Last weekend the Collective hosted an event in Whitby at which we explored the various dimensions of Jesus’ command to love our enemies. I began the weekend by asking two questions:
Does my enemy choose me, or do I choose them?
What does loving my enemy mean and how do I do it?
I don’t intend to re-run the weekend here, so let me cut to the chase: I concluded that, taking due account of the context in which the command is found, Jesus is telling me to work at forgiving anyone who has labelled me as an enemy. We spent the remainder of the weekend asking more questions and telling stories.
What we didn’t know when we set the theme for the weekend was that members of Hamas were going to break through Israel’s border defences and commit the atrocities they did. And as we punctuated the weekend with the seven parts of the Northumbria Community peace liturgy, all of us were painfully aware that Israeli leaders were planning what their response was going to be.
In the days following the weekend I have been reflecting on the difference between forming an opinion about someone else’s need to forgive and practising forgiveness toward someone who has offended or mistreated me. I have sought to understand as much as I can about the situation in Israel and Gaza, and have tried to listen to arguments, emotions and perspectives from both sides. I have been in tears as I have done so, but I am not the offended party. Stories told at the weekend were of profound but lesser offences, but felt just as real.
Maybe this difference in perspective explains a concept in psychology known as Solomon’s Paradox. Solomon was known in his age as the wisest man who ever lived because he was so good at solving other people’s problems. But his own life was a mess. Crucial mistakes made during his reign, and during the rule of his son Rehoboam, brought an end to the empire Solomon had built and divided the nation.
I can see all too easily what other people should do because I am one step removed. I don’t feel the weight of history and my thinking is not clouded by emotion to the degree that I am when adrenaline pumps through my body.
Those in political leadership have added challenges. The temptation to create echo chambers is too great for many leaders, and many raised voices saying the same thing makes it impossible to create the distance necessary to evaluate alternative options.
How does this help us process the command to forgive our enemies?
It might seem obvious that giving as good as we get is unlikely to resolve tensions between two warring factions, but we are going to find it very difficult to be peacemakers if we don’t succeed in changing the narrative. Creating distance between ourselves and the offence is vital. As is listening well to the point of view of our enemy, even if it makes no sense to us. Forgiving others is probably the hardest thing in the world to do, but it is maybe the gift most needed in today’s polarised world.