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Love is Life


Naming the Enemy

February 16, 2003

Bible Reading

These are the decrees and laws you must be careful to follow in the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, has given you to possess--as long as you live in the land. Destroy completely all the places on the high mountains and on the hills and under every spreading tree where the nations you are dispossessing worship their gods. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and burn their Asherah poles in the fire; cut down the idols of their gods and wipe out their names from those places. You must not worship the Lord your God in their way. (Deuteronomy 12:1-4)

Now the axe is being laid to the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire. (Matthew 3:10-12)

Reading from Swedenborg

Evils arise from a dual origin: self-love and love of the world. People ruled by evils arising from self-love do not love anyone but themselves, and despise everyone else except those who make common cause with them. And if they love these they do not really love them, but only themselves, because they see themselves in the others. Evils arising from this origin are the worst of all, for these people not only despise all others in contrast to themselves, but also heap insults on them, hate them for the slightest reason, and long for their destruction. Vengeance and cruelty accordingly become the delight of their life. (Arcana Coelestia #8318.2)


We may well wonder whether any Bible passage has been as destructively interpreted and used as our reading from Deuteronomy, and others like it. Under the banners of the Crusades, in the dungeons of the Inquisition, in the villages of native Americans, at the stakes of Salem, people who regarded themselves as warriors of the Christian church have been ruthless in their efforts to destroy the enemies of the true faith.

In a way, it was all too easy for the early colonists of our own country. They had fled from religious persecution, as Israel had fled from slavery in Egypt. They had crossed the watery wilderness of the North Atlantic as the Israelites had crossed the wilderness. They had arrived in the Promised Land, a land rich with resources; and they had found "Canaanites" living in it, people of strange religious customs, people whose friendship and opposition were equally feared, since there could be no alliance with worshipers of idols.

Small wonder that we hasten to the spiritual sense and see the conquest of the Promised Land as a call to face our own inner enemies. We make this move with such haste, in fact, that we may not realize how repellent the story actually is. It is a story of a people believing they have a divine mandate for conquest and slaughter, believing that these other people have no rights to their own religion or their own land, or even their own lives. Liberation theologians have made heroic efforts to recast this story of ruthless military conquest into a story of liberation of the oppressed, but the text gives them very little to work with.

It really does not help very much, I would suggest, to say that these events were permitted "for the sake of the spiritual sense." That would offer little comfort to a people seeing their homes and their families destroyed for no reason other than being in Israel's way. Before we turn to the spiritual sense--which in due time we will--we need to ask how these narratives can be squared with the notion of a wise and loving God.

One doctrinal principle that may serve well is that of "accommodation": the principle that divine truth is always adapted to our comprehension. If we put this in simpler terms, it is saying that the Bible does not necessarily record exactly what the Lord said. It records what people heard.

Sometimes our hearing has been fairly good, and sometimes it has not. We have an extraordinary talent for hearing only the part of the message that we want to hear, and even for hearing some things that are not really there--for "reading between the lines."

In a way, the Lord is always saying the same thing: "Come to me." Sometimes it is said gently, sometimes forcefully, with admonitions to come straight, not to turn aside to the right hand or to the left. We are the ones who add, "And don't let anyone stand in your way." As my dear friend and colleague once remarked, "Some of the most terrifying people I've met are the ones who know God's will." In other words, the same mentality that led to the conquest of the Promised Land may still be alive and kicking even when the thought of military aggression appalls us.

We need, I think, to look at these biblical stories in their context, to see these chapters as coming out of a background and leading in a direction. The ultimate goal of the story is the descent of the Holy City, the Lord's will being done on earth as it is in heaven. Within everything the Lord is heard as saying there is that call, that guidance; and the miracle is that the Lord never gives up on us, no matter how poorly we hear the call.

There is a striking passage in Swedenborg saying there are forms of self-love with which good and true qualities can be mixed. "If, for example, we love ourselves more than others, and that love impels us to try to outdo others in moral and civic life, in learning and in doctrine, and to gain more prestige and wealth than others, but we still acknowledge and worship God, do our duty toward the neighbor from the heart, and act honestly and appropriately as a matter of conscience, then the evil of our self-love is the kind that can have some good and true qualities mixed in" (Arcana Coelestia #3993.9). In other words, again, the Lord never gives up on us, always takes whatever we offer and makes the best of it that can be made.

