Two days ago, I asked my readers what was on their minds. I received two responses right away. I wrote about the first response yesterday. Today, I want to share my thoughts about the second response from Beverly. She wrote: “I’ve been thinking a lot about accountability. Mostly my own accountability toward people who suffer from systems that benefit me, but also how to balance holding others accountable for their behavior against staying in relationship with them. How can I ensure that I don’t enable others’ bad behavior (toward me or those more vulnerable) by offering them an unconditional relationship? Or if I choose to make the relationship conditional on observing certain boundaries, how do I set those boundaries in a way that is healthy for both my own ethical well-being and the relationship?”
For the last several weeks I’ve been preaching a steady message of “love your enemy” and the importance of living in unity to the degree that’s possible. Lots of folks have pushed back hard given these difficult and polarized days. Beverly’s comments give me a perfect opportunity to respond to these valid concerns.
In talking with those who have pushed back against the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospels, I realized immediately that many folks equate “loving your enemies” with keeping one’s mouth quiet and not challenging a “loved” one’s positions. They assume loving your enemy means we are supposed to an enabling doormat that encourages others with VERY different visions of – and values for – the world to take over.
Whenever I face these assumptions, I am so grateful for the opportunity I had to teach in a juvenile detention center when I was just 22. Let me tell you about the experience, and how that experience helps me respond to the question.
The school in the juvenile detention center was based upon a strict behavior modification system that went to great lengths to separate a person’s words and behaviors from the person’s value and worth as human being.
Six hours a day – 48 weeks a year – I spent my time verbally addressing words and behaviors that were inappropriate and doling out consequences in a way that empowered the students/offenders to make choices that would define the nature of our relationship. If, for instance, a student/offender decided to use her/his pencil as a weapon against another person; the student/offender knew that the consequence would be a security officer would be called to the classroom and she/he would be escorted to her/his cell where the individual would remain until the individual was ready to return to the classroom and abide by the rules.
At first, the students/offenders would lash out and blame others (i.e. the teacher or aide who doled out the consequence) for their punishment. Over time, however, most students/offenders grew to understand that the staff deeply cared for them. It was that genuine concern that motivated the staff to spell out the boundaries as well as the consequences for violating them.
When we disciplined the student/offender, we would typically walk them through the process. The conversation would go something like, “What’s the consequence for using your pencil as a weapon?” “Removal from the classroom.” “So, what did you just do?” “I used my pencil as a weapon.” “So what am I going to do now?” “You are going to buzz the security officer to come get me.” “And what’s going to happen then?” “I’ll will lose the ability to attend school until I’m ready to follow the rules.”
I can hear what some of you are thinking. “That might work in a tightly controlled situation like a detention school classroom, Pastor Craig, but it would NEVER work in the real world.”
I know some think that. I have used a similar approach, however, in a wide variety of situations over the past 31 years.
When I’m having a difficult political conversation with someone, for instance, about the recent protests and someone uses offensive language to talk about the participants, I will find a point when I can interrupt them and say, “I understand that the situation is frustrating. And I get that it’s easy to use words we might normally not use when we get frustrated. With that said, however, I don’t participate in conversations that use offensive words about people I care about. And I personally care about those on the streets working for racial justice. So, I’m going to end our time together now. If we want to come back and talk about how to address the deeper issues that drove so many people to the streets – issues like systemic racial injustice and abuse of authority – I’ll be happy to talk AS LONG AS we both agree to communicate in ways that respect both of our perspectives.”
I have said words like that many, many times. And when I said those words, I have not hated the person I said them to. I might have hated the words they used. I might have been angry about their unfair portrayal of a situation. But I haven’t hated the person her or himself.
In those instances, I try to focus on the love that God has for that person. And if I can’t figure out how I can tap into that love and exhibit God’s love for the person through my words or behavior, then I remind myself I’m a part of the Body of Christ (and for my friends of other faiths or no faith, a community bigger than myself) where another person might be able to express love for them in ways that I can’t. That frees me up to move one and not get trapped living in a place of anger, resentment, or animosity.
So that’s how I try to deal with the challenge of loving my enemies in a way that does not enable my enemies nor violate my values and ethics.
So how about you? How do you negotiate difficult relationships and times in ways that don’t cause you to lose yourself to hatred and anger?