Learning to Love Our Enemies

St Columba icon - Aidan Hart (med)
St Columba of Iona (icon by Aidan Hart)

By Jim Forest

Every now and then my wife and I go on pilgrimage to the island of Iona. It’s so small and remote a place that one needs a detailed map of Scotland to find it — a comma of rock just off the southwest tip of Mull in the Inner Hebrides. It’s possible to walk around Iona in a day, but to do so you had better be in better shape than I am. Most of the way you would be walking on some of the oldest exposed rock on Earth, Lewisean Gneiss, an unpretentious dull grey stone that in another 200-million years will celebrate it three-billionth birthday.

For non-geologists, what put tiny Iona on the world map was a saint named Columba, a prince who became a monk, a monk who made Iona a major center for the spreading of Christianity. In penance for his role in a bloody clan war, Columba, along with twelve companions, sailed away from Ireland in self-imposed exile, arriving on Iona on Pentecost Sunday in the year 563.

The wattle-and-daub dwellings the monks lived in fifteen centuries ago are long gone. What today’s pilgrims find are the solid stone buildings Benedictine monks erected in the 13th century: the plain square tower of St. Mary’s Cathedral and the rectangular masses of the several slate-roofed adjoining buildings that surround the cloister.

Columban monastic life was far from sedentary. The monks of Iona traveled into the wilds of Scotland and, later on, much further as missionaries of the Gospel. They also served as a pacifying influence in a Europe of small kingdoms and constant war. Irish monasticism had a profound impact on the development both of Christianity and culture across Europe, even reaching to France, Italy and western Russia. Missionaries sent from Iona founded monasteries, schools and communities, winning in the process such a reputation for holiness that pilgrims were drawn to the remote isle from as far away as Rome. Iona became known as “the Jerusalem of the North” and Columba one of the most renowned saints of the first millennium.

One of the many stories told about Saint Columba has to do with a custom still familiar to Orthodox Christians who often bring an object that has special significance, for example an icon, and ask a priest to give it a special blessing. Columba was so highly regarded that a great many people came to him for such blessings. For Columba this must at times have been a distraction, something done when his thoughts were elsewhere. Thus it isn’t surprising that one day he unmindfully gave a blessing to a warrior’s sword. In the blink of an eye he realized he had made a mistake. The very last thing he wanted to do was bless a weapon of war. It was because of his complicity in war earlier in his life that he had sought penitential exile on Iona. The question now was what to do with this freshly blessed sword? Columba decided to give a second blessing. He called on God to keep the blade sharp only so long as the sword ws used by cooks and bakers. It would henceforth be a tool for the kitchen rather than the battlefield, perfect for slicing bread and cheese but useless for slicing men.

Not all legends told of the saints are true in the sense the word “true” would be used by a contemporary journalist or historian, but this story has the ring of unornamented truth about it.

Having witnessed the horror and fever of war, Columba had renounced swords and warfare. Once he arrived on Iona, he dedicated himself and his small brotherhood to a vocation of conversion and peacemaking. He sought a life modeled on the earthly ministry of Jesus and shaped by his words in the Gospel. Christ is a threat to no one. He blesses neither executions nor war. Instead he says, “I have come to give life and give it more abundantly.”

Christ told Peter to put aside his sword, but Christ’s attitude to enmity and conflict is not simply negative. It involves more than refusing to possess or use deadly weapons. Jesus builds on the commandment not to kill by adding a new commandment, the commandment to love, and to love not only friends but enemies.

Let me read the texts as given in Matthew and Luke:

You have heard that it was said you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even tax collectors do the same?

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and to him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your coat as well. Give to everyone who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods, do not ask them again. As you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.

From the fifth century onward, many have sought to reduce these sentences to advice for the few rather than normative for ordinary Christians. We have been told that it is best to read such teachings and their associated parables allegorically rather than literally. At the same time many have gone to great lengths to distinguish killing from murder, with the result that one can get a medal for killing in state-authorized wars and the death sentence (in certain countries) for the kind of unauthorized killing we call murder. Christianity in the West developed a just war theory that has become so embedded in western Christianity as to be regarded as doctrine. What impact has just war teaching had on the practice of war? Has it prevented or restrained war? The list of wars denounced as unjust by hierarchs in countries at war is not long. I can only think of one example and it is fairly recent: the late Cardinal John O’Connor, archbishop of New York, had the courage to do so in the case of the US-initiated Iraq War. If you can think of any others cases, ancient or modern, please let me know.

The Orthodox Church, to its credit, has not embraced the just war doctrine — it has refused to attach the adjectives “just” or “good” to war and regards all war, of its nature, as sinful, at best a lesser evil. Even so, as far as I am aware, no Orthodox bishop or national synod has condemned or impeded any war in which its members were participating. The example St Columba gave of unblessing a weapon of war is very rare in both West and East, while the solemn blessing of weapons by bishops and priests has been quite normal in countless wars since the fifth or sixth centuries.

As for the call of Jesus that his followers become peacemakers, even in peacetime we rarely hear much about that. We are far more likely to hear sermons about aspects of chastity. (I am reminded of a comment made during the Second Vatican Council by the former Roman Catholic archbishop of Bombay, Thomas Roberts: “Had the Americans dropped birth control devices on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, the Church’s condemnation would have been immediate and uncompromising.”)

As love of enemies is so central to the Gospel, perhaps it would be helpful if we consider what is meant by the words “love” and “enemy.”

In ordinary usage the word “love” has mainly to do with feelings — positive emotional bonds or longings or likings, from the trivial to the sublime: “I love the pizzas they make at Danilo’s.” “I love such-and-such a director’s films.” “I’m madly in love with (insert a name).” The term “love making” usually means sexual intercourse, an action that may or may not have anything to do with love. Along these lines the American Heritage Dictionary defines love as an “intense affection and warm feeling for another person; strong sexual desire for another person; a strong fondness or enthusiasm.”

Such a definition makes Christ’s commandment to love one’s enemies incomprehensible. We can safely say that even Jesus was without intense affection or warm feelings for his judges, torturers and executioners. Yet he loved them.

