Reflections

A Magazine of Theological and Ethical Inquiry from Yale Divinity School

Loving Your (Political) Enemy

Author: 
Tom Krattenmaker

How might we achieve real victory in politics? A good place to start is by wrestling with arguably the most perplexing and challenging thing Jesus ever taught – love your enemies – and what it might mean to apply it to our politics.

Good luck trying to get me and my liberal comrades to love whomever we are hating in a given week, whether it’s the candidate who just said something awful about women or the high-profile pastor who just demeaned gay people (again). Not feeling any love there. Nor, I suspect, are our conservative fellow citizens feeling much love after they have witnessed the latest outrage-inducing act of what they like to call political correctness, or inconsistent application of that favorite liberal principle of tolerance.

I am like most everyone else on this score. Yet I also find myself in conversation with Republican partisans from time to time, making the point that both sides need each other – to keep ourselves sharp, honest, and aware of our worst flaws. If we’re left too much to our own devices, we will probably screw things up …

As we ponder “love your enemy,” as we imagine how it would look in practice, we might begin to realize this: While it’s good to find so much interest in politics in our country today, it’s often the wrong kind of interest – more like the way we follow sports, where we track who won and who lost, who’s moving up and down in the standings, where we root, root, root for our home team and who the hell cares what consequences are suffered by the losers.

We might begin to realize that our shared public life in the ethnically and politically and every-otherway diverse United States of America is not a game of football, where I am on one particular team and I can slough off responsibility for the well-being of the rival team that mine is attempting to pummel at the moment.

I suggest that our responsibilities ought to extend beyond our group and our team when it comes to the kind of political engagement that’s required if our society is going to rise to the challenges that face us.

We don’t have to be part of a particular political movement or party to take its concerns seriously. We can dig beneath the rhetoric and policy ideas that make us mad and try to understand where they’re coming from and what legitimate principles or objections are driving them – and how these might somehow be accommodated.

Isn’t it possible to be thankful for our political opponents? At least those who are sincere and operating in good faith? Thankful for the effect they have of putting a check on our own side’s excesses and improving our vision in the areas where we have blind spots? For helping form the creative tensions that often lead to fruitful solutions while forestalling the possibility of our doing really stupid things? For bringing out the best in our side – if only we can stop wishing for the elimination of those pulling in the other direction? Isn’t it possible to want the best for our political adversaries, however that might be defined?

This train of thought, I suggest, bends toward an understanding of “love your enemy” that not only promises theoretically to transform our politics for the better but is actually doable. Think about it, and you realize there is some nuance, some interpretive give, in the two key words of that Jesus imperative, love and enemies. To my conservative friends, I would point out that this doesn’t mean you will vote for my side’s candidates, adopt all our ideas and policy prescriptions, or show up at our events and go around hugging everyone, purring, “You were right all along. Let’s have more big government!” But it does mean that you and I might strive to understand each other a bit better, and come to view each other as more than cardboard cutout figures representing everything we hate. We might even develop a measure of empathy.

As for your enemies, a funny thing happens to them when you love them, whatever that “love” might look like. What happens, you’ll see, is that they shape-shift. The instant you change the way you regard them, they morph before your eyes. They are still your political opponents, but not your enemies. And that’s when the larger opportunity opens to make progress.


Tom Krattenmaker is communications director at YDS and a USA Today contributing columnist. This essay is excerpted and adapted from his new book Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower (Convergence Press), with permission from Random House.

Issue Title: 
Spirit and Politics: Finding Our Way
Issue Year: 
2016