What does it look like to love your enemy?
This is one of Jesus’ most familiar commands, yet it may be one of the most difficult to live out. How, exactly, do we actually do this? Buy coffee for the colleague who cheated his way to a promotion that you deserved? Offer to carpool with the preschool mother who has been gossiping about your child? These relatively minor examples sound awkward and ineffectual. What, then, do we do with a true enemy? How, for example, does a Libyan citizen love the member of Qaddafi’s regime who assaulted his daughter?
“The Help,” about a group of African-American nannies who collaborate on a book expose during the Civil Rights movement, offers some guidance. The movie has been conceived as Oscar bait – which means performances shout when they should whisper, emotional cues are inflated to the bursting point and the music never misses a chance to swell – yet the picture also manages to give us a stirring example of Matthew 5 in action.
Near the end of the film, Aibileen (Viola Davis) confronts the story’s villainess, a Southern socialite named Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) whose racism runs so deep she’s campaigning to make it required by Mississippi law for houses to have separate bathrooms for non-white servants. Aibileen has been the victim of Hilly’s hatred for years and, in this closing scene, is finally given the opportunity to confront her. Yet rather than take revenge (spoiler alert), Aibileen’s confrontation takes the form of righteous truth-telling, with a chaser of compassion. She looks Hilly in the eye, tells her that she is hateful and then asks, “Aren’t you tired?”
This sort of interchange is very different from vengeance. It’s also, surprisingly, different from the sort of comeuppance we usually see in movies. Instead, this is the sort of love that the late theologian John Stott wrote about in “Christian Counter-Culture: The Message of the Sermon on the Mount.” In discussing what Jesus meant by calling us to love our enemies, Stott wrote that Christ demands “a personal attitude to evildoers which is prompted by mercy not justice, which renounces retaliation so completely as to risk further costly suffering, which is governed never by the desire to cause them harm but always by the determination to serve their highest good.”
True to this process, Aibileen’s challenging love prompts, for the first time, some self-reflection on Hilly’s part. The movie leaves us before we see where that might lead, but it’s safe to say the seeds of redemption and reconciliation have been sown.
It’s no coincidence, of course, that this course of nonviolent action was the one championed by Martin Luther King during the era in which the movie takes place. Stott, in “Christian Counter-Culture,” suggests that King understood the Biblical principle of loving one’s enemies even better than both Gandhi and Tolstoy, other icons of non-violent resistance. Stott quotes one of King’s sermons, in which the pastor said that “love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend” for it has “creative” and “redemptive” power. That’s what we see happening in “The Help.”
Yes, this is only a movie - and an inspirational one at that - so it somewhat simplifies how this sort of relationship might play out. For an idea of how complicated this can get in practical terms, check out the conversation surrounding a ThinkChristian post from earlier this week on how the United States could have loved its enemies post-9/11.
Yet in its own limited way, "The Help" clarifies what it means to live out the Sermon on the Mount. By putting us in a time and place when loving one’s enemy was a risk to life and limb, the film offers a pathway toward putting reconciliatory love into action today.
How about you? Have you ever seen this sort of love at work? Have any other films handled this subject in a similar way?
(Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.)