by Kristin Fontaine
In reading for the daily office for today, I found verse 15 of Psalm 31 speaking to me.
My times are in your hand;
rescue me from the hand of my enemies,
and from those who persecute me.
I noticed how the psalmist made a distinction between ‘enemies’ and ‘those who persecute me’ and it made me think about how often the worst damage done to people is not by enemies by friends or family.
How many of us actually have ‘enemies’ in reality? I would guess very few.
On the other hand, how many have had a relationship go bad, or had to learn how to create and enforce boundaries with people we thought we could trust, or had to cut off contact with a family member or friend because the relationship had become toxic? I suspect a great many more people have gone through this than have ever had an enemy.
The Psalms have a lot to say about enemies. There are over 80 references to enemies in the NRSV translation alone. Interestingly there are only 11 references to ‘friend’ and nearly all of those are the psalmists complaining about friends who have done them wrong*.
Looking at this, it feels like it was easier for the psalmists to complain to God about all of the evils their ‘enemies’ were doing to them, than to bring up issues they were having with their friends.
This is not surprising to me. It is much easier to dehumanize someone from a distance and put them into the category of ‘evil enemy’ than it is to stand up to friends or family who ‘done you wrong’ especially if those people are deeply enmeshed in your life. It is feels easier in the moment to make excuses for their behavior and hand wave it away than it is to confront them.
This is very true in close-knit communities where everyone knows everyone else and risking being the one to speak up can mean risking, not one, but all of your relationships in that group. It gets even more complicated when that group is a faith-based community that tries to take seriously Jesus’s command:
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
If we are called to put love first, what do we do when someone in our community acts badly? The temptation is try to preserve the community by sweeping the issue or behavior under the rug and pretend that it didn’t happen.
Or, if you were ever like me as an earnest 20-something, spend hours working with the person and the group to try to find a solution. Not realizing that in some situations there is no good solution that will work for everyone– especially if any of the people involved are acting in bad faith.
It took me a long time to learn that not every relationship is worth saving. Part of what delayed my learning was the idea that I should love my neighbors, all of my neighbors. In part, my issue was a lack of understanding of the complexity and fierceness of love. My early ideas of love were a lot like the fiction I wrote at the time: everyone hugs at the end and feels better. That rather one-dimensional view of love left no room for dealing with the damage a close friend or family member could do. If there was no way to ‘hug it out’ because the relationship was toxic, the person was spiraling out of control, or they were abusive, what then?
How to protect myself from “those who persecute me” when those people are my friends and family and not an isolated ‘enemy’?
The key, I think, is in Jesus’s command itself– we are to love others as we love ourselves. We are to love our neighbors, yes; but not at the exclusion of caring for our own needs. When we find ourselves in a relationship that is damaging, then we need to love ourselves enough to take action.
Embracing love as Jesus calls us to, does not mean embracing being passive. I firmly believe that the love Jesus talks about is an action not a feeling. It is something we are meant to do not just experience. Part of loving our neighbors and ourselves is setting healthy boundaries and calling out destructive behavior when we see it.
Jesus called us to make heaven on earth through love. To do that we need to make it clear that abuse, bad actions, and bad faith are not, and never have been, any part of love.
*Which makes me think that the Pslams and the Blues have a lot more in common than I ever realized.
All bible quotes are from the NRSV text at Bible Gatewayor the Book of Common Prayer. A pdf of the Book of Common Prayer which contains both the lessons for Sundays and the Daily Office can be found at: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/book_of_common_prayer.pdf
Mission Clare is a good resource for daily morning and evening prayer online.
Kristin Fontaine is an itinerant Episcopalian, crafter, hobbyist, and unstoppable organizer of everything. Advent is her favorite season, but she thinks about the meaning of life and her relationship to God year-round. It all spills out in the essays she writes. She and her husband own Dailey Data Group, a statistical consulting company.
image: still from Frenemy, a film by Skylar Burke