Mormon Heretic’s post on forgiveness from a few weeks ago touched me deeply, but I needed time to get my thoughts together about it before I could respond.
I once had the neighbor from hell. I use the expression with theological intent.
Smart and relentlessly treacherous, he was somewhere on the spectrum from malignant narcissist to full-fledged sociopath, and I had no desire to observe closely enough to find out where. I do not know what horror had befallen him — if anything more significant than a stray cosmic ray hitting the genome at the wrong time — but he seemed to be without sincere empathy toward anyone. Worse, he seemed to have grown to love cruelty as the only thing giving meaning to his life. He was Jack Nicholson as the Joker: “So many people to hurt, so little time!” If he was not planning or executing some plot against one person, it was because he was busy with a more hated target.
Our family’s first hostile contact with this guy arose innocently enough. His daughter had a cat. When his daughter was living with her mother — he was, of course, in the middle of a messy divorce — he left it outside in the cold and wet and the hot and dry. My wife, not wanting the cat to suffer, began putting out a bowl of water on our porch in the heat, and a little food and a towel for the cat to shelter under in the cold. Polite suggestions to him that leaving the cat outside wasn’t a good idea led to several conflicted stories about why it was all right, but a clear acknowledgement that the cat was, indeed, his responsibility.
And then, after this had gone on for several months, a middle-aged oriental woman, not speaking English very well, appeared at our door one evening. She asked us if the cat then lurking behind our front bushes belonged to our neighbor, and my wife innocently and honestly answered yes.
And with that simple act, we moved unexpectedly from peace to a full-scale personal war in which our spiritual and emotional health and livelihood was directly threatened.
The woman had purchased the property from a military doctor and his wife when they transferred out of state to a new assignment. She had invested her savings to make the buy, and then rented the property to our neighbor through an agency. Home prices in our county had been exploding, and she hoped to make a good profit from her investment. Instead, she found a nightmare.
In the year he’d been there, he’d managed to find some loophole each month to avoid paying a cent of rent. County codes here are built more to protect immigrant tenants from slumlords; they really were not designed with what an immoral tenant could do to an immigrant landlord in mind. Heating and cooling systems or plumbing would continually “break” — there were sometimes different heating companies called to the home for repairs on the same day, especially when the first arrivals found the systems to be working properly. He would call for repairs to be made, then deny access to the repairmen. On one occasion, I saw him demand reseeding of grass in his front yard for drainage, and then slip out to the yard that weekend and destroy the new turf. On another, I saw him inspect a damaged fence, and then, rather than report it, hide the fact from the landlady until another month’s rent was due.
Now, burning through her savings for mortgage payments and repairs with no end in sight, being harassed by the man by telephone and intimidated by him to the point she was afraid to come to the home without an escort, she saw a possible way to break the lease: it had a no-pet provision. And so she asked about the cat. We answered honestly — and then the neighbor came after us.
My wife had been supporting us by teaching individual piano students from our home for years, and had been the primary breadwinner since my heart attack. He filed complaints that what we were doing instead was a group studio in violation of zoning, and demanded we be shut down. He stole trash during the night and attempted to frame me for illegal dumping of medical waste. He attempted to intimidate parents from bringing children for lessons by rushing to the edge of our property and, without any explanation, taking pictures of the children, and then the license plates of their cars like they were drug dealers. Every night there was drilling into the walls between our homes or hammering on them, and we never knew if or how he was trying to sabotage our systems. We spent thousands in legal fees just to protect ourselves.
As I began to ask myself who was this guy, and why was he doing this, I found in public legal records that he had a long record of defiance to authority, with a couple of dozen violations, including jail time, for various disputes with neighbors seemingly everywhere he’d lived since adulthood. Simultaneously with his dispute with us and the landlady, he was on trial for phone harassment of his wife, and in a domestic violence dispute with a girlfriend he’d been with less than a month. He sought out potential violations by other witnesses in the neighborhood (such as expired license plates), and threatened to expose them if they testified. He went after the Home Owners Association President, an African-American, by making racial slurs in the presence of her daughter. He went after the county enforcement officials and tried to get their bosses to fire them; he went after the lawyers for conflicts of interest; he tried to get judges removed from his trials. You get the point.
The pressure on us grew more dispiriting, or perhaps I should say dark-spiriting, as months went by with no resolution. And we found ourselves increasingly turning to prayer for deliverance, as we felt imprisoned in our own home, never knowing what we would have to defend against tomorrow. And, as necessary, we were indeed delivered. In a couple of cases, traps laid for us were thwarted by unlikely coincidences. But the darkness, though warded off, was always present.
And then, in one of those deep prayer experiences, I heard in my mind my enemy’s soul cry out in an agony to God to be delivered from the darkness that enveloped him. I do not believe his physical form recognized what his own spirit was doing; he seemed to love the darkness and would cling to his cellphone (from which he harassed victims) like it was a totem of power he could not be without for even a moment. But I heard the Holy Spirit answer: “He is forbidden to remain as he is.” And the word “forbidden” carried all of the undeniable weight of a requirement to choose salvation or doom.
A few days later, entirely unbidden, while I was still trying to understand in my own mind the previous experience, I heard his soul cry out again that he would be lost. And equally unbidden, my own prayers suddenly changed.
Instead of praying that God would get this guy off my family’s back, I found myself praying that God would get that darkness off this guy’s back. Because I saw that there was truly a predator, and my neighbor was the unsuspecting prey. And I was weeping for him, and praying as hard and as intensely as I have ever prayed for anything in my life.
It was the first time in my life that I truly loved my enemy. Not decided that someone wasn’t really my enemy (six months after he finally left the neighborhood, he came back to see if sabotage he’d previously prepared for the air conditioning unit had, in fact, caused the system to fail, leaving new renters he’d never even met sweltering in a summer heat wave for two days). Not just trying to treat my enemy with justice. Not simply restraining my self-defense. For once, I knew what it meant to love an enemy, even knowing he would remain my enemy, and that the existing situation was forbidden to continue.
But why was it only “for once”? What makes it so hard for me — for us — to stay in the loving attitude that the fate of the soul of my enemy (let alone the soul of a stranger or a friend) is of eternal significance even if I must oppose that enemy with all my might?
That seems to be something to spend some time contemplating as we remember this weekend a day of great violence.