I’m going to get all mystical on you for a minute: I talk to Yeshua sometimes.
It usually happens when my hippie punk-rock faith community has a communion service—I take my wine-soaked hunk of bread, find an out of the way corner, close my eyes, and visualize entering a room to sit and sup at his side. This may sound strange, but I hope it’ll be relevant to human experience whether you believe in talking to Yeshua or not.
Mostly I talk and Yeshua listens. That’s because I try not to put words into his mouth, or simply imagine him quoting a convenient scripture. If I’m going to hear a message in words from Yeshua, it’s important to me that it be his words and not my projection. So, because I’ve still got a lot of mental clutter that interferes with my listening, the conversations are pretty one-sided, and I’m OK with that. Usually I feel Yeshua’s responses to my venting or questions in nonverbal ways, like a loving look, or a physical embrace.
But a few weeks ago I DID hear him, quite distinctly. I had, as usual, laid a problem at his feet: “I feel such a strong urge to fight battles. I want to stand against oppression and injustice, but mostly I just end up hurting those I love. Surely there must be a place for my warrior’s heart?”
And I listened, and I heard Yeshua say: “Yes, there is.” And so I asked, “Then how do I know when it is right and good to fight?” And Yeshua answered, “When you are about to do battle, ask yourself: ‘is this person my enemy?'”
These words spoke right to the heart of my issue. As I’ve written and spoken of before, my fighting instincts express themselves by treating people as enemies, as an evil other to destroyed at all costs. Even though it proves false once the mood passes, even though the person is someone I love, in the moment this judgment feels real and eternally true. Which, as you can expect, can be profoundly damaging to my relationships.
So, “is this person my enemy?” is a question I desperately need to learn to ask myself, at all times, to avoid harmful power struggles where love mingles with hate. I’m not saying this message was the Divine Truth descended from the heavens to be proclaimed to the world. But it was the truth that I personally needed to hear, in that time and place.
But thinking the statement over in the weeks afterward, I’ve found it troubling, a bit. Isn’t Yeshua the one who said “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you“? So isn’t the implication that it’s OK to do battle if someone’s an enemy at odds with that?
Well, maybe. It could be that I was only able to hear what I was ready to hear—that I need to learn to love those who do love me, before I can start to consider something as challenging as loving my enemies. And I think that’s part of what’s happening. But beyond that, I have an inkling of how it all fits together.
The Bible passage above and others like it have often been used to induce people to suffer abuse with a smile. But I don’t think Yeshua’s purpose was to support and perpetuate systems of oppression. Walter Wink makes a powerful case in Jesus and Nonviolence that injunctions like “turn the other cheek” and “if a man sues you for your coat, give him your shirt as well” are not about passively inviting victimization but rather a method of turning the tables on an oppressor by exposing the monstrousness of the abuse. It was a form of activism offered to people in a position of utter social powerlessness.
Such an act of nonviolent protest is a huge step, though. It’s an act of risk and vulnerability, which has every chance of backfiring if the oppressor escalates. That’s why I don’t look at “turn the other cheek” as an iron law, but an opportunity, an example to inspire bold and creative activism. I don’t think it was ever intended to compel compliance or expose people to victimization.
“Is this person my enemy?” is a question that invites a further question: “who, then, is my enemy?” And inspired by Walter Wink, I’m inclined to answer: my enemy is anyone it’s unsafe to have a relationship with.
In the process of loving others, it’s still important to have personal boundaries, to avoid opening ourselves up for abuse. Figuring out which people are and aren’t safe is a personal process. Sometimes even a close family member or friend may prove themselves unsafe in some areas, or unsafe entirely. In any case the key is, when entering personal conflict, checking whether this person is safe to be vulnerable with. If not, don’t! This is a lesson I wish I could get embedded deep into my bones, since I default to frank vulnerability if I don’t watch myself.
When I talked last week about roleplaying identity politics, this element was present. If someone’s identity is tied up in doing a certain thing a certain way, it may not be safe to engage with them on that thing. This cut both ways: there are certain ideas or activities that it’s not safe for others to engage me on. Rooting those things out is part of this whole growth process as well.
Love is still the bottom line. When I wrote about I Will Not Abandon You style roleplaying I expressed my ideal for all human interaction in my life. But you can only play “I Will Not Abandon You” style with a group that’s earned your trust. The nonviolent activism of Walter Wink is still grounded in respect for your opponent’s humanity and dignity. But you don’t respect that dignity by assuming a relationship that’s not there. Instead, you act to preserve your own dignity and humanity, with the aim of, if they will let you, making your enemy your friend. So it still comes back to loving your enemies in the end.
And all in all, there will still be times when you must do battle, on your own behalf or for those you love. When those times come for me, I hope I can remember the humanity of my opponent, and act out of love.