The Oxford English Dictionary provides both a less emotional and more biblical definition:

Love … [is that] disposition or state of feeling with regard to a person which … manifests itself in solicitude for the welfare of the object … [Love is] applied in an eminent sense to the paternal benevolence and affection of God toward His children, to the affectionate devotion directed to God from His creatures, and to the affection of one created being to another so far as it is prompted by the sense of their common relationship to God.

As used in the Bible, love has first of all to do with action and responsibility, not about one’s emotions or liking someone. To love is to do what you can to provide for the well-being of another whether you like that person or not. In explaining his Father’s love, Jesus talks not about sentiments but about what God gives and does: “Your Father in heaven who makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.”

An act of love may be animated by a sense of gratitude and delight in someone else — wonderful when it happens — or it may be done despite exhaustion, depression, fear, aversion or anger; it may be done simply as an obedient response to Christ’s teaching; it may be done as a prayer and a response to God who is our common Creator, who links us all, in whose image each of us is made, in whom we are brothers and sisters, who has bound together love of God with love of neighbor.

Think of an exhausted parent awoken at three in the morning by a crying infant who, even after being held and fed, its diaper changed, carried and stroked and sung to, refuses to stop crying. It’s not a time when one feels grateful for the child or glad to be alive. Ignoring irritated feelings, you do what is needed and try to do it gently and patiently. This is an image of actual love.

In the final analysis love has little to do with moods, affections or affinities. “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy,” Thomas Merton wrote in Disputed Questions. “That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.” [“The Power and Meaning of Love” in Disputed Questions (New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy), p 125.]

According to Saint Paul the greatest gifts of God are faith, hope and love, and of these three the most important is love. Describing the qualities of love, Paul says nothing about emotions, only that love is patient and kind, without jealousy or boasting, without arrogance or rudeness, doesn’t insist on having its own way, doesn’t rejoice at wrong but rather in the right, and endures everything.

On to the word “enemy.” It comes from the Latin, inimicus. Amicus means friend. Add the negative prefix in and change the a in amicus to i and you get inimicus. Defined broadly, an enemy is the opposite of a friend.

My son Daniel, when he was seven, offered a very crisp definition of what it is to be a non-friend when he told another boy to “go away and drop dead.” In the plain speech of childhood, an enemy is someone, anyone, who would do well to go away and drop dead.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives a more clinical definition. An enemy, it says, is an “unfriendly or hostile person, one that cherishes hatred, and who works to do ill to another.”

This is an astute entry as it points the finger not only toward another person or nation but also at oneself. We are used to perceiving others as enemies, never ourselves. But if I am unfriendly or hostile toward others, if I cherish hatred or participate in doing ill to others, or even if I am busy threatening or preparing to do ill, I have made myself into an enemy. Unless I make a break with enmity, the enemy of my enemy is me. If I wish to break the cycle of enmity, I had better keep in mind that the only enemy over whom I have much influence is myself.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, longtime captive in the Soviet chain of prison camps he called the Gulag Archipelago, discovered while a prisoner that the line of enmity ran not between himself and his adversary but through his and every human heart:

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the dividing line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being, and who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? [Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, (New York: Harper & Row, 1974) vol. 2, “The Ascent;” translation by Thomas P. Whitney.]

Which of us can claim to have a heart entirely free of evil? Which of us isn’t someone’s enemy? And even an enemy of one’s self? Gandhi, the prophet of nonviolence who played a crucial role in India’s struggle for independence, made a similar remark: “I have only three enemies. My favorite enemy, the one most easily influenced for the better, is the British nation. My second enemy, the Indian people, is far more difficult to influence. But my most formidable opponent is a man named Mohandas K. Gandhi. With him I seem to have very little influence.” Pogo, an affable American cartoon character whose comic strip flourished in the Fifties, put it in even fewer words: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” The enemy we encounter most often is seen not through the window but in the mirror.

But of course there are also the enemies we have rather than the enemies we are.

An enemy is anyone I feel threatened by and seek to defend myself against. An enemy is a person or group of people whose defeat I would count a victory. What for them would be bad news for me would be good news. An enemy is someone whose death I would not mourn and might even welcome and celebrate, as did many Americans and others when Osama bin Laden was killed.

Enemies can be divided into two broad categories, those nearby and those faraway — those known by name and those who are strangers.

As any judge or policeman will tell you, most murders and other acts of abuse and violence occur between people who know each other — a member of one’s family, a friend, a neighbor, a co-worker. When a wife or husband is killed, at the top of the list of suspects is the spouse. Take away all the court cases involving intra-family disputes and thousands of advocates, barristers, lawyers and judges would be out of work.

The list of enemies includes those I know by name as well as people I see in terms of categories and stereotypes: Blacks, Whites, Muslims, Arabs, Jews, Asians, gays, punks, leftists, liberals, conservatives… The list can zigzag on for miles. It may well include people in political groups in opposition to my own or people in important roles of political leadership whose views and actions I detest. It is hard to imagine a president or prime minister who would dare appear in public without bodyguards.

Then there are the distant enemies. Internationally, an enemy is a mass of people I am encouraged, even all but required, to perceive as a threat to my nation and may, in case of war, be required to kill or whose killing I would regard as necessary, if not good — or, in the case of non-combatants, as an unfortunate consequence of a just war. Such enemies are not acquired through personal animosity but simply due to their birth and nationality — and mine. The enemy in such cases is not an individual but an entire people defined by national borders or ideology. Such enmity is remarkably impersonal and flexible — last year’s mortal enemy can become this year’s ally.

Political speeches, blog content on the internet, movies and fiction all serve to develop and reinforce enemy stereotypes so that little by little one can regard an entire nation or category of people as an appropriate target of war. News reports emphasize war crimes committed by the enemy while ignoring or down-playing the war crimes “our side” commits — for example the many noncombatant deaths caused by pilotless drones are rarely headline news in the press.

