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“Love Your Enemies”: The 24-Karat Golden Rule for Politicians

[The following is an edited version of the address I delivered at the Prayer Breakfast of the Conservative Party of Canada in Vancouver on 27 May 2016.]

Politics is a tough business. So when it comes to discussing rules to guide political behaviour, somehow metallic rules seem appropriate. Here are four.

The Steel Rule we can attribute to the likes of Machiavelli: Do unto others before they do it unto you.

The Silver Rule shows up in philosophies around the world, such as that of Master Kong, whom we westerners know as Confucius: What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.

Various versions of the Golden Rule occur around the globe as well. In Judaism, for instance, it is put this way: “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Seneca, the great Stoic philosopher, advised us to “treat your inferior as you would wish your superior to treat you.”

Jesus of Nazareth extended this rule, as he extended and deepened so much of his Jewish heritage, into what we might call the 24-Karat Golden Rule: “Love your enemies.”

Here is what the Gospel according to Matthew records Jesus saying in the Sermon on the Mount:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect [or “complete”], therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)

Luke summarizes Jesus’s teaching this way, in the so-called Sermon on the Plain:

“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from her. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:27-36)

Jesus’s realism is refreshing here. He does not advise, as so many of his followers do, that we try to see everyone else in friendly terms. No, as Jesus well knew, we have enemies, and he counsels us in regard to them without a trace of Hallmark-card sentimentality.

Enemies are people who are, literally, “not friends” (from the Latin in + amicus). Enemies are people who oppose you in some way, and in politics, these are people who oppose your power and your plans.

Enemies don’t necessarily hate you personally They’re simply your opponents in some way. Of course, they might indeed hate you, but even if they don’t, so long as they are resisting you, criticizing you, and otherwise impeding you, they’re your enemies.

“So I’m to love that kind of person?” one might understandably retort. “Fat chance. Someone gets in my way, I’m not sending them flowers or candy.…”

Jesus isn’t suggesting sentimentality here, either. Love in the Bible isn’t generally about fond feeling. It is about useful action. To love people is to care for them. Do them good. Seek their interest. Promote their well-being.

Love certainly does not mean: “Let them do what they want.” We would be poor parents if we indulged our children in this way. And it would do no one any good to treat criminals this way.

No, love means to do whatever we can do to improve people’s lives, to help them to flourish.

“But why would we want to do that?” a sensible person might ask. “Wouldn’t it be better if my enemies were…well, sidelined? Seriously: This 24K Golden Rule seems completely impractical for the real world of politics.”

So let me descend from the splendid isolation of the ivory tower to suggest three respects in which the 24K Golden Rule does in fact deal with the real world.

#1: Since We Are Imperfect

The Steel Rule (“Do unto others before they do it to you”) makes sense if we are perfectly right and our enemies are perfectly wrong.

The Silver Rule (“Don’t do unto others what you would not have them do to you”) also makes sense if we don’t need any correction and basically just need to get about our business: correct, wholesome, and righteous as it is in its entirety.

The Golden Rule (“Do unto others what you would have them do to you”), however, makes sense if we are in fact imperfect—if we in fact are sufficiently imperfect as to imperfectly assess our own imperfections.

Likewise the 24K Golden Rule (“Love your enemies”) makes sense if we are not already perfect, not complete, but in fact in need of correction, addition, and restraint.

If we will recognize that we are not perfect, then we will see that we badly need people to point out our deficits and offer constructive suggestions for improvement.

That’s what our political opponents are supposed to do, right? (In fact, that is what they are eager to do!)

So how do we want to be treated, as people who are partly right and partly wrong, by those who may know things we don’t, or at least have perspectives that would improve our own—or at least are just doing their jobs to keep us fallible human beings from just doing anything and everything we want to do?

We want them to treat us respectfully: gently, kindly, accurately; doing no more damage than they have to; giving us credit when it is due; and offering to cooperate with us for the common good.

That’s what we want from them, don’t we, especially when we’re feeling vulnerable?

Then we are to treat them the same way.

And when the roles are reversed and we are criticizing them, how do we want them to treat us as they listen to our incisive criticisms and creative alternatives?

We want them to respond with courtesy, with honesty, with genuine openness to the truth of our argument and the seriousness of our purpose, with authentic concern to do the right thing, no matter whose idea it is.

That’s what we want from them, right?

Then we are to treat them the same way.

And let’s remember that your political opponents literally represent many of your constituents and your fellow Canadians—else there would be no other party, and none of them would have been elected.

Just by being there, they bring important facts right to your face. These are representatives of people you are supposed to care about and care for.

How can you purport to care for all Canadians if you refuse to care about their representatives? Care for them properly—love your enemies.

