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.
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 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 nonviolence 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.
author; former director of the Thomas Merton Center
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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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