Love your enemies as yourself.

There is a principle said by Jesus in the Bible, which is: “love your enemies as yourself.” Of course, no Christian dares to even try to understand what this implies. When you believe in modern capitalism and you call saviour a man who says things like “give away all your possessions,” when you believe in warmongering imperialism and you call saviour a man who says “love your enemies as yourself,” you’re most likely to just ignore anything he says and use him as a meaningless icon.

Should we love our enemies as ourselves? I don’t think you should make your behaviour towards others contingent on your opinion of yourself (which, incidentally, is also why the Golden Rule ultimately fails as a standard). Once again we must look to the universality principle as our moral barometer: if a principle is true, then it must be true for all people at all times and places. If we must love others, then we must also love our enemies.

I think any level-headed person will agree that it is counter-productive to hate your enemies. The feeling of hatred towards your enemies, when unjustified (and I don’t think hatred is justified in most cases), drives you to violence and blinds you to ways to successfully defeat them. Hatred, vengeance and other belonging-driven feelings are incompatible with rationality and the maintenance of a sane society.

Does this mean to permit them to wreak havoc? Certainly not. Supporting the activities of a criminal is not an act of love towards his future victims, or towards the society that he is acting against. Certainly we should strive to stop people from hurting others, no matter what we think about them. I think it is fair to say that homicide rates, for instance, represent a universal evil. Jesus said, “love your enemies,” but by that he meant simply to turn the other cheek and permit the continuation of violence. Permitting violence to continue, indeed feeding it with your attitude, is not a trait of love.

Perhaps a clearer term would be “understanding.” One should understand his enemies, and understand himself. I think it has always been fairly obvious that understanding oneself is a fundamental aspect of morality: after all, as Plato said, the unexamined life is not worth living. But I think understanding one’s enemies, how they think, why they do the things they do, is also important in any struggle. If we reduce this to a simple situation, we can see how that is: for example, if you know why someone wants to hurt you, you may be able to convince him not to do so. You may also learn that someone whom you considered your enemy is simply following different but equally justified values of his own free will, and that therefore there is no reason for you to consider him your enemy at all.

Does the reasoning apply to a greater social context? I think so. I think it is very instructive, both on a purely intellectual aspect and on an activist aspect, to understand what the State is, how it is born, how it is sustained, and why people support it. If we look at criminality, I think it is equally instructive to try to understand why people commit crimes and what factors in society help or hinder this. And if we are on the lookout for possible errors in judgment, then we will be more likely to identify them and act with more justice.

Understanding your enemies leads to a better understanding of what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong, and actually keeps you from hating them. How can you hate someone you realize is basically like you? Might we not be like them, if circumstances had been different?

I believe that human beings are born fundamentally good, and become corrupted by the influence of collectivist indoctrination and social pressure from all sides. I believe that this core of goodness exists within almost all human beings (there are, of course, always exceptions). I see the basic role of activism as getting to that core directly and making the person stay in that aspect of themselves, instead of dwelling on the results of indoctrination that shield it.

So when we see people deviating from the principle of love, we must understand that they do so almost invariably because of some form of collectivist psychological damage (be it from parenting, family, schooling, religion, government, some more immediate social pressure, etc). How close you are from your true self, and the principle of love, generally results from the intermix between your personality, your character, your flaws and qualities, and the context in which you grew up and evolved.

If this is the case, then why should we punish criminals? Punishment, to me, implies two main premises: first, that the human being is very much malleable and amendable to punishment, and second, that punishment brings about positive change to the human being. But it seems to me that the first premise is very unlikely to be true in most cases. A person’s context, his character, his social conditions, the degradations of his soul, in short all aspects that influence his actions, are not improved by any form of punishment. Using fear, violence, and servitude to try to improve a human being is as preposterous as using the whip to improve the character of a horse.

The concept of punishment, therefore, if it is based on anything, must be based on the desire for vengeance (taking our one’s anger on the perpetrators) and control (servitude being one of the most obvious means to control someone). Punishing people doesn’t do any tangible good to them, to us, or to society: all it does is serve our most destructive, base impulses.

When Anarchists talk about not punishing criminals, but rather using justice as a tool of restitution, the inevitable reply is that we are “bleeding heart liberals.” This, I think, is an obvious consequence of the implicit manichean worldview adopted by most politically-inspired people. People labeled as “criminals” (regardless of what they have actually done, and what their circumstances were) are necessarily evil, and thus deserve to be hurt. Anyone who calls for a reduction in punishment or an end to punishment is taking the side of the evil people, and therefore evil by association. Therefore any attempt to re-establish a sane justice system will be seen by many as weak, evil, even criminal.

