In Chapter 6 of C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, Uncle Screwtape exhorts Wormwood to “direct the malice of his patient to his immediate neighbor whom he meets every day and to thrust his benevolence out to the remote circumference, to people he does not know. The malice thus becomes wholly real and the benevolence largely imaginary.” Screwtape references the English people as “creatures of that miserable sort who loudly proclaim that torture is too good for their enemies and then give tea and cigarettes to the first wounded German pilot who turns up at the back door.”
What are we to learn from this? We have enemies that we need to love, and these enemies will probably fall into at least two distinct categories: the ideological sort—liberal judges, corrupt politicians, misguided mega-church pastors, etc., or of the personal sort –failed friendships, obnoxious neighbors and coworkers, or strained family relationships. Relationships so strained that particular people have become our real enemies, but not the type of enemies sneaking in at night to murder us while we sleep. Our enemies are of a different sort than England’s enemies of the 1940’s.
Lewis’ call to love our enemies, however, is of the same sort. While our hatred of the judges and politicians may be real enough, causing much angst and even the occasional expletive, those people are not in close enough proximity to feel either our hatred or our love. They cannot feel our steely glares through their teleprompter. While they are vying for our vote, not our affection, we are called to love them as we love ourselves. We would want someone to pray for us, not gripe about us behind our backs. We would want someone to think the best of us and our intentions, not demonize every word we say. Thinking the worst of our enemies does nothing but bring us down. Lewis elaborates on this point in Mere Christianity:
“Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, `Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally, we shall insist on seeing everything – God and our friends and ourselves included – as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.”Concerning the personal enemies that we see every day, the Samaritan is always in the ditch. These are the ones that Lewis is calling us to love through our actions, for they are ever present. Screwtape would want us to feel good enough about loving our faraway enemies that we would consider our job well done and thereby cease loving the enemies next door. If we view loving our neighbor as a checklist—something we could quantify and complete in a given time period—then we are more susceptible to fall into Screwtape’s trap.
Lewis’ idea of loving those who are far away to the neglect of loving those who are near applies to more than just our enemies. We can send money to help Compassion International kids around the globe to the neglect of loving the poor around us. (I say this as a financial supporter of Compassion, not a foe.) We can love the missionaries who have travelled far to the neglect of supporting local charities or even neglecting to personally testify of the mercy of God to our neighbors.
One final thought is that we can fall prey to loving our virtual neighbors while neglecting to love those neighbors that God has placed within our own household. “Just one more email, darling, and I’ll be done for the evening.” “Hold on, honey, I’ve just got to post this to Facebook and I’ll read to you.” “Junior, play my iPad while I finish this article.” None of this should be taken as some sort of guilt trip about using global technology for the benefit of those that afar off, but are we loving God’s people around the globe to the neglect of those flesh-and-blood heirs of Christ’s Kingdom placed under our direct care? If we are, then both Screwtape and Wormwood are about to get a promotion.