So we have our very personal enemies, even within our families and parishes, and we have those enemies who are seen as a threat to our nation. As Christians, how do we respond? Our Savior not only instructs us to love our enemies but, within the same sentence, he immediately gives a clear instruction regarding the first step to be taken: pray for them: “But I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

If we have any interest in attempting to love our enemies, we must first admit we have enemies and, insofar as we can, to be able to identify them by name. In fact most of us are reluctant to use the word “enemy” in describing people who are part of our daily lives. But once I have admitted to myself that I have enemies, I have a starting point. Until then, the Gospel commandment to love one’s enemies and pray for them is a dead letter.

Now let me ask a potentially embarrassing question: You’re a Christian. Christ has told you to pray for your enemies. When have you last done so? How often? Regularly? Occasionally? Rarely? Never?

I have an exercise for you. Before you go to bed tonight take a piece of paper and make a list of people you have an aversion to praying for — your own enemies list.

Think about people you know who make you feel anger or fear, persons you dislike and whose company you avoid, individuals in your family, neighborhood, workplace or church whom it distresses you to see, individuals who have hurt you or hurt those in your care.

Give a thought to groups or categories of people you think of by national, racial, political or religious labels. Think of people who are the current or potential targets of weapons and armies that in some way you support, passively or actively, willingly or unwillingly, through your work, political alignments, payment of taxes or other activities.

As names occur to you, write them down. Do so even if you think the word “enemy” is perhaps too strong. In instances in which you haven’t got a name, use a label.

Once you have a first-draft of such a prayer list, try to make use of it on a daily basis. Make it part of your Rule of Prayer.

Another exercise: From time to time look again at what you have written down not so much for purposes of prayer but rather to think about each name or label.

Insofar as you are able, consider in each case how the enmity began. Consider incidents or reasons that explain or justify your feelings. Consider ways in which the enmity involved has shaped, limited, damaged or endangered your life or the lives of people dear to you.

Next step. Try and take the point of view of those you have listed. Are they actually your enemies? Or might it be truer to say you’re their enemy? Or is it half-and-half? In either case, what have you done or failed to do that might explain or justify their hostility?

Have you searched for points of common ground and possible agreement? Have you allowed yourself to be aware of qualities that are admirable in those you have listed or have you preferred to see only what, from your perspective, is flawed in them?

Consider what might happen to you, to others, if this enmity continues: separation, divorce, court battles, children caught in the crossfire, shattered friendships, division in your parish, division among co-workers, misery in the work place, loss of employment…

In the case of differences between nations, think of ways in which you participate in enmities that, if they worsen, could explode into war. In a world in which there are thousands of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, consider what war might mean in the worst case. Are you doing anything that might make war less likely or helping bring to an end a war in progress?

Prayer that doesn’t influence your own actions means little. Why should God pay attention to a prayer that has no influence on your own behavior? What steps have you taken to change relationships with those on your list? Have you talked to others who might help or intervene in a constructive way? Can you imagine what you could do that might help bring to an end any of the enmities you have listed. What can you do that might help convert enmity to friendship?

The Church, in recognizing saints, places before us diverse models of sanctity — people who, in most cases, also had to deal with enemies. By taking time to study the lives of particular saints, we are certain to find helpful examples.

Here’s an example. One of the masters of the spiritual life in the last century was Saint Silouan the Athonite. He was an uneducated Russian peasant who was born in 1866 and died in 1938. In his youth he was an immensely strong man who had a volcanic temper. During a feast day celebrating the patron saint of his village, he was playing a concertina when two brothers, both cobblers, began to tease him. The older of the brothers tried to snatch the concertina from Silouan and a fight broke out between them.

“At first I thought of giving in to the fellow,” Silouan told another monk later in his life, “but then I was ashamed at how the girls would laugh at me, so I gave him a great hard blow in the chest. His body shot away and he fell backwards with a heavy thud in the middle of the road. Froth and blood trickled from his mouth. All the onlookers were horrified. So was I. ‘I’ve killed him,’ I thought, and stood rooted to the spot. For a long time the cobbler lay where he was. It was over half an hour before he could rise to his feet. With difficulty they got him home, where he was bad for a couple of months, but he didn’t die.” [Archimandrite Sophrony, Saint Silouan the Athonite (Essex: Monastery of St. John he Baptist, 1991), pp 14-15]

For the rest of his life Silouan felt that there was only the slightest difference between himself and a murderer. He had yielded to a murderous impulse. It was only by chance that his powerful blow hadn’t been deadly. Perhaps it’s not surprising that, as time passed, he found himself drawn towards a life of prayer and penance. After becoming a monk on Mount Athos, he thought long and hard about violence and its causes, in the course of which he developed a profound sense of human inter-connectedness. He realized that “through Christ’s love, everyone is made an inseparable part of our own, eternal existence … for the Son of Man has taken within himself all mankind.”

Little by little Silouan came to the realization that love of enemies is not simply an option of Christian life, a possibility that few will attempt and fewer still achieve, but is, as he put it, “the central criterion of true faith and of real communion with God, the lover of souls, the lover of humankind.” Or, as he said on other occasions, “No one has ever known God without having loved his enemies.”

There is nothing new in this. The Gospel author St John said the same: “Whoever says he loves God but hates his neighbor is a liar.”[1 John 4:20] Could anyone say it more simply or more plainly? Hatred of anyone blockades communion with God.

In appealing for God’s mercy, prayer warms our cold hearts. The moment I pray for someone, however reluctantly, I establish an intimate connection with that person. Even the smallest act of caring that prayer involves is a major step toward love, an act of participating in God’s love for that person. Prayer gives us a point of access to God’s love for those we would otherwise regard with disinterest, irritation, fear or active hostility.

Think of God as a weaver, in fact the weaver. All creation is part of that endless and ongoing and infinitely complex weaving. You and I are part of the fabric — and so are our enemies. To approach God is to discover connections, including the ways that I and my enemy are bound together like crisscrossing threads in the same tapestry. The moment we turn toward God the weaver, we turn toward a divine love that connects everyone, whether a nun caring for a dying beggar or a psychopath who has just raped and murdered a stranger. This is the economy of grace that Christ is describing when he speaks of rain and sunlight being given to all, not just the virtuous. We are part of an inter-connected human unity in which our worst enemy also exists. This doesn’t mean that God is indifferent to the sins we or our enemies commit, but we are nonetheless objects of God’s life-giving love and benefit from the divine hope that we might yet become what God intended us to become.

