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How to Love Your Enemies

Guest Author: 
Bruce Tallman


The beginning of an effective solution to events like the recent ones in Charlottesville and Barcelona might be found in listening to three contemporary wise men.

The American philosopher Ken Wilber notes three levels of moral development: egocentric, ethnocentric, and world-centric. Egocentrism means you focus your moral decisions on yourself alone – how will this affect me? In ethnocentrism you value only your group, and in world-centrism you treasure all human lives equally. Wilber contends that 90% of the world’s population lives at the ethnocentric level and so it is very easy to slip into an “us versus them” mentality and see the other side as your enemy.

The French philosopher Rene Girard stated that in an ethnocentric climate, if there is a lot of financial pressure, people tend to get into “scapegoating,” that is, they find some group they perceive to be the source of all their problems and focus all their fear and rage on them, usually trying to eliminate them in some way. Scapegoating allows the perpetrator of violence to ignore the sin and evil in their own heart.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a monk who lived through the Vietnam war, wrote in Living Buddha, Living Christ that “In Buddhism we speak of salvation by understanding…even if our enemy is crushing us, sowing terror and injustice, we have to love him. This is the message of Jesus. But how can we love our enemy? There is only one way – to understand him. We have to understand why he is that way, how he has come to be like that, why he does not see things the way we do. Understanding a person brings us the power to love and accept him. And the moment we love and accept him, he ceases to be our enemy.”

We won’t deal effectively with racists and terrorists until we understand them and what motivates them. So, what is to be understood?

During the Great Depression, Germany and Italy’s economies were in total chaos. This was a perfect storm for a strongman, like Hitler or Mussolini, to come to power by promising he will solve everyone’s financial problems.

During the Great Recession beginning in 2008, the U.S. economy was in chaos. The middle class was being emptied out by the housing crash and the forces behind globalization. Since most people losing their homes or jobs were ethnocentric, it was natural to look for an enemy to blame. Along came an egocentric/ethnocentric strongman saying that immigrants taking our jobs are the enemy, and if we can just get rid of them, our group, the United States, will be great again. The economic crisis created the background for racist sentiments to start rising to the surface again.

Regarding terrorists, what needs to be understood is that violence breeds violence. If you were a young man and most of your family were killed through bombing by foreign nations, would you not want to take revenge? Al Qaeda and ISIS may never have arisen without the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Also, if the invading powers are promoting capitalist, secular values, and loose morals directly opposed to your religion, it is easy to push.

According to Wilber, Trump is only the symptom of a bigger problem, that is, that western political and financial elites have not listened to, and therefore not understood, the needs of a significant portion of their own population and that of other countries. When your basic needs are not being met, it is tempting to consider drastic solutions. People who are ethnocentric and feel excluded can be driven by financial crisis or war to racism or terrorism. Typically, they find scapegoats and fight violently against their perceived enemy.

If the western political and financial elites had not promoted globalization and instead provided jobs and fair wages to their own people all along, if they had not chosen to terrorize middle eastern countries, and if they had chosen diplomacy, listening, and therefore understanding and love of everyone, if they had just followed the teachings of Buddha and Jesus, perhaps Charlottesville and Barcelona, as well as Trump, Brexit, and the rise of the alt-right would never have happened.

Bruce Tallman is a London spiritual director, marriage coach, and religious educator of adults. For more information, see: brucetallman.com This post was also published in the London Free Press.

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