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A friend of mine, another Vietnam war veteran like me, recently visited Vietnam. When he returned, I asked “How did it go?” He said “Those were the nicest enemies I’ve ever met.”
We laughed about the irony of it, but his remark struck a deep chord of truth, too.
Once America’s sworn enemy, the North Vietnamese waged one of our longest wars against the United States. We killed them and they killed us. Today, forty years later—even after the Vietnamese won the war and the United States lost—the two countries have friendly diplomatic relations. Now the veterans of that war can talk to one another as equals, smile and laugh together, and visit each others’ countries.
My friend and I, both Baha’is and both conscientious objectors who didn’t carry weapons and didn’t kill anyone, never saw the Vietnamese as our personal enemies. But most of the soldiers we served with did, and they rarely hesitated to shoot on sight. That fruitless war killed 58,000 Americans and maybe 3 million Vietnamese—and yet today, the Vietnamese are no longer our enemies. Our countries maintain normal diplomatic and trade relations. Veterans of the war shake hands, swap stories and become friends.
Kind of makes you wonder about the word “enemy,” doesn’t it? When someone, especially someone in power, tells you to treat another group of people as your enemies, you might want to question why.
The Baha’i teachings ask us to consider no one as our enemy:
Just as God loves all and is kind to all, so must we really love and be kind to everybody. We must consider none bad, none worthy of detestation, no one as an enemy. We must love all; nay, we must consider everyone as related to us, for all are the servants of one God. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 267.
In this sacred Dispensation, conflict and contention are in no wise permitted. Every aggressor deprives himself of God’s grace. It is incumbent upon everyone to show the utmost love, rectitude of conduct, straightforwardness and sincere kindliness unto all the peoples and kindreds of the world, be they friends or strangers. So intense must be the spirit of love and loving kindness, that the stranger may find himself a friend, the enemy a true brother, no difference whatsoever existing between them. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Will and Testament, p. 13.
This teaching—that we should show our enemies love and not hate—runs throughout all true religion. The Torah says:
Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles. – Proverbs 24:17.
Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.
But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;
That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. – Mathew 5: 43-45.
In Islam, Muhammad gave his followers the same advice:
… good and evil deeds are not alike. Repel evil with good. And he who is your enemy will become your dearest friend. – Qur’an 41:33-34.
The Buddha, in his Middle Length Discourses, instructed all Buddhist monks to treat no one as an enemy:
Neither will our minds become perverted nor will we utter an evil speech, but kindly and compassionate will we dwell, with a mind of friendliness, void of hatred; and we will dwell having suffused that person with a mind of loving-kindness; and, beginning with him, we will dwell having suffused the whole world with a mind of loving-kindness that is far-reaching, widespread, immeasurable, without enmity, without malevolence. – MN 21.
This, obviously, makes true religion hard to do. Loving your enemies—what some have called “the impossibility of Christianity”—also applies to all of the great Faiths. That profound spiritual law asks us to see our so-called enemies as human beings like us, to understand why they might feel hostility and hatred toward us, and to love them despite their feelings and their actions.
The Baha’i teachings reprise that timeless admonition by asking those who follow them to not only love your enemy, but to stop considering anyone your enemy in the first place:
We are striving with heart and soul, resting neither day nor night, seeking not a moment’s ease, to make this world of man the mirror of the unity of God. Then how much more must the beloved of the Lord reflect that unity? And this cherished hope, this yearning wish of ours will be visibly fulfilled only on the day when the true friends of God arise to carry out the Teachings of [Baha’u’llah]…
One amongst His Teachings is this, that love and good faith must so dominate the human heart that men will regard the stranger as a familiar friend, the malefactor as one of their own, the alien even as a loved one, the enemy as a companion dear and close. Who killeth them, him will they call a bestower of life; who turneth away from them, him will they regard as turning towards them; who denieth their message, him will they consider as one acknowledging its truth. The meaning is that they must treat all humankind even as they treat their sympathizers, their fellow-believers, their loved ones and familiar friends. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 83.
This kind of spiritual advice, if followed well, can help us get rid of Motive Attribution Asymmetry, the idea that our enemies have motives based on hatred while ours are based on love. That bias, which pits one group of people against another, cannot be sustained when we love our supposed enemies “as a companion dear and close.” So when someone in power or authority tries to describe another group of people as your enemies, do your best to disregard that idea.
This radical notion, that we have no true enemies, pervades the Baha’i principles—and provides the foundation for the primary principle of the absolute oneness of humanity:
Throughout past centuries each system of religious belief has boasted of its own superiority and excellence, abasing and scorning the validity of all others. Each has proclaimed its own belief as the light and all others as darkness. Religionists have considered the world of humanity as two trees: one divine and merciful, the other satanic; they themselves the branches, leaves and fruit of the divine tree and all others who differ from them in belief the product of the tree which is satanic. Therefore, sedition and warfare, bloodshed and strife have been continuous among them. The greatest cause of human alienation has been religion because each party has considered the belief of the other as anathema and deprived of the mercy of God.
The teachings specialized in Baha’u’llah are addressed to humanity. He says, “Ye are all the leaves of one tree.” He does not say, “Ye are the leaves of two trees: one divine, the other satanic.” He has declared that each individual member of the human family is a leaf or branch upon the Adamic tree; that all are sheltered beneath the protecting mercy and providence of God; that all are the children of God, fruit upon the one tree of His love. God is equally compassionate and kind to all the leaves, branches and fruit of this tree. Therefore, there is no satanic tree whatever—Satan being a product of human minds and of instinctive human tendencies toward error. God alone is Creator, and all are creatures of His might. Therefore, we must love mankind as His creatures, realizing that all are growing upon the tree of His mercy, servants of His omnipotent will and manifestations of His good pleasure. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 230.