How Do I Love Thee? A Letter to My Enemies


Marilyn Chandler McEntyre

You know who you are. You may think—because you're not holding me at gunpoint or blowing up my bus or seducing my husband or kidnapping my children—that I'm out gathering rosebuds for my suburban dinner table under the happy delusion that I have no enemies. After all, I'm a nice lady. People like me, by and large—some even admire me. And those who don't aren't doing much about it. But I do have enemies, and I know who you are.

You are the ones who hurt the people I love. You subject my children to propaganda and soul-sucking media manipulation. You try to make my husband and sons believe that masculinity is measured by willingness to kill and to make money. You drive my daughters toward self-destructive behaviors in the name of desirability. You poison the air, the soil, the water, the spirit, shorten their lives and damage their health for profit.

You are the ones who hurt the people I've been commanded and taught to care about. You drop bombs on innocent people. You vilify whole populations. Sometimes you torture them. You irradiate their crops and destroy their families. You drive them into debts they can't repay and call your usury "charity." You insulate yourselves from their pain, hide your atrocities behind political banners, and call that "virtue." You cover deceit with rhetoric, and exploitation with terms like "economic health."

You are the ones who set me at war with myself. You target weaknesses and sins—my greed, my pride, my gluttony, my fear—and tempt me to measure my own worth by the satisfaction of my basest desires. So I eat too much, I work for public recognition, I buy what I do not need, I take my part in the racism and paranoia of our time.

You are the ones who take in vain the name of the Lord I love. You make a commodity of sacred words and images and a mockery of worship. You attack the Body of Christ from within and without. You are "them" and also "us," flying under both banners because your best strategy is confusion.

You lure and you lie and you threaten. You live in Washington and in the Middle East and Hollywood and in middle America and in my household and in my heart. And as the Psalmist says, you seek to take my life; you oppress me, surround me, and exult over me.

So when Jesus says "Love your enemies," does he mean you? And how shall I love you when you do evil? And why should I?

I believe that I must love you because we have been given to one another for that purpose. In some dark and mysterious way, we are gifts to one another. We have been given the historical moment, the circumstances, and the call to encounter in each other the very powers of darkness and light that afflict and heal this fallen world. And our assignment—yours and mine—lies in that encounter. We are here to learn how to love, how to exercise the power of love, even unto death, even toward those who violate what we hold dear.

I believe that I must love you because my life depends upon it. Not only the life of my body, but the life of my soul. Indeed, we seem to have no guarantee that the body won't be destroyed in the process of learning to love. But until I learn to love you, I am likely to remain in the squalor of my own self-righteous judgments, protecting my own point of view, condemning and cutting off some who may be the very strangers sent to give me a chance to offer the cup of cold water. I need to remember that the needy come clad in everything from rags to turbans to miniskirts to Armani suits. I need to remember that need sometimes looks like evil, and that it is perilous to judge too quickly which is which.

I believe that I must love you because I am like you. Every year I live teaches me the truth that nothing human is alien to me. When I was young, I thought Paul's claim to be "chief of sinners" was simply distasteful rhetorical posturing and false humility. Now I know that claim came out of a magnitude of self-knowledge, a self-knowledge worth praying for. So when I look at (and despise) your hypocrisy, your brutality, your greed, your self-serving propaganda, your abuse of power, your betrayal of innocence, I must open my mind and heart to that in me which is reflected in the mirror you provide. Perhaps it is latent rather than manifest. Perhaps its effects appear to be more innocuous. And yet how often the gospel teaches that we are in no position to judge what is small and what is large, and which is the mote and which is the beam. Comparing my evil with yours to reassure myself that I am among the righteous "misses the mark" completely—a term the Greeks used for sin. Counterintuitive though it may be, paradoxical, mysterious, and beyond all rational argument, your sin and my sin, your darkness and my darkness, merit the same condemnation and have been covered by the same amazing grace.

And so I believe that I must love you because you have been loved—lavishly, incomprehensibly—by the One who loved me, and who has put us into each other's hands to care for one another. Which makes me consider again, how do I love you?

I love you by embracing as fully as my imagination will all the metaphor—and the fact—that we are brothers and sisters, children of one Father, imagined and willed into being by the same loving Creator. Whatever evil you do not only affects but finds some of its source in me, bound as we are in systems that perpetuate evil and in which we participate together. Your welfare is also mine, your shame is also mine, your struggle is also mine.

I love you by identifying the evils in which we find ourselves mired—the injustices, the brutalities, the deceptions, the greed—and holding them in the light. I love you by telling the truth as carefully and caringly as I can—about processes and effects, about who, in dehumanizing conditions, makes the clothing I wear, about what may account for the rage of the violent, about who is drinking the water polluted for our particular "benefit." I love you by holding you and myself accountable. I love you by not lying.

I love you by means of protest—speaking for—and by admonishment and by imagining alternatives to anger, war, unfair competition, and apathy. I love you by seeking out those who know something about how to love and have left us maps and means—the saints, the peacemakers, the earthkeepers, the ones who pray without ceasing. They have websites and retreat centers and flyers that hang in churches. They care for the widow and the orphan and also for the alcoholic and the people in penitentiaries. They love the woman agonizing about abortion and the one who had one. They visit Baghdad with bandages and also put on their ties and speak truth in boardrooms and on Capitol Hill. I love you by speaking and acting, against the evil you represent, for the life we are called to envision and live with one another.

I love you by learning to inhabit gray areas, by forfeiting the satisfactions of easy judgment and finding ways to sit down with you and find out what it is like to be you. I love you by studying your credo or your Koran or your party platform, your economic theories, your ideas of duty. And I love you by praying for the words and the wisdom to enter into the conversation that might redirect our energies into a path of mutual understanding.

I love you by praying for you, especially and precisely because you are those I experience as "persecutors." Jesus says to do this so that we may be children of our Father in heaven. What a rich and curious idea—that it is in learning to love you, my enemies, that I grow into my role and inheritance as a child of God; that in loving you I will deepen my relationship with the source of all Love. And in the process, perhaps, I will come to understand myself more humbly and fully.

I love you by turning the other cheek, and in doing that hard thing, learning also to discern the differences between self-destructive capitulation to evil and willingness to bear its cost for the sake of love. I love you best when I can follow Jesus’ example in not returning evil for evil. Every time I resist the temptation to retaliate, I help prepare for the Kingdom in which I must hope that you are included, and that we will all be transformed.

It has helped me to remember for some years Germaine Greer’s adage that “If the struggle is not joyous, it’s the wrong struggle.” She may not be a reliable theological touchstone, but I believe I can import that wisdom into my struggle to love you, my enemies. The struggle to love you is one in which joy is assured, not only as a final outcome, but along the way as a fruit of the Spirit that breathes and teaches love. 

So how do I love you now? Badly. Intermittently. Sometimes grudgingly. But I know that we, you and I, are here to help one another work out our salvation, perhaps with fear and trembling. And so I must be grateful for you—not for the evil that you do, which is not mine to judge—but for the ways in which you, my enemies, are an occasion of grace.

By Marilyn Chandler McEntyre. Originally published in Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, March/April 2006, Vol. 21, No. 2. Copyright © 2006 The Upper Room.