liturgical entry into Lent, bringing up my own lenten discipline. It’s the same one I’ve had for several years, and is likely to continue for all my Lents to come. Regular readers might recall that it goes something like this: Loving my enemies is not difficult because I don’t have any I can think of. Not real enemies, personal enemies who want to do me harm. What’s hard is loving the people I don’t like, some of whom are literally my neighbors. That’s what I work on each Lent, and intend to keep working on. Not that I don’t work on it the rest of the year, but Lent is a time of special, prayerful intentionality.
How hard is it to love people I don’t like? Consider this example. We’re on vacation right now, which, for a retired person is something of an oxymoron, but what else can you call it? Anyway, the beach condo we’ve rented is of an age and design where private conversations are not easy to have. Our neighbors on one side are owners living here each winter before returning to the mainland. What they say and how they say it is often ours to hear whether we want to or not. What have we heard? A husband who in public is a loud hale fellow well met. In private he’s loudly, abusively mean spirited toward his wife, if he says anything at all. Normal conversation appears to be absent. Their politics are Trumpian. They can’t let go of their disgusted distaste of Obama. It overflows into vigorous defense of all the wonderful things they expect from Trump. The media is so unfair to him. In the presence of guests, he requires only a few drinks to launch into assertions brooking no contradiction, the verity of which is establish in pugnacious decibels. It’s not conversation. It’s a sermon expecting only acquiescent amens. Is it any threat to me? No. Does it interfere with my life in any substantive way? No. I know them only in passing, and only during the six weeks we are here. Why should I care? I don’t know. I only know that I don’t like them, and especially don’t like him. But, and it’s a huge but, they are my neighbors, and I am theirs.
Can I learn to love a person I don’t like? Wouldn’t that mean getting to know him when I don’t want to know him any better than I do? If I have to love my neighbor as myself, can I pick another neighbor? Can I learn to love him as Jesus no doubt does? What would that be like? These are serious questions, one’s I’ve been struggling with for any number of Lents. Would it require a sense of warm affection for the image of God in which he was created? It’s in there somewhere, but I don’t see any evidence of it. Of course I’m not looking very hard. Does my dislike of a person I don’t even know that well diminish God’s Spirit within me? Would I think differently if I knew the story of his life? God certainly knows it. Maybe I could assign him to a dark corner of soon forgotten moments. Forget about it. Who cares? Why make it an issue at all? Since my annual Lenten discipline is to learn how to love the people I don’t like, and we are approaching Lent, this particular neighbor and his wife seem particularly well placed. Is this another one of God’s little jokes? As the years have gone by progress has been elusive, but the questions remain.
Maybe you are better at it. How’s it coming along? Loving those who love you is easy. As Jesus said, anyone can do it. You get no credit for doing that. Loving the idea of enemies is a snap because, as long as they remain abstractions, you can love them abstractly, knowing that real intimacy is unlikely. Loving real enemies might be another story. Loving neighbors requires a little more effort. It too remains an abstraction as long as walls and doors are thick enough. The sliver of concreteness that comes across the backyard fence can be kept at arms length. If it turns out that you like them, so much the better. What about loving those you don’t like? Who do I know that is able to do that? From what I hear, Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama seem to, but I don’t personally know them. A retired priest friend does, but with a naive ability to be completely unaware of the aura of moral dislikability that surrounds some people. There doesn’t appear to be anybody he doesn’t like. Maybe he’s right. Being unaware of what is unlikeable opens the door to loving the other. Chauncey Gardiner’s (“Being There”) naive innocence was the key to simple straight forward love of the other without prejudice. Me? Prejudice and I know each other well.
So here we are. Lent is nearly here, and it’s time to get started once again. They guy next door is providing all the fodder I need to chew on for now.