In the discussion following Tom Bertonneau’s post Another Day in the College Classroom, commenter Johnathan J. has been arguing with Dr. Bertonneau and me about the interpretation of the Dominical injunctions that we ought to turn the other cheek, do unto others, love our neighbours as ourselves, and so forth. While I greatly respect Johnathan’s position – not least because it used to be my own – I think it is incorrect, and impossible to carry into practice while also surviving.
While I doubt it will change Johnathan’s mind, I am going to take the opportunity this presents to repost a comment I made to a discussion at VFR in 2008, on the same subject, which was itself a repost of a comment I posted to a private online discussion group, and which owed its central insight to long-time VFR commenter Sage McLaughlin. Sage is a brilliant man, and his profound comment, quoted below, cleared up a lot of questions about Christian morality that had bedeviled me for years.
Many members of this community are either Christians, or used to be, or are sort of Christian, or something; at any rate, they hold in high esteem Jesus’ injunction that we should love our neighbour as ourselves. This saying at the core of the faith, and thus at the core of our civilization, had always been a stumbling block for me, because it seemed as though it contravened the whole order of the universe, which operates on gradations in value and worthiness, on differences; and that it contradicted also the entirety of Biblical religion, in which God is (among other things) a Judge discriminating the relative merit of everything that happens, right up to the differences among the choirs of angels.
The best interpretation I could come up with was that Jesus’ first great commandment that we should love God with all our being meant that I should have no love left over for myself. This would not be the death of me, because in loving God I should also love his will for me, which provides for my best good. That is, I should be more inclined to do His will, and so to prosper. Loving God instead of myself would be good for me. How then should I love my neighbour? Just as I should love myself: not at all. If I love God with my whole being, then I will do what is best for me, and I will also do what is best for my neighbour, because God wills what is best for both myself and my neighbour.
I recently read a comment by a fellow named Sage McLaughlin [that said:]
When we are told to love our enemies as ourselves, this does not mean we are to treat them the same way we treat ourselves—Christ did not say, “Don’t have enemies.” He takes for granted that we shall have foes, but demands that we love them as human beings and that we hate the disfiguring effects of sin on their immortal souls, just as we hate them in ourselves. We must do this, and we must forgive all those who ask our forgiveness—but we do not have to outdo God, who abandons to eternal damnation all those who turn from Him and walk in darkness.
I.e., we are to love the good and hate the bad in other people just as we love the good and hate the bad in ourselves. In order to do that—in order to move closer to goodness and further from wickedness in ourselves, and in our society, and in the creation at large—we must discriminate between good and bad, and choose goodness. That we forgive the wickedness of our enemies does not automatically make them friends; and if they cannot let go of their deadly hatred of us, then in order to control the risk to us of their hatred, we must perforce destroy them with it. In that case, we cannot survive to forgive them except by defending ourselves, and working their destruction, however that may grieve us.