A starting point in prayer is being honest with God: presenting ourselves as we are, not as we wish we were or as we think God wants us to be, not dressing up for God but standing before God as naked as Adam and Eve before their exile from Paradise. If we’re going to present our spirits naked to God, there is no need to pretend to God that we love an enemy in an affectionate sense. Better to communicate our actual feelings. Perhaps something like this:

God, you must know I can’t stand [insert the name of whomever you are at enmity with]. I often wish him dead or at least wish he were miserable and far away. But I pray for him because you commanded me to pray for my enemies. Personally I don’t actually want to do it but I do want to be one of your disciples and I am trying to be obedient to your words. Help me to see him as you see him. Let me glimpse your image in him. May I live in such a way that both of us can lay aside our hostility and forgive each other. May I at least not be an obstacle to his salvation. I admit I find it hard to want anything good for him — help me to want it, help me to pray for him.

The simplest of prayers can also be used. You may find it helpful to repeatedly recite a variation of the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on [the name of someone on your enemies list].”

By the way, be patient. Expect no quick results or even slow results. Or any result. You may pray for years for a person or group and see no changes at all, at least none that you were hoping for. (In fact prayer for a change even in one’s own behavior requires persistence.) In prayer for an enemy, at the very least there is a change in you — the creation of a bond of care for the other.

In praying for enemies, we are not hurling holy thoughts at them or petitioning God to make them into copies of ourselves. Rather we are bringing our enemies into that part of ourselves which is deepest and most vulnerable. We are begging God for the good of those whom, at other times, we wished ill or wished to harm. In praying for enemies, we are asking God to use us for the well-being of those we fear.

At the same time, we are asking to see ourselves as we are seen by those who fear us, so that we can see enmity not only from our side but from the other side, for we not only have enemies — we are enemies. We would do well to pray not only for the conversion of our adversaries but for our own conversion. We ourselves may be harder to convert than our adversaries. The most needed conversion may be my own.

Let me end these reflections by stressing that prayer for enemies is only a first step. On the foundation of prayer, one becomes more capable of doing good to enemies, turning the other cheek, forgiveness, breaking down the dividing wall of enmity, refusing to take an eye for an eye, and seeking nonviolent alternatives. But without prayer for enemies, how likely is it that we will become capable of transformative acts of love?

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This text is a slightly expanded version of a talk given to participants in the August 2014 Iona pilgrimage organized by Friends of Orthodoxy on Iona and led by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware. It draws on material in Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment. See: http://jimandnancyforest.com/2014/07/loving-our-enemies/ .

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A brief comment on Seraphim Rose’s “Letter to Thomas Merton”

I’ve just re-read Fr Seraphm Rose’s “Letter to Thomas Merton,” written in 1962 but apparently never actually sent to Merton. Sometime after Rose’s death in 1982, the text was discovered and published as a booklet and eventually posted to the web where it remains available:


http://deathtotheworld.com/articles/a-letter-to-thomas-merton/

Rose’s letter is regarded by some as a strong patristic response to Merton’s alleged “aberrations”, notably his writings on such controversial topics as war and peace.

What strikes me most in rereading Rose’s letter is that it is, by the later standards of his writing, an immature work. Much of it is written in a sarcastic tone, with many words set in quotations marks where there is no need for them. More important, Rose seems to have read very little of Merton’s writing and misunderstood a good deal of what he had read.

Rose’s letter was written in the same year as his reception into the Orthodox Church, when Rose was new to Orthodoxy and in the thick of convert zeal. It may be that Rose came to regard his letter as flawed and intemperate and abandoned it.

It’s a pity, however, that Rose never made contact with Merton. He would have found that in fact they shared much common ground. Merton too was a student of the Church Fathers. Merton also had an aversion to utopian ideologies no less intense than Rose nor was Merton any more optimistic about the future than Rose. Rose would have helped Merton clarify what he meant by such phrases as “total peace” — for Merton nothing less than living the evangelical life.

For Rose, a dialog with Merton, a fellow monk living on the edge of a diseased society, might have led to a greater appreciation of the place of public witness and even protest on issues such as nuclear war. In 1962, many Americans, including Catholic and Orthodox Christians, favored a unilateral nuclear attack on Russia. We now know such an attack had the support of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Many millions of people would have died. As a popular slogan in those days put it, “The only good red is a dead red.” Monks, Merton believed, should see the moral issues of the world around them with heightened clarity. He felt it essential to raise a voice of opposition. In fact his writing on this topic had a significant impact. According to the pope’s secretary, John XXIII’s remarkable encyclical “Pacem in Terris” (Peace on Earth) was in part influenced by Merton’s writings on peace. The fact that there was no nuclear war in the 1960s can partly be credited to the lonely prophetic voice of Merton — and still more to John XXIII.

Readers of these comments might find of interest a lecture I gave several years ago on this aspect of Merton’s life:

http://jimandnancyforest.com/2009/02/sheds-no-blood/

Jim Forest

16 July 2014

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Sister Mary Evelyn Jegen: On Benevolent Glancing

Mary Evelyn Jegen
Sister Mary Evelyn Jegen, SND
This is an extract from an interview I did with Sister Mary Evelyn Jegen, SND, sometime in the mid-80s and published (not sure of the date) in “Reconciliation International,” the journal of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation. Mary Evelyn died on July 4, 2014. An obituary is attached.– Jim Forest

A news item about Pope John Paul’s visit to Southeast Asia a few years ago provided an opening in my search to integrate prayer and peace work. It was reported that, in meeting the Supreme Patriarch of the Buddhists of Thailand, protocol required that they first sit together in absolute silence while “exchanging benevolent glances.” The story intrigued me. I wondered what it was like to exchange benevolent glances with a stranger. Did Pope John Paul have to practice in advance? What was the difference between just plain looking and benevolent glancing?

As I do not drive, I spend much of my life in buses. What better place, I thought, to experiment with benevolent glancing? At first I felt a bit awkward. I did not try to engage anyone’s eyes, so benevolent glancing was strictly a unilateral initiative.

