Friday, June 2, 2017

Turning enemies into friends? A dream....a goal - Column for Las Cruces Bulletin on June 2, 2017

      I once had a congregant who claimed that the "us/them" approach to community and the world primarily came from the Bible.  
      I didn't agree with him when he first suggested the idea. As I think about it, he may have been right up to a point, given the dividing lines between peoples and nations that are expressed in a wide range of passages and that, sadly, come to fruition in real life. 
     I believe, however, that sacred texts, such as the Bible, also provide a partial antidote to the "us/them" perspective.    
     A small dose of that antidote comes in a passage about enemies in Exodus, Chapter 23. 
    In verse 4 of that chapter, the word for enemy is the common Hebrew term oyeiv. In verse 5, the word for enemy, sona-a-cha, means "one who hates you."
     The presence of these terms seems to acknowledge that we will, inevitably, have people in our lives with whom we may never have positive interactions.
    These verses present guidance on how to act if one should come upon certain situations.  Here is the passage: "When you encounter your enemy's ox or donkey wandering, you must take it back (to the owner).  When you see the donkey of one who hates you collapsing under its burden and you would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless help raise it (that is, you must help your enemy raise the animal)." 
    One commentator notes that the primary concern expressed here is for the animal that is lost or overburdened. Still, assisting the animal leads to helping one's enemy, whether the "helper" likes it or not.
    Members of study groups I led in recent years discussed this passage. In their comments, they expressed the importance of "taking the high road," not missing out on an opportunity to reduce enmity with one's enemy, showing respect for all people (whether enemy or friend), loving one's enemy (echoing Jesus' teaching in the New Testament), and considering all people as deserving of help or assistance based in justice, fairness and impartiality.
    This passage from Exodus was not the first one that crossed my mind regarding enemies. I have recently been thinking about Proverbs Chapter 24, Verse 17: "Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and don't be happy when they stumble." 
     When we consider what is happening in the world around us, this statement may seem relevant and helpful, or it may seem impossible to put into practice.  
    It is clear that both teachings from Exodus and from Proverbs suggest that we human beings do have it in us to step away from conflict and hatred, even for a brief moment. 
     There is a rabbinic story about what could have been happening in heaven after the Israelites crossed the Sea of Reeds, when they became free after having been slaves for so long. As the Egyptian army drowned, the angels were rejoicing.  God offered them a quick rebuke, "My creations - these people - are drowning, and you sing praises?" 
     In that tale, even the angels gave in to the impulse to celebrate the defeat of the foe.   The purpose of the story is to remind us to consider choosing another response when an adversary meets his or her demise. 
      The ultimate goal of our relationships and community ties might be best expressed in this teaching from a 1300 year-old rabbinic wisdom text:  "Who is a hero?  One who turns an enemy into a friend." 
      Even if it seems unrealistic to do so, perhaps it's time to get to work, taking small steps towards becoming that kind of hero. 

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