Jesus is a hard teacher. The most challenging of Jesus' lessons comes in Matthew 5:43-45. Right after He offers his followers the Beatitudes, Jesus doesn't just drop the mic. Instead, He offers the most profound challenge of all, one that seems directly contrary to human nature: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father..."
Love our enemies? What? In America, in 2021?! How could we possibly not just tolerate but actually love those we are being taught to despise, when social media and cable news feeds us a steady diet of how awful, how evil, those on the other side of the culture wars are?!
Most of us can't understand, much less love, those who voted for the other guy for President, who don't agree with us on masks, or vaccines, or on the true meaning of the American flag.
Does Jesus really want us to love those we disagree with? How about the Proud Boys or Antifa, folks who do such harm? How can we adults possibly teach our children to do that? Surely, Jesus isn't serious.
Jesus knows loving our enemies is hard. That's why He asks the rhetorical question, in the very next verse: If we just love those who love us, what reward should we expect for that? Everyone does that, He reminds us. Loving our friends, especially those who see the world the same way we do, is easy. But His way is not easy, as Jesus asks us to live a paradox: Love your enemies. Learn to see them as you do your brother and sister. And if they persecute you or spit at you or even harm you, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
A central insight of the Jesuit Christian Service program is that it is difficult to demonize someone with whom we have established a real relationship. Most of us have someone in our family with whom we profoundly disagree on fundamental issues. But they are our literal brothers and sisters. We have to actually talk to them, try to understand them, maybe even empathize with them. But strangers on the other side of the widening divide in our nation? Those who have a different view of Dr. Fauci than I do? Yankee fans? That's a different story.
In 2019, our faculty book group read Franciscan Father Richard Rohr's Falling Upward, about what Fr. Rohr calls the "two halves of life." The second half usually comes after a fall of some kind. Out of this fall, a profound loss of some kind, comes a spiritual reckoning, and a renewed understanding of the meaning and purpose of our lives.
We have all had our share of falls lately, starting with the dislocation and discord prompted by COVID, the murder of George Floyd, growing political chasms, and so many more losses, both personal and public.
Fr. Rohr explains that Jesus, the radical teacher who enjoined His followers to love their enemies, offers us the way: Fr. Rohr and others call it "non-dualism" (click here for a video introduction by Fr. Rohr).
Fr. Rohr explains dualism thus: "The natural way the mind 'knows' as a child is in opposition to something else. We wouldn't know what 'cold' was unless there was such a thing as 'hot.' If everything in the world was the same temperature, we wouldn't have these words.
We create contrary words as necessary for the world we live in—but then, comparisons, and competitions, and antagonisms... become our primary way of reading reality. For some reason, our ego prefers to make one side better than the other, so we choose. We decide males are better than females, America is better than Canada, Democrats are better than Republicans. For most people, it is amazing the amount of blindness they become capable of when everything has to be understood in opposition to something else.
This is why teachers like Jesus make so much of mercy, and forgiveness, and grace, because these totally break dualism down. Once you experience being loved when you are unworthy, being forgiven when you did something wrong, that moves you into non-dual thinking. You move from quid pro quo thinking to the huge ocean of grace, where you stop counting, you stop calculating, you stop looking for enemies.
When you're trapped inside of that counting mind, you're going to have the kind of angry country we have today, where you're just looking for who to blame, who to hate. And then, the country, in its hatred, keeps thinking more dualistically, instead of less. We move to organizations which are farther right, farther left, thinking that by hating, exposing the other person, we're going to come to some kind of unity. It's very sad. I don't know how we're going to get out of it, except major suffering.
Fr. Rohr concludes: "I think we in the religious world have to carry much of the blame, because most Americans would claim that they are Christians, or religious. But it sure isn't evident."
I hope and pray that, instead of counting and looking for mistakes and trying to prove our version of the world is the right one, the parents and educators at Jesuit can exercise the Presupposition of Good Intention of St. Ignatius, and more importantly the radical love for the "other" on the other side. We can only do so through collapsing the "us vs. them" duality.
Too many adults these days are aggrieved, looking for errors, seeking to win points by posting polemics on Facebook. Fr. Rohr reminds us that Jesus warns us: "Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye, and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?"
Most Jesuit students are not really interested in the culture wars, in debating masks and vaccines. Most have not heard of critical race theory, but they sure don't like racism. What they really want is to be together, to get back to learning and hanging out with their friends. They want to be united, as one Jesuit community.
I can think of no better sign of authentic unity than that amazingly poignant moment from June's Baccalaureate Mass, in which our whole Senior Class, who had been separated for far too long, sang together, "Lead me, Lord, by the light of truth, to seek and to find the narrow way..." (view the full video here).
It is a narrow way indeed between right and left, especially in the current climate of the "culture wars." But we can get there, if we follow the light of our students' example, and Christ's teaching: Love your enemies. Can we do really do that?
Paul J. Hogan