A strange thing happened. I found I was praying. I don’t mean saying prayers. I was being attentive, alert and aware in a way impossible to describe. I was very much “with” a mysterious depth of reality. I was looking at others not merely with curiosity but with love. After all, love is what benevolence is all about: the word means “to wish another well.”

After a year of practice, I happened to meet a Buddhist priest. In his family he was of the fortieth consecutive generation of Buddhist priests. He said that the Buddhist way of seeing is different than the western approach. Westerners want to extract data, to “take” what they can from what they see, while a Buddhist tries simply to be present, to allow reality to present itself, to wait for it to come forward to meet the eye.

What has this got to do with peace? Very much. Benevolent glancing is an art of attentiveness. Paying attention to what is before us is a way of prayer, even a definition of prayer. We know by faith that God is everywhere. Benevolent glancing is relishing God by being attentive to what is before us.

My experience has been that persons who would be uncomfortable in considering contemplative prayer as something for themselves can nevertheless become enthusiastic about benevolent glancing. It seems to correspond to an unexpressed desire. A person who would shy away from contemplative prayer, through benevolent glancing, will in fact practice it.

Peacemaking and contemplation are so intimately related that one can hardly exist without the other. This truth can be appreciated by recognizing that violence depends on distorting the object or the victim of violence, turning the victim into an impersonal object which can then be injured or even killed. An army officer told me that killing in war is much easier now that soldiers don’t have to see the faces of the enemy. In modern war we are able to describe the death of people as “collateral damage.” Psychologically, it would be impossible to kill anyone on whom one had just been casting a loving glance. The day we teach people to look at persons behind the abstractions, to glance benevolently at them, the military-industrial complex will have a serious problem.

There is a huge difference between staring and benevolent glancing. To practice benevolent glancing is to experience deeply stirred emotions–from embarrassment and fear to compassion and love. Fear of invading the privacy of another person causes the embarrassment, but this initial feeling can be shaped into what we traditionally call modesty, a way of respect, reverence, even awe to be in the presence of the splendor of the human person who is “little less than the angels…crowned with glory and honor.”

To practice benevolent glancing is to expose oneself to pain and suffering. To take a bus ride is to come into direct contact with the embodiment of suffering: to see the deep lines in a face, the sag of the shoulders. I look carefully at one person at a time, allowing that person’s truth to come home to me. It is not always an older person whose body bears the marks of a life of endurance. It can be a high school student. In these cases I often have to deal with my own irritation and impatience at the behavior of teenagers. Before long I find myself seeing someone beautiful.

People who ride the bus are often poor, but, poor or not, one thing we have in common is that we are not in change. We are dependent on others and know our dependence. This group atmosphere tends to make the atmosphere less assertive than in other places.

I have discovered that benevolent glancing often has a ripple effect. I have the impression that I am not alone in the exercise. I can testify that if one seeks it, gently and attentively, there is often a profound sense of God’s presence in a bus.

Appreciation and admiration for others evokes a more active benevolence, a desire for the good of the other persons. While this rarely translates into a particular act at the time, it does affect the deep structure of the personality of the one practicing benevolent glancing. When the occasion arises, I find I am more apt to act constructively.

To be attentive to a suffering person is quite different than attention to a merry child. A benevolent glance toward a suffering person is an act of compassion. It is compassion that acts as a bridge from attentiveness to action, an action that can be healing and liberating.

Caring is essential to peacemaking. Peace is the goal of the universal longing for order in relationships, with the earth itself, with others, with God. To care is to be in peace while one is peacemaking. Pablo Casals once wrote: “I feel the capacity to care is the thing which gives life its deepest significance.”

The gospel accounts show us Jesus looking with keen attention. This appears to have been his habitual way of seeing. How else to account for his easy and spontaneous use of imagery to carry home a point! Jesus didn’t go through life with his eyes closed, uninterested in the homey events of daily experience. He saw each face. Think of the encounter with the rich young man. Mark says, “Jesus looked steadily at him and loved him.”

I have never minded riding in a bus, but since that first experiment of benevolent glancing a few years ago, I look forward to bus riding as a great adventure. If the day ever comes when I have no need to ride the bus in order to get somewhere, I will ride the bus anyway simply for the joy of benevolent glancing.

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http://obits.dignitymemorial.com/dignity-memorial/obituary.aspx?n=Sister+Mary-Jegen&lc=7360&pid=171655105&mid=6039108

Sister Mary Evelyn Jegen
February 15, 1928 – July 4, 2014

Marilyn Jegen was the second of five children in a family that encouraged creativity and learning, love of the grandeur of nature and deep faith. Her desire to give herself totally to God led her to religious life. She wanted to enter an apostolic Institute and perhaps it was a resonance with Saint Julie’s desire that her daughters have “hearts wide as the world” that helped draw her to the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur where she received the name Sister Mary Evelyn.

Sister Mary Evelyn taught at the elementary and secondary levels for eleven years before being missioned to St. Louis University for her doctoral studies. Those studies took her to London, England for her first international experience of Notre Dame and the world outside of the United States. After completing her doctorate she began teaching at the college and university level.

It was while serving as an assistant professor in the History Department at the University of Dayton that she had an experience that changed her life. Some students asked her to help them file for conscientious objection. That request led her to take issues to prayer that raised new questions and insights, and opened her heart to a new call. She later said: “They converted me. I remember the date and hour of my decision. I was on retreat, and said to myself: ‘This is where I stand. From now on I work for peace.'”

Sister Mary Evelyn began her work for peace in Rome at Regina Mundi Institute. While teaching there she also designed and carried out an international research project for the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace. The area of research was the emergence of the peace and justice movement during the Second Vatican Council, and the subsequent development of the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace and its ecumenical offspring. This research took her to other parts of Europe, to India, and to the United States. She returned to the United States and taught Catholic Social Teaching and Christian Spirituality courses at Mundelein College, Creighton University and the Education for Parish Service Program at Trinity College, Washington, D.C.