See? “Love your enemies” isn’t sentimental: It’s good politics.

#2: Since We Exist Together

The Steel Rule makes sense if we can do without our enemies.

The Silver Rule similarly makes sense: just stay out of their way.

The Golden Rule, however, makes sense if we are connected, like it or not, in a single system with all people, including our enemies.

Likewise the 24K Golden Rule makes sense if we are fundamentally interdependent—and will continue to face the same people, or people who are devoted to those people, for the rest of our lives.

And isn’t that the reality of politics?

It just makes sense. No party stays on top forever. No regime lasts a thousand years. No one is prime minister or premier or mayor for life.

And some of the people whom you treated any way you wanted to eventually will get to treat you any way they want to. How are they going to want to treat you?

I’ve learned in the academy that it’s a very small world. The person whose book I reviewed harshly ends up—you can bet on it!—serving on a research grant committee to which I have applied for funding. He might well relish the opportunity to stick it to me behind closed doors.

I’m not a politician, and I hope none of you politicians would behave as nastily as professors do, but I suspect at least some politicians are capable of revenge.

Likewise, I never forget a kindness, and I suspect none of you do, either.

We cannot escape each other. We are in the same ecosystem. Everyone is, in fact, our neighbour. So treat everyone well.

“Love your enemies” isn’t sentimental: It’s good politics.

#3: Since Our Success Is Interdependent with Everyone Else’s

The Steel Rule makes sense if we’re in a zero-sum game: Every time you lose, I win, and every time I lose, you win. So you must always lose, and I must always win.

The Silver Rule similarly makes sense if I’m in this politics business to maximize good for myself and my people and that must mean at the expense of anyone and everyone else. So I’m careful not to needlessly annoy my enemies, but otherwise I pay them no consideration.

The Golden Rule, however, makes sense if our welfare is bound up with each other’s.

The 24K Golden Rule likewise is simply logical if we are fundamentally interdependent—such that our actual success in what really counts requires everyone to flourish.

We are in fact one city, one province, one country.

We cannot flourish if we pit area code 416 against area code 905. It can’t be “Vancouver East of Cambie” versus “Vancouver West of Cambie.”

It can’t be the northern part of the province versus the southern part, nor rural versus urban.

And Canada doesn’t do better if Newfoundland is sinking, or Quebec is alienated, or Ontario is struggling, or Alberta is burning.

No government is at its best when its opposition is weak, or cynical, or discouraged.

No party can thrive if it is divided into factions who hate each other and want both to win and for their enemies to lose—badly.

And no class, no matter how wealthily insulated from their fellow citizens, can thrive for long as the oppressors of their neighbours. Read a little history, and see how the elites fared in France, or Russia, or China when they lost touch with the people.

We all do better when we all do better.

“Love your enemies” isn’t sentimental: It’s good politics.


How can we start? How can we begin what love really means: to constructively care for our enemies, and contribute to their flourishing?

We can start the way Jesus recommended: by praying for them—as we do here at this breakfast.

“Prayer” fundamentally means to ask: to ask for help, to request something someone needs. What does your enemy need for which you can ask?

“To die!” you might say—honestly, if intemperately.

But let’s be more positive, shall we?

What does your enemy truly need to flourish?

  1. to see issues clearly;

  2. to sense what matters, and what doesn’t;

  3. to love justice and compassion above greed and power;

  4. to be realistic…and hopeful;

  5. to do his job faithfully;

  6. to be rid of sinful motivations and harmful habits;

  7. to treat other people with respect;

  8. to be loyal to her principles (except those she needs to change!);

  9. to be willing to admit when he’s wrong and to accept a better idea if one is presented to him;

  10. to stop being stubborn and defensive, and to be genuinely open to working together with everyone else to build a better Canada.

Come to think of it, that is exactly the sort of list you would pray for yourself, isn’t it?

Now you’ve got it: “Love your enemy/neighbour, as yourself.”

One sees enemies differently when one has to think about their needs in order to ask God to provide for them.

One treats people differently when one starts each day, as we are starting this one, praying for each other, including one’s worst enemies.

You may think those enemies are wrong about things. They think you’re wrong about things. And you’re both right!

None of us is infallible, and sometimes only an opponent will see where we’re mistaken—because she is, indeed, highly motivated. But that doesn’t make her criticism or suggestion wrong.

We will be able to hear that criticism—to truly comprehend and then deal constructively with that criticism—if we keep seeing everyone involved as being in the same game, existing in the same ecology, and dwelling in the same community.

And we build community by remembering our solidarity with each other, our interdependence. We are literally all in this together.

And we strengthen that solidarity by praying for each other, and even our enemies.

Therefore: Fellow citizens of Canada, neighbours, friends—and enemies:

Let us pray.


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