Love your evil

The command to love your neighbour, often called the Golden Rule, is found in nearly every religion and ethical system.

Christianity received it from Judaism: You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord. (Lev. 19:18)

The command comes in many forms.

There is a story about the famous rabbi Hillel, whose life overlapped with that of Jesus.

A gentile approached the rabbi and said, ‘Convert me on the condition that you teach me the entire Torah as I stand on one leg.’

Hillel replied, ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the whole, entire Torah; the rest is its explanation. Go and learn.’

Of course, Jesus viewed this command as pivotal as well (see Mark 12:28-34).

He developed it by expanding the definition of neighbour to include enemy (see Matt. 5:43, 44).

Being neighbourly to those who are similar to us, who share our life, values and sense of identity is more exacting than we often imagine, but loving enemies establishes a high standard that few achieve.

I often listen to podcasts by Peter Woods, a former Methodist minister in South Africa, who now describes himself as a Buddhist but maintains close spiritual links with Christianity. (I recommend a visit to his website, https://thelisteninghermit.com/).

Drawing on the work of Eric Neumann, a Jewish psychologist and scholar, Woods notes that in Hebrew, the language in which the Old Testament is written, the command to ‘love your neighbour’ can be translated as ‘love your evil.’

Woods notes that the way we deal with the things inside us that we dislike, such as prejudices, mean-spiritedness, shame, old hurts, is to project them onto others. In effect, we disown them. We take what is internal and make it external, and thereby disavow any association with it.

In so doing, we create a group of ‘others,’ whom we label as enemies.

Because this work is mostly unconscious, it’s hard to recognise it in operation. Nonetheless, the result is highly problematic.

Woods proposes that we might find a way of loving our enemies by loving what is evil inside us. (I note that the word ‘evil’ is deliberately provocative.)

In this framework, loving the evil inside us would minimise the unconscious need to project it onto others.

I find Woods’ insight arresting.

I suspect the issue is more complicated than he grants, i.e. the actions of some are hateful in an objective sense and have little to do with our projections.

However, looking within and discovering ‘evil’ is always likely to be helpful and liberating, even if confronting and unsettling.

When someone does something that makes you want to curse and disown them, looking within may render your dilemma less fraught.