By the way, I think now I understand why so many people don’t like morality: because they think the manichean views on good and evil is what morality is about, that morality is something that is inevitably black and white.

As I said before, punishment is in no one’s interest. But I think it’s relatively easy for any reasonable person to see that the punishment ideology not only is in no one’s interest, but also does not halt crime. Consider the effects of being jailed. Does this deter crime? In the case of premeditated crimes. anyone who commits such a crime does not expect to be caught, otherwise he would not commit it in the first place. In the case of crimes of passion, then deterrence does not even enter in the equation, since they are by definition bereft of serious cost-benefit analysis. In fact, all that a criminal learns when jailed is that, first, “might makes right” is the only valid moral doctrine, and second, he learns how to become a better criminal by learning from his fellows.

But if we are to have an Anarchist society, that is to say a society built from the ground up, from our values to their expression in the wider world, we must ask ourselves what values we want reflected in a justice system: vengeance or fairness? Fairness not merely for the perpetrators, but most importantly for the victims and for society at large. The current statist justice system, like all statist justice systems, is based on confrontation, which inevitably engenders unfairness, bitterness and dishonesty. Victims generally lose by cooperating with the State, do not receive any compensation, and have to pay for the perpetrator’s livelihood. Society at large loses the input of the perpetrator and the resources sunk in a jail system that should go to better ends. As for the perpetrators, those fortunate enough to be rich or connected get scot free, the poor and disenfranchised make perfect patsies (especially since the State has taken away the right for a person to sell his right to trial, which is the cornerstone of equality in justice), and all parties declared guilty become the objects of servitude.

Some people may accuse us of wanting to sissify society or get rid of violence altogether, which would be utopian. I agree that this would be utopian. Violence is an essential and necessary part of human nature. Anarchists do not wish to eliminate violence (rather, it is the State that tries to pacify its subjects so they can be more easily dominated), but rather to push non-consensual violence away from our daily lives, while making consensual violence (such as sports) more accessible.

As regards to enemies, criminals, and so on, one area where people get confused is forgiveness. There is a belief that “we must forgive,” and that forgiveness is always good for you. But I don’t think that forgiveness is necessary: in fact, when you force yourself to forgive someone, such an act is undesirable. To act with love towards criminals is not to ask everyone to forgive them, or to not feel a desire of vengeance against them. Obviously people may commit acts that can’t be forgiven. This does not mean that we have to err in the direction of more violence, simply that there is a golden mean here beyond the simple-mindedness of “punish them all, hurt them good” and the psychological absurdity of “forgive everyone, don’t defend yourself.”

3 thoughts on “Love your enemies as yourself.

  1. Mike Gogulski September 9, 2008 at 14:19

    I believe that this core of goodness exists within almost all human beings (there are, of course, always exceptions). I see the basic role of activism as getting to that core directly and making the person stay in that aspect of themselves, instead of dwelling on the results of indoctrination that shield it.

    Being unable to know what really lies inside people, I have to agree for the simple expedient that to believe otherwise leads to destruction, both personally and socially. And I feel that it is that belief in essential goodness that calls some of us to activism.

    Very nice piece of writing, this, and a very worthy theme.

  2. Dave Trowbridge September 21, 2008 at 23:35

    You write:

    “Jesus said, ‘love your enemies,’ but by that he meant simply to turn the other cheek and permit the continuation of violence. Permitting violence to continue, indeed feeding it with your attitude, is not a trait of love.”

    No. Those two statements are not related in that way. What Jesus was talking about in the Sermon on the Mount was actually a form of spiritual ju-jitsu, which is well explained in the Wikipedia article on “turning the other cheek:”

    “At the time of Jesus, striking someone deemed to be of a lower class with the back of the hand was used to assert authority and dominance. If the persecuted person ‘turned the other cheek,’ the discipliner was faced with a dilemma. The left hand was used for unclean purposes, so a back-hand strike on the opposite cheek would not be performed. The other alternative would be a slap with the open hand as a challenge or to punch the person, but this was seen as a statement of equality. Thus, by turning the other cheek the persecuted was in effect demanding equality.”

    And, as for the “resist not the evildoer” part of his teaching, in the original Greek, the word for resist (antisthenai) is one used to decribe violent rebellion, so a better translation of that phrase is “do not violently resist the evildoer.” In other words, he prescribes non-violent resistance.

  3. […] true self, seat of love. (part 1/2) (part 2/2) The radical nature of love. (Part 1/2) (Part 2/2) Love your enemies as yourself. The control mentality and the love […]

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