New James Alison Sermon: ‘Love Your Enemy: Within The Divided Self’

‘Love Your Enemy: Within The Divided Self’ is the latest sermon from James Alison, given at St Martin-in-the Fields Church, Trafalgar Square, London just a few days ago, on 30 October 2007. Alison explores the passage in the Sermon on the Mount that includes the line, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” in light of mimetic theory.

A few passages I’d like to highlight:

Alison says that because the line I quoted above is rarely presented in context, it is often

“presented to us as a kind of heroic moral demand, the sort of thing that would make one somehow especially noble, if unworldly. That is, when it is not presented in a more sinister light, as if it could be paraphrased ‘Jesus wants you as a doormat’. This is what happens when the phrase is used to urge meekness upon a battered spouse, or passivity upon someone who is genuinely being victimized by someone else. And this of course is the danger of reading a phrase which is illustrative of who we are and how we function, and thus is directive, something which sets us free as it gets along side us and enables our perspective on things to be broadened, as if it were a moral commandment spoken straight to our conscious mind which we must therefore struggle to fulfil irrespective of circumstance.”

He goes on to give the full context of the passage (Mt 5, 43-48), picks it apart a bit, and concludes about this passage:

The instruction is not one about being a doormat, it is one about how to be free. ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ means ‘do not be towards them as they are towards you, for then you will be run by them, and you and they will become ever more functions of each other, grinding each other down towards destruction.  … Instead of that, allow your identity to be given to you by your Father who is in heaven, who is not in any sort of reciprocity with them, and is able to be towards them as one holding them in being and loving them, without reacting against them.“Given that you can’t do this by a simple act of decision, you will require that your whole pattern of desire, formed in reciprocity be turned around, and the only way to do that is to pray for them. For in praying for them you are beginning to allow the pattern of desire which is God to enter into your life, so allowing you to recognise your similarity with your enemies, rather than your exaggerated differences.”

Not only does our hostile reciprocity trap us, but also our friendly reciprocity (loving those who love you), because any reciprocity eventually leads to enemy-hating: as we become dependent on the approval of our friends, we let our behaviour be shaped by them, and “find [ourselves] automatically tied into having shared attitudes of contempt for those who they despise.”

Interesting, and Alison includes as friendly reciprocity exchanging marks of recognition:

“Giving recognition to those who recognise you: what is that but a sign that you and they are dependent on each other for a fragile sense of respect? But of course, that sort of giving of recognition, and seeking of recognition, being greeted, having ‘face’ always also means by contrast that there are people at whose face you do not look, people you do not recognise because they are of no value to you, people you neither see, nor want to see, yourself reflected in them, so you look away. They become a blind spot for you. There is nothing particularly good about that: there isn’t a tribe, a club, a religion, a culture, anywhere on the face of the planet that doesn’t work in just the same way. The fact is that friendly reciprocity and hostile reciprocity are part of the same thing, variations on a theme of us being run by what is other than us.’

I exchanged “marks of recognition” (a smile) with several people as I walked back to my seat after taking communion this morning, and I know what Alison means from the place of the ‘perpetrator;’ and I also know it from the place of the ‘victim,’ the one in the blind spot, because more often than not, people I’ve met numerous times seem not to recognise me in public settings unless I initiate contact.

This is something I will want to think more about.

14 Nov. update: Scott at Preaching Peace comments on Alison’s sermon and the experience of forgiveness.

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