Starting in 1976, Sister Mary Evelyn combined teaching with board and staff positions in national and international religious peace and justice movements. She served as the first executive director of the Bread for the World Educational Fund, as the first director of Mundelein’s Center for Women and Peace, helped establish the U.S. branch of Pax Christi, and served as Pax Christi USA’s first national coordinator.

Under her direction Pax Christi USA grew to be a major factor in the religious peace movements in the U.S. Her work went beyond the borders of the U.S. During this period she made nine trips to Europe to coordinate the work of the U.S. branch with other national branches of the Pax Christi movement. She was appointed to the Pax Christi Human Rights Commission. In 1984 she was elected to the executive committee of Pax Christi International, and also elected vice president. Sister Mary Evelyn introduced the Pax Christi movement in India, Pakistan, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand. She served as a representative for Pax Christi International at the United Nations from 1992-2001, and continued work on Pax Christi International’s Peace Spirituality Project. In addition Sister Mary Evelyn began working at both the international and the national levels with a new interfaith movement, Global Peace Services in 1989.

Sister Mary Evelyn lectured extensively on peace and justice issues at numerous workshops, conferences and symposiums at home and abroad. She served as editor of proceedings for some of the symposiums, and edited several books. She also wrote prolifically: articles for newspapers and magazines, book reviews, pamphlets and books. Some of the publications of her work appeared in Fellowship Magazine, New Catholic World, and The National Catholic Reporter. Her books included Following the Nonviolent Jesus, How You Can be a Peacemaker: Catholic Teaching and Practical Suggestions and Just Peacemakers.

Sister Mary Evelyn also witnessed for peace. Praying for peaceful solutions to the First Gulf War, she asked others to join her as she began a 24-day prayer vigil outside the White House in response to a “personal call to generate a prayerful presence around the White House.” In 2006 she was one of four anti-war demonstrators arrested at the Cincinnati office of a U.S. House Representative.

In community Sister Mary Evelyn took an individual interest in each Sister. She shared her gifts of bread making (which for her was a prayer experience) and cooking, planning and leading prayer and gently facilitating community meetings. She brought joyful energy to relationships, the concerns of the world to the intentions of community prayer, thoughtful insights to all levels of community discussions, and beauty into her surroundings through her gift for gardening. During her years at Mount Notre Dame Sister Mary Evelyn faithfully visited her Sisters in the Health Center, often bringing a flower from her garden. She would share tea with them, take them for walks, share poetry with them and often discuss something she had just read or heard on the news. She appreciated the time she spent with each Sister-friend.

She valued her relationships with her family and friends. She treasured visits with her family, delighting in each generation. She enjoyed time spent with her sisters who answered calls to other religious congregations: Sister Evelyn Jegen and Sister Carol Frances Jegen. She made friends and made herself at home wherever her work took her. She appreciated the diversity of cultures and religions. She was gifted with the ability to maintain friendships across distance and time, her heart continually expanding to embrace new people and new experiences.

Sister Mary Evelyn accepted the illness that marked her last months with the simplicity and openness to God’s presence that marked her entire life. A woman who lived what she taught, a paraphrase of Proverbs 3:17 might summarize her life: “Her ways were pleasant ways, and all her paths were peace.” The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur mourn her loss and join her family and many friends in thanking God for her life, so full of God’s goodness.

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Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment

Loving Our Enemies cover (medium)

 

Few passages in the Gospel are more familiar yet more ignored than this one:

“You have heard that it was said you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even tax collectors do the same?” (Gospel of Matthew 5:43-46)

Not everything Jesus taught must be regarded as a commandment. Counsels of absolute poverty or celibacy, for instance, have been seen as an option for a small minority of Christ’s followers. The same cannot be said about the love of enemies. This does not fall in the “if you would be perfect” category. It is, instead, basic Christianity, which Jesus taught through direct instruction, through parables, and by the example given with his own life. And yet it is undoubtedly the hardest commandment of all, one that runs counter to our natural inclinations. It is a commandment that calls for prayer, discernment, and constant practice. Along with reflections drawn from scripture, the lives of the saints, and modern history, Forest offers “nine disciplines of active love,” including “praying for enemies,” “turning the other cheek,” “forgiveness,” and “recognizing Jesus in others,” that make the love of enemies, if not an easier task, then a goal worth striving toward in our daily lives.

Read the book’s first chapter here: http://jimandnancyforest.com/2014/07/changing-course/

Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment was published by Orbis Books in September 2014; orders can be placed at bookshops and various online sites. Support your local book seller.

 

Pre-publication recommendations and reviews:

“A statement of the Gospel challenge and the Gospel hope so clear that it is frightening: this is real, this is possible, this cannot be written off – and this demands change here and now in me. A book to be deeply grateful for.”
— Rowan Williams
retired Archbishop of Canterbury, now Master of Magdalene College at Cambridge University

“With the profound wisdom gained from a life devoted to peacemaking, Jim Forest examines the dark nature of our enmities and suggests ways of breaking down walls of hatred and of learning to forgive — for the sake of world peace and our own personal healing. This is a book to challenge, inspire, and transform. A major contribution.”
— Veronica Mary Rolf
author of Julian’s Gospel: Illuminating the Life & Revelations of Julian of Norwich

“Jim Forest reflects on the most difficult of all Jesus’s sayings, and he does so in his trademark style: with wisdom, compassion and courage. Using insights from his own life, and from those of great Christians like Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton and Fyodor Dostoyevski, he shows us that while it may be a “hard teaching” it is also a liberating one. For forgiveness liberates not only the one forgiven but the one who forgives.”
— James Martin, SJ
author Jesus: A Pilgrimage

“Jim Forest’s reflections peel back all the ideologies we Christians rely on to justify violence and war and reveal the peace that lies at the heart of the Gospel. Jim is a superb storyteller, a master of the anecdote, a witness to the quiet power of peacemaking in the world. These reflections and meditations should be read slowly, carefully, prayerfully, again and again.”
— Michael Baxter
Associate Professor of Catholic Studies, DePaul University

“One emerges from this inspiring volume persuaded by Martin Luther King, who taught that ‘this command is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization,’ and by Forest, who guides us to dare to believe that we are capable of such love in our lives.”
— Rabbi Amy Eilberg
author,  From Enemy to Friend: Jewish Wisdom and the Pursuit of Peace

Jim Forest’s new book is on the discipline of “active love” in overcoming obstacles within ourselves, the barriers that are erected by our socialization in families, schools and cultural media so that we hate our enemies. It is a book of timely and perennial interest for all of us living in a culture of perpetual war and violence. He has a journalist’s gift for clear prose and using stories from personal experience to illuminate his insights.

