Thank you, Christians. Every year, in these darkest days, you light up the streets with those wonderful colors and spread good cheer, even for those of us who are not Christian. And you do all this to celebrate the birth of one who said: “Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.”
These days that is a mighty tall order. Love people who are at war with us, who hijack jetliners to kill thousands? Pray for ruthless dictators like Saddam Hussein? It sounds outrageous, scandalous. But you Christians celebrate the birth of one who said, “Blessed is he who does not find me a scandal.”
In a few weeks, all of us will celebrate the birth of a Christian who did not find Jesus’ words scandalous. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., urged African-Americans to love even the meanest white racists. There is no way to like racists, he acknowledged. He spoke eloquently of all the ways racism stunts and twists the personalities of it victims, preventing them from reaching their full human potential.
He spoke just as eloquently, though, of all the ways racism prevents the racists themselves from reaching their potential. He saw them, too, as God’s children, victimized by the evil system they perpetuate.
The “love of enemies” that Dr. King preached is terribly difficult, because it means seeing our enemies as real people, with the same kind of hopes and fears and suffering that we have. It means not turning them into two-dimensional symbols of evil, like the bad guys in a bad Hollywood movie.
That kind of stereotyping is hard to avoid right now. It feels good to live life as a Hollywood movie, where we all band together to whip the bad guys, in Afghanistan or Iraq or wherever we can find them. It lets us feel like the purely good guys, with no taint of evil in our souls.
When we love our enemies, we recognize that they are capable of both good and evil, just like the rest of us. They all want to sit around a holiday table with friends and family, eating and laughing. They all long for a human touch and a human smile.
Something happened to them. Whatever it was, it twisted their personalities, preventing them from fulfilling the potential for good they all had on the day they were born. Some terrible distortion turned them into people who could plot calculated mass murder.
Perhaps it is fear, more than anything else, that prevents both victims and persecutors from growing toward their full humanity. Frightened people do not flourish. They strike out blindly. Perhaps those who attacked us on 9/11, and would attack us again, are afraid of something.
If we, driven by our fear, turn from victims into pre-emptive attackers, we only perpetuate their fear and spur them to more violence. Dr. King taught us that fear, hatred, and violence cripple both the victim and the persecutor. Both are dragged down by the same process. As long as that process continues, they are tied together. Whatever happens to one happens to both.
The choice is ours. We can try to elevate ourselves and our enemies together, or we can drag both down deeper into distortion and suffering. Calling out the troops to attack our enemies may make us feel good for a while. But it is bound to create new enemies and drag us all down. Helping our enemies raise up their own lives is the only way to turn enemies into friends, end the cycle of violence, and give us long-lasting security.
It is common sense, then, to love our enemies. Dr. King proved the point. Many call his beliefs naïve and unrealistic. Yet he used his beliefs to break the back of legalized racism and transform the realities of our political life.
So even the most hard-headed “realist” may want to spend a moment this Christmas remembering his words. Love can never flow from the barrel of a gun, no matter how righteous our cause. Love means doing the most scandalous thing: not liking our enemies, never forgetting the evil of their deeds, but still helping them fulfill their highest potential.
If Dr. King was right, that is what it would mean to put the Christ back in Christmas. Simply by keeping the idea of love alive, you Christians give us all a wonderful gift this holiday season. Imagine if you and we, all together, decide to act upon it.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder