One of the most unfortunate consequences of the political disagreements that plague our country is the broken relationships — the suspicion, judgment and even hatred — that now fester between many former friends and acquaintances who believe differently. Some have given up on restoring connections with others and have resorted to defriending all those Facebook contacts who do not agree with them.
It is an adage worth remembering that one never should talk about politics or religion at the holiday dinner table, because arguing strong opinions can quickly sour family celebrations. Beliefs about politics and religion are often bound by a person’s emotions, which has led to another maxim about debates that produce more heat than light.
Still, I believe it is possible to bridge the yawning chasm between two strongly held perspectives. Of course, there are examples of well-known public figures who have held opposing political ideas and yet were still friends, like John McCain and Joe Biden. But what about those of us who are not famous — ordinary neighbors who differ greatly on matters of the heart?
Perhaps the testimony of two of my friends who faced a serious conflict based upon religion — a loyalty as passionate and potentially divisive as politics — can illustrate how even people with strong opposing views can overlook their differences.
Suprapto and his wife, Kartini, were Javanese Christians who moved into a neighborhood in Jakarta where all the other residents were followers of Indonesia’s majority religion. Wanting to become friends with her neighbors, Kartini baked cakes and took them to the families on either side of their tiny house. But their gifts were thrown onto garbage heaps at the edge of the dirt path, accompanied by ugly words of rejection and dismissal.
The witness of this soft-spoken, unassuming man as he told his story and his wife’s story to fellow Baptists in their small church was hesitant, even shy.
He related that each Sunday morning, as he and his wife and their children walked out of the neighborhood, carrying their Bibles on the way to worship, men followed them with threatening insults and shouts of disdain, sometimes standing together, threateningly, to block the narrow passage. Over time, the taunts and tension faded away, yet friendship seemed illusive.
“As Suprapto and Kartini continued to act neighborly, something remarkable happened.”
But, as Suprapto and Kartini continued to act neighborly, something remarkable happened. After four years, they not only had established several friendships, but often — sometimes each week — neighbors would come to their house to ask for advice about their marriages or to seek help with their children. In the words of this Javanese miracle worker: “They join with us to patch our leaky roof during rainy season. They deliver greeting cards whenever we celebrate our sacred holidays. They invite our Christian children into their Muslim homes. They bring us cakes.”
This is not an anecdote asserting that one religion is better than another. The religions in this account could have been reversed, and often indeed the unkind treatment does flow in the other direction. Rather, this is a true story I heard shared by Suprapto and Kartini one Sunday morning more than 40 years ago — a report I will never forget, a narrative about how love overcomes hatred.
One of the most difficult and challenging teachings of Jesus is found in Matthew 5:43-44: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” This commandment defies all logic. No one naturally thinks that loving an enemy is appropriate or beneficial. In the dichotomous world we inhabit, there is a great gulf between neighbors and enemies.
“It is easier, then, to love our neighbors, even when we don’t really know them.”
Despite the anonymity that characterizes so much of Western experience, where it is possible to live next door to some individual or family but not be in relationship, we still believe that “neighbors” wish us no harm, while enemies certainly do. It is easier, then, to love our neighbors, even when we don’t really know them, than to contemplate expressing kindness to our enemies. That just seems to make sense.
In her book Hospitality: The Sacred Art, my Chicago friend and Presbyterian pastor Nanette Sawyer asks: “How can we love in the face of hatred? How can we prepare ourselves for and then implement hospitality in the presence of hostility? How is it possible to hold receptivity, reverence and generosity toward those who hold enmity toward us?” And she then answers: “Preparing to respond to such hostility begins from our center, the place inside (ourselves) where we have personal power . . . (to shift) our focus from our vulnerability in the face of others (to realize instead) our own power to act as proactive neighbors in all our encounters.”
Hospitality, then, comes from that space within each of us, that center in the heart where the Divine is awakening “the better angels of our nature.”
In addition to Jesus, other inspiring luminaries have understood the power of love to curb hatred and therefore they have practiced hospitality as a sacred art. Mahatma Gandhi, for example, alleged that “love is the subtlest force in the world,” while his student, Martin Luther King Jr., claimed that “love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”
But it is simple saints like Suprapto and Kartini — ordinary people of good character who will not forsake the hospitable act, who keep on loving in the face of hate speech and violence, who bake cakes that are thrown onto garbage heaps — who motivate us to believe love can turn strangers and enemies into friends and neighbors.
“I am inspired to attempt reconciliation with those who disagree with me.”
Because of this ordinary, yet extraordinary, example of radical transformation realized in the name of love, I am inspired to attempt reconciliation with those who disagree with me, rather than sever my relationship with them. Suprapto and Kartini have shown me the power of kind acts to overcome difference.
The Orthodox Jewish teacher Pinchas Lapide writes that “love of one’s enemies, as Jesus understood it, means far more than covering things up with a smile by tolerating enemies or holding them at a distance with politeness; it entails an honest effort, a campaigning and struggling with them, so that they change, give up their hate, and become reconciled. In short, a theo-politics of little loving steps aimed at making the enemy cease to be an enemy.”
Like my Javanese friends so many years ago, may I patiently offer the cakes of neighborly kindness even if my gifts are thrown onto garbage heaps. May I determine to practice “the theo-politics of little loving steps,” not only to change my own life but to transform some of my ideological enemies into friends.
Rob Sellers is professor of theology and missions emeritus at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon Seminary in Abilene, Texas. He is a past chair of the board of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago. He and his wife, Janie, served a quarter century as missionary teachers in Indonesia. They have two children and five grandchildren.