He is a veteran peace activist, a colleague of Dorothy Day’s at the Catholic Worker, a member of the Catholic Peace Fellowship who went to jail for his actions on behalf of peace and is today the secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. His book is full of humanity and compassion for the hard inner work required to become persons of peace and non-violence ourselves as we join with others in effecting political and social change.
This book is deeply radical as it points to Jesus’ commandment to love our enemies as foundational to being a Christian. Whoever is not doing the work of loving our enemies is not a disciple of the Lord. What is most valuable in his book is his description of the practice of “active love,” an inner work that will always be a long slog, never fully accomplished, but does not accept that loving our enemies is inevitable and “just the way things always were and are,” so it’s useless to struggle for an impossible goal of loving those we perceive as against our best interests.

One of Forest’s descriptions of “active love” is sourced from Doestoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov,” spoken by the monk Zossima: “Active love is a harsh and fearful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams thirsts for immediate action, rapidly performed and with everyone watching. Indeed it will go so far as the giving even of one’s life, provided it does not take long and everyone is looking on and praising. Whereas active love is labor and perseverance.” This is to say, Forest points out, that working for peace internally and politically is more like “building a cathedral,” not seeing a final result which might be long in coming.

Part II of the book is most useful for spiritual practice and for teaching nonviolence in classrooms. The author identifies “nine disciplines of active love,” and dedicates nine chapters to show how each activity of “active love” can be pursued in individual or communal meditation settings.

Jim Forest has written a book of clear, well-written and useful instruction for striving to fulfill Jesus’ hardest commandment in our violent and perilous times. Highly recommended.
–Jonathan Montaldo
author; former director of the Thomas Merton Center

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reader responses:

Thank you for writing Loving Our Enemies. I guess for me, on a personal level, the nearest I’ve come to incarnating “enemy love,” was when I was called upon, in 2013, to be the caregiver for my step-father during the final weeks of his life, after he chose not to be hospitalized for his illness. There was a part of me that wanted to see him suffer being alone for all the years of emotional trauma he caused my Mom, my siblings (including his own children), and myself. But, I couldn’t do it – I could not let that happen. Something deep within kept telling me that “Love never fails,” “Love always wins.” And so I took care of him, and it was hard, but it was good, in that he died not alone, and knowing that he was loved. I loved him by being there with him and for him in his time of great need. I think I now have a better understanding of what “loving one’s enemy” is all about.
— Judy Gale, Chapel Hill, North Carolina

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Where Love is Never Treason

Loving Our Enemies cover (medium)[This is the first chapter of Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment by Jim Forest. The publisher is Orbis.]

One day Jesus asked the question, “Do people gather figs from thistles?” The answer is of course no — you harvest what you plant. Plant thistles and thistles take root and thistles they become. If you want to grow figs, you need to start with fig seeds. With this question, Jesus implicitly ridicules the idea that good can be brought about by evil means. Violence is not the means of creating a peaceful society. Vengeance does not pave the road to forgiveness. Spousal abuse does not lay the foundation for a lasting marriage. Rage is not a tool of reconciliation.

Yet, while figs do not grow from thistles, in the world of human choice and action, a positive change of attitude and direction is always a possibility. Sinners are the raw material of saints. The New Testament is crowded with accounts of transformations.

Chora mosaic marriage at Cana (detail 2)In the Church of the Savior in the Chora district of Istanbul, there is a fourteenth-century Byzantine mosaic that, in a single image, tells a story of an unlikely transformation: the conversion of water into wine for guests at a wedding feast in the village of Cana. In the background Jesus — his right hand extended in a gesture of blessing — stands side by side with his mother. In the foreground we see a servant pouring water from a smaller jug into a larger one. The water leaves the first jug a pale blue and tile-by-tile becomes a deep purple as it reaches the lip of the lower jug. “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana, in Galilee, and manifested his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”

This “first sign” that Jesus gave is a key to understanding everything in the Gospel. Jesus is constantly bringing about transformations: blind eyes to seeing eyes, withered limbs to working limbs, sickness into wellbeing, guilt into forgiveness, strangers into neighbors, enemies into friends, slaves into free people, armed men into disarmed men, crucifixion into resurrection, sorrow into joy, bread and wine into himself. Nature cannot produce figs from thistles, but God is doing this in our lives all the time. God’s constant business in creation is making something out of nothing. As a Portuguese proverb declares, “God writes straight with crooked lines.”

The convert Paul is an archetype of transformation. Paul, formerly a deadly adversary of Christ’s followers, becomes Christ’s apostle and his most tireless missionary, crisscrossing the Roman Empire, leaving behind him a trail of young churches that endure to this day. It was a miracle of enmity being turned to friendship, and it happened in a flash of time too small to measure, a sudden illumination. Witnessing the first deacon, Stephen, being stoned to death in Jerusalem must have been a key moment in setting the stage for Paul’s conversion.

Peter is another man who made a radical about-face. Calling him away from his nets, Christ made the fisherman into a fisher of men. At the Garden of Gethsemane, the same Peter slashed the ear from one of those who had come to arrest Jesus. Far from commending Peter for his courage, Jesus healed the wound and commanded Peter to lay down his blood-stained weapon: “Put away your sword for whoever lives by the sword shall perish by the sword.” For the remainder of his life, Peter was never again a threat to anyone’s life, seeking only the conversion of opponents, never their death. Peter became a man who would rather die than kill.

How does such a conversion of heart take place? And what are the obstacles?

