“The most damaging idolatry is not the golden calf but enmity against the other.” The renowned anthropologist Rene Girard wrote that and its truth is not easily admitted. Most of us like to believe that we are mature and big-hearted and that we do love our neighbours and are free of enmity toward others. But is this so?
In our more honest or, more accurately perhaps, in our more humble moments, I think all of us admit that we don’t really love others in the way Jesus asked. We don’t turn the other cheek. We don’t really love our enemies. We don’t wish good to those who wish us harm. We don’t bless those who curse us. And we don’t genuinely forgive those who murder our loved ones. We are decent, good-hearted persons, but persons whose heaven is still too predicated on needing an emotional vindication in the face of anyone or anything that opposes us. We can be fair, we can be just, but we don’t yet love the way Jesus asked us to, that is, so that our love goes out to both those who love us and to those who hate us. We still struggle, mightily, mostly unsuccessfully, to wish our enemies well.
But for most of us who like to believe ourselves mature, that battle remains hidden, mostly from ourselves. We tend to feel that we are loving and forgiving because, essentially, we are well-intentioned, sincere, and able to believe and say all the right things. But there’s another part of us that isn’t nearly so noble. The Irish Jesuit Michael Paul Gallagher (who died recently and will be dearly missed) puts this well when he writes (In Extra Time): “You probably don’t hate anyone, but you can be paralyzed by daily negatives. Mini-prejudices and knee-jerk judgements can produce a mood of undeclared war. Across barbed wire fences, invisible bullets fly.” Loving the other as oneself, he submits, is for most of us an impossible uphill climb.
So where does that leave us? Serving out a life sentence of mediocrity and hypocrisy? Professing to loving our enemies but not doing it? How can we profess to be Christians when, if we are honest, we have to admit that we are not measuring up to the litmus-test of Christian discipleship, namely, loving and forgiving our enemies?
Perhaps we are not as bad as we think we are. If we are still struggling, we are still healthy. In making us, it seems, God factored in human complexity, human weakness, and how growing into deeper love is a lifelong journey. What can look like hypocrisy from the outside can in fact be a pilgrimage, a Camino walk, when seen within a fuller light of patience and understanding.
Thomas Aquinas, in speaking about union and intimacy, makes this important distinction. He distinguishes between being in union with something or somebody in actuality and being in union with that someone or something through desire. This has many applications but, applied in this case, it means that sometimes the heart can only go somewhere through desire rather than in actuality. We can believe in the right things and want the right things and still not be able to bring our hearts onside.
One example of this is what the old catechisms (in their unique wisdom) used to call “imperfect contrition,” that is, the notion that if you have done something wrong that you know is wrong and you know you should feel sorry for, but you can’t in fact feel sorry for, then if you can wish that you could feel sorry, that’s contrition enough, not perfect, but enough. It’s the best you can do and it puts you at the right place at the level of desire, not a perfect place, but one better than its alternative.
And that “imperfect” place does more for us than simply providing the minimal standard of contrition needed for forgiveness. More importantly it accords rightful dignity to whom and to what we have hurt.
Reflecting on our inability to genuinely love our neighbour, Marilynne Robinson submits that, even in our failure to live up what Jesus asks of us, if we are struggling honestly, there is some virtue. She argues this way: Freud said that we cannot love our neighbour as ourselves, and no doubt this is true. But since we accept the reality that lies behind the commandment, that our neighbour is as worthy of love as ourselves, then in our very attempt to act on Jesus’ demand we are acknowledging that our neighbour is worthy of love even if, at that this point in our lives, we are too weak to provide it.
And that’s the crucial point: in continuing to struggle, despite our failures, to live up to the Jesus’ great commandment of love, we acknowledge the dignity inherent in our enemies, acknowledge that they are worthy of love, and acknowledge our own shortcoming. That’s “imperfect,” of course, but, I suspect, Thomas Aquinas would say it’s a start!
Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.