This mixture of good and evil, of truth and falsity, though, is unstable. We do indeed act from mixed motives all too often. We can do this when both elements of the mix point in roughly the same direction. However, the Lord's providence has a way of leading us eventually into situations where one part of the mix points one way and the other points the other way--where we have to choose. Try as we can to have it both ways, to have our cake and eat it too, we ultimately discover that we cannot.

It is at this point that we come to the spiritual sense of the conquest. It is at this point, that is, that we look within ourselves and see that there are principles we cannot afford to compromise. We cannot play the political game at this inner level. "Enlightened self-interest" has carried us as far as it can in roughly the right direction. Now it is clearly headed off course. It has cloaked itself in goodness, and now begins to be unmasked.

One of the most effective disguises is "the group"--the family, the community, the political party, the country, the church. A New York Times article on the abortion debate a couple of years ago spoke of an "new ethics of advocacy" in which the presumed righteousness of one's own cause was seen as justifying the total demonization of the opposition. My own reaction was some puzzlement at characterizing this practice as "new." One would not normally suspect the New York Times of naiveté, but this practice is at least as old as human history. ""I'm not doing this for myself; I'm doing it for the church.""

Our theology meets this argument very directly and simply by extending the "self" to include those who favor us, those whom we perceive to be on our side. That is the point expressed so clearly in our reading from Swedenborg. "People ruled by evils arising from self-love do not love anyone but themselves, and despise everyone else except those who make common cause with them. And if they love these they do not really love them, but only themselves, because they see themselves in the others." Psychology calls this "ego extension." The more noble the cause, the more attractive the disguise.

The Gospel of John describes the Lord as the Word made flesh and as light. Both of these images point to the Lord's nature as divine truth--truth that sees through disguises and reveals us as we are. The good gravitate toward the light so that it may be clear that their deeds have been wrought in God; the evil flee the light because it will disclose the ugliness of their deeds (John 3:19-21). The real enemy is flushed from hiding and named.

Our second Bible reading uses a different image. John the Baptist was not one to mince words, evidently. When he saw Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he labeled them a "generation of vipers" and said, "Now the axe is being laid to the root of the trees." Now, that is, they were about to be faced with someone who would not deal with the symptoms of evil but with its causes. To put it in modern terms, he would not talk about homelessness or overpopulation or global warming or federal deficits or drug abuse; he would talk about our insistent need to believe in our own importance, our need to believe that we are in control of things. He would talk about "love of self," the love that has led us to abuse our environment and each other.

This "love of self" would not be something we see only out there in the wicked world. It would be part of the way we very naturally feel about ourselves. It is so natural to us that it is hard at first to imagine feeling any other way. It is a feeling that was clothed with innocence when we were babies, a feeling that took some embarrassingly blatant forms in adolescence. It is a feeling that we learned to channel into socially acceptable forms, a feeling that we welcomed for the sake of self-esteem, a feeling that we harnessed for the sake of self-discipline and achievement. If it were taken away from us early in the process of regeneration, we would find ourselves with no motivation whatever. This is why the Lord has worked with us so patiently through those years that are so unattractive in retrospect. This is why the Lord never gives up on us, knowing how urgently we need to feel significant, to feel important.

In the last analysis, though, this is the enemy. This is what stands between us and the Lord, not "the Canaanites" or "the heretics" or any of those bad people out there. There is a little maxim that may help get the point across: "I do matter, but 'I' doesn't matter." We do matter to each other. We make a difference in each other's lives--but that is nothing to be proud of; nothing to feel one way or the other about. It is simply a neutral fact, simply the way things are. The Lord has put us here, given us such gifts as we have, and that is where and who we are. It's okay.

Buddhism talks about a sense of "no-self," meaning, I think, something much like this. We are told in Divine Providence #42 that the more closely we are united to the Lord, the more we feel that we are our own, and the clearer it is to us that we are in fact the Lord's. The Gospels tell us that we will lose our lives if we cling to them and gain them if we let them go. We are most truly ourselves and most truly the Lord's in those times of self-forgetfulness when we step out of self-consciousness into caring about and for each other. This is the Lord's doing, and it is wonderful in our eyes (Psalm 118:23). Amen.


O Lord, it is so easy to see and identify the enemy out there. Yet our greatest enemies are not outside us, but within us. Help us to name our inner enemies--of selfishness, greed, and materialism--and fight the greatest battle: that of overcoming the wrong within and replacing it with your loving and wise ways. Amen.

Rev. George Dole