It was a question that haunted the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, who for years struggled to turn from aristocrat to peasant, from rich man to poor man, from former soldier to peacemaker, though none of these intentions was ever fully achieved. As a child Tolstoy was told by his older brother Nicholas that there was a green stick buried on their estate at the edge of a ravine in the ancient Zakaz forest. It was no ordinary piece of wood, said Nicholas. Carved into its surface were words “which would destroy all evil in the hearts of men and bring them everything good.” Leo Tolstoy spent his entire life searching for the revelation. Even as an old man he wrote, “I still believe today that there is such a truth, that it will be revealed to all and will fulfill its promise.” Tolstoy is buried near the ravine in the Zakaz forest, the very place where he had sought the green stick.

Were we to discover it, my guess is that the green stick would probably turn out to bear a three-word sentence we have often read but have found so difficult that we have reburied it in a ravine within ourselves: “Love your enemies.”

Twice in the Gospels, first in Matthew and then in Luke, Jesus is quoted on this remarkable teaching, unique to Christianity:

You have heard that it was said you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even tax collectors do the same?

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and to him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your coat as well. Give to everyone who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods, do not ask them again. As you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.

Perhaps we Christians have heard these words too often to be stunned by their plain meaning, but to those who first heard Jesus, this teaching would have been astonishing and controversial. Few would have said “amen.” Some would have shrugged their shoulders and muttered, “Love a Roman soldier? You’re out of your mind.” Zealots in the crowd would have considered such teaching traitorous, for all nationalisms thrive on enmity. Challenge nationalism, or speak against enmity in too specific a way, and you make enemies on the spot.

Nationalism is as powerful as an ocean tide. I recall an exchange during the question period following a talk opposing the Vietnam War that I gave in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, back in 1968. I had recently been involved in an act of war resistance that would soon result in my spending a year in prison, but for the moment I was free on bail. During the question period, an angry woman holding a small American flag stood up and challenged me to put my hand over my heart and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. I said that flags ought not to be treated as idols and suggested instead that all of us rise and join in reciting the Our Father, which we did. Her anger seemed to recede a bit but I suspect in her eyes I was a traitor. I had failed her patriotism test.

We tend to forget that the country in which Jesus entered history and gathered his first disciples was not the idyllic place Christmas cards have made of it, a quiet pastoral land populated with attractive sheep, colorfully dressed shepherds and tidy villages crowning fertile hilltops. It was a country enduring military occupation in which most Jews suffered and where anyone perceived as a dissident was likely to be executed. In Roman-ruled Palestine, a naked Jew nailed to a cross was not an unfamiliar sight. To Jesus’ first audience, enemies were numerous, ruthless and close at hand.

Not only were there the Romans to hate, with their armies and idols and emperor-gods. There were the enemies within Israel, not least the tax collectors who extorted as much money as they could, for their own pay was a percentage of the take. There were also Jews who were aping the Romans and Greeks, dressing — and undressing — as they did, all the while scrambling up the ladder, fraternizing and collaborating with the Roman occupiers. And even among those religious Jews trying to remain faithful to tradition, there were divisions about what was and was not essential in religious law and practice as well as heated arguments about how to relate to the Romans. A growing number of Jews, the Zealots, saw no solution but violent resistance. Some others, such as the ascetic Essenes, chose the strategy of monastic withdrawal; they lived in the desert near the Dead Sea where neither the Romans nor their collaborators often ventured.

No doubt Jesus also had Romans and Rome’s agents listening to what he had to say, some out of curiosity, others because it was their job to listen. From the Roman point of view, the indigestible Jews, even if subdued, remained enemies. The Romans regarded this one-godded, statue-smashing, civilization-resisting people with amusement, bewilderment and contempt — a people well deserving whatever lashes they received. Some of those lashes would have been delivered by the Romans in blind rage for having been stationed in this appalling, uncultured backwater. Judaea and Galilee were not sought-after postings for Roman soldiers — or for the Roman Prefect at the time, Pontius Pilate.

Jesus was controversial. Not only were his teachings revolutionary, but the more respectable members of society were put off by the fact that many drawn to him were people who had lived scandalous lives: prostitutes, tax collectors and even a Roman officer who begged Jesus to heal his servant. The Gospel says plainly that Jesus loved sinners, and that created scandal.

Many must have been impressed by his courage — no one accused Jesus of cowardice — but some would have judged him foolhardy, like a man putting his head in a lion’s mouth. While Jesus refused to take up weapons or sanction their use, he kept no prudent silence and was anything but a collaborator. He did not hesitate to say and do things that made him a target. Perhaps the event that assured his crucifixion was what he did to the money-changers within the Temple precincts in Jerusalem. He made a whip of cords, something which stings but causes no wounds, and set the merchants running, meanwhile overturning their tables and scattering their coins. Anyone who disrupts business as usual will soon have enemies.

Many devout people were also dismayed by what seemed to them his careless religious practice, especially not keeping the Sabbath as strictly as many Pharisees thought Jews should. People were not made for the Sabbath, Jesus responded, but the Sabbath made for people. Zealots hated him both for not being a Zealot and for drawing away people who might have been recruited. Those who led the religious establishment were so incensed that they managed to arrange his execution, pointing out to the Romans that Jesus was a trouble maker who had been “perverting the nation.” It was the Romans who both tortured Jesus and carried out his execution.

Any Christian who believes Jesus to be God incarnate, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, who entered history not by chance but purposefully, at an exact moment and chosen place, becoming fully human as the child of the Virgin Mary, will find it worthwhile to think about the Incarnation happening just then, not in peaceful times but in a humiliated, over-taxed land governed by brutal, bitterly resented occupation troops. Jesus was born, lived, crucified and rose from the dead in a land of extreme enmity.

Transposing Gospel events into our own world and time, many of us would find ourselves alarmed and shocked by the things Jesus said and did, for actions that seem admirable in an ancient narrative might be judged unwise and untimely, if not insane, if they occurred in equivalent circumstances here and now. Love our enemies? Does that mean loving criminals, murderers and terrorists? Call on people to get rid of their weapons? Apprentice ourselves to a man who fails to say a patriotic word or wave a single flag? Many would say such a man had no one to blame for his troubles but himself.

It was a big step, and a risky one, to become one of his disciples. Had you lived in Judaea or Galilee when the events recorded in the Gospel were happening, are you sure you would have wanted to be identified with him?