"Love Thy Enemy": President Harris' Message at Opening School Year Mass

The following is a transcript of the address given by President James T. Harris III at the Mass of the Holy Spirit to open the 2019-20 academic year on Sept. 12 in The Immaculata.

“Love thy enemy…

Do not judge…

Do not condemn…

Treat others as you would like them to treat you.”

These words from Jesus found in Luke’s gospel are some of the most challenging in the entire Bible. “Love your enemies." Really? I don’t know about you but I was taught to defeat my enemy, whether it was in athletic competition, or in the classroom, or in a debate. “Defeat the enemy.” But treat them with grace and humility after your victory if you wish to be a good Christian.

However, what Jesus is saying today goes well beyond what I used to think about my enemy. He is making the most powerful statement possible. And that is that “love conquers all.”

That’s right, love is the strongest force in the world. And how shall we love? In the first reading we are told how: “You should be clothed in sincere compassion, in kindness and humility, gentleness and patience… The Lord has forgiven you and now you must do the same.”

What are we to make of this?

In his recent book, “Love Your Enemies,” the author Arthur Brooks makes a powerful case for how we might actually follow the words of Jesus today. During these incredibly contentious times, Brooks describes our country as having a culture of contempt. It isn’t enough to disagree with someone, especially on political matters – if they are of another party you need to have contempt for them.

However, Brooks believes there is another way. In his book, he describes the relationship between two Princeton professors, Robert George and Cornel West, both globally renowned for their contributions to the field of political philosophy. Professor George is one of the nation’s most prominent conservative Christian intellectuals who has written multiple books opposing what he calls the “dogmas of liberal secularism.” He identifies as a Republican and felt the Bush administration was not conservative enough.

Professor West is Professor Georges’ ideological opposite, and one of the country’s most well-known progressives and Honorary Chair of the Democratic Socialists of America. He was also one of Barack Obama’s harshest critics because he was not progressive enough. If any two people should have contempt for each other, it should be them. But this is what they say about each other.

Dr. West says, “I have deep love for this brother,” and Dr. George says, “We’re united to each other in love, in true fraternal love.”

In 2017 they wrote a joint statement on the importance of truth seeking and freedom of thought. Here is one sentence from that statement:

“The more important the subject under discussion, the more willing we should be to listen and engage — especially if the person with whom we are in conversation will challenge our deeply held — even our most cherished and identity-forming — beliefs.”

If West and George have formed “a love” for each other, why can’t each of us do the same?

Brooks recommends a set of rules for getting beyond the culture of contempt. The first one is to find your own Robby or Cornel. So who is your Robby or Cornel? Ask yourself, do I mostly or primarily associate with people who think, act, dress and believe as I do? If so, you may wish to stop and reconsider what is your role as a member of this community, whether you are a student, administrator or member of the faculty. Is it to stay in a comfort zone, or is it to expand your thinking, belief systems and knowledge? If it is the latter, seek out someone else different from you and engage in active listening and proactively create relationships with others who hold different beliefs.

Recently, my wife and I read a story about people who volunteered, as part of a NASA project, to live for an extended period of time in a biodome in the desert, cut off from the rest of the world. It was an experiment to see what traits people need to survive in an environment that is similar to what our astronauts would face on Mars. When they finished the experiment, they found four traits that helped people survive: patience with themselves and each other, thick skin, optimism, and easily entertained.

These might be traits we should all consider as we enter this academic year. Let’s be more patient with each other and try to be better listeners and follow Jesus’ advice to not judge, lest we be judged.

We would be well served to grow thicker skin. Over the years I have had to do this, and not taking things so personally is still hard to do. So perhaps we could all try to not take things as personal attacks, even when someone says something that they are unaware is hurtful. Instead of assuming malicious intent, let’s follow Jesus’ example and be compassionate, and do not immediately condemn. Looking back on my own life, I know I have said things that I regret. And in many cases I didn’t know my words may have been hurtful. When someone did not condemn me immediately and showed some compassion and helped me understand how what I said was hurtful, I was much more open to accepting their feedback and changing my behavior.

We can all also try to be more optimistic. We are blessed to be a part of a great university and our future is bright. Both individually and as an academic community, we have faced challenges in the past and we have emerged stronger for it. The example of Jesus is a great example of optimism. He knew our destiny was bright. In today’s gospel he reminds us that if you “give, there will be gifts for you.” So let’s all give a little more to our campus community.

The final trait of surviving in the biodome is being “easily entertained.” Maybe another way of looking at this trait is not to take ourselves too seriously. Yes, we are engaged in important work. But we must look for the joy in what we are doing. As we start a new year, we should view this as the start of a journey, a process of transformation through events still to come. Our attitude, our goals, our vision are important as we set the tone for a new year through patience, compassion and love.

These stand in counterpoint to much of what we witness in our secular culture today. Jesus bases discipleship not on the criterion of reciprocity, of justice or even human generosity. The ultimate motivation for total selfless love is God. If we can keep this in mind as we go through this year, we can set the standard for how to be clothed in sincere “compassion, in kindness, humility, gentleness and love.”


University Communications