Did Jesus Really Mean It When He Said, "Love Your Enemies"?

by Jim Forest

Reading Christian history, it is hard to imagine that Jesus called on his followers to love their enemies:

“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.” (Luke 6:27-31; also note Matthew 5:43-46)

Even for those familiar with these words, the question arises: Did Jesus mean it?

This teaching must have astonished those who first heard him say it. Some must have muttered, “A Jew, love a Roman? You must be joking!” A few in the crowd would have considered him traitorous, for enmity is the shadow side of nationalism. Small wonder that Jesus was killed. Speaking against enmity is to make enemies on the spot.

What is an enemy?

My son Daniel once offered a crisp definition when he said a friend of his, momentarily in disgrace, should “go away and drop dead.” An enemy is anyone I feel threatened by and seek to defend myself against. What for them would be bad news, for me would be good news.

There are domestic enemies and foreign ones. Often one’s chief enemy is near-by: a family member, a co-worker, a neighbor, a co-religionist. Christians used to be at their most ruthless with other Christians. In-house enemies can be the most threatening. Crimes of violence mainly occur within the family or among friends. Domestic enemies may be people whom I regard only in categories: gays, punks, pro-abortionists, people in expensive cars, people in particular religious or racial groups, people in an opposing political party, a political leader whose policies I despise.

Internationally, an enemy is a mass of people I am taught to fear and, in case of war, may be ordered to fight. Such enmity can be quite impersonal. The enemy isn’t an individual but a system, a party, an entire people.

What does love mean?

Love has acquired some meanings that would amaze the Jews Jesus was speaking to. In current usage it has mainly to do with good luck in romance and sex, a definition that makes the commandment to love one’s enemies incomprehensible.

In the Bible, love has to do with action and responsibility; the stress is not on how one feels. To love is to do what you can to provide for the wellbeing of another whether or not the person is likeable. What Jesus does is love. In explaining his Father’s love, he talks about what God gives.

An act of love may be animated by a sense of delight in someone else–wonderful when it happens–or it may be done despite anger, depression, exhaustion or aversion, done simply as a prayer to God and a response to God, who links us all, in whom we are brothers and sisters, “who makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.”

Often the teaching of Jesus is written off because it was addressed, it is said, to people in a gentler, more pastoral world than ours.

But the country in which Jesus was born wasn’t the idyllic place Christmas cards make of it. It was a country enduring military occupation in which a dissident was likely to be executed. A Jew dying on the cross was no rare sight. In Jesus’ original audience, enemies were numerous, vicious and nearby.

There were the Romans to hate, with their armies and idols. There were tax collectors who gouged all they could, for their own pay was a percentage of the take. There were enemies within: Jews imitating the Romans and Greeks, dressing–and undressing–as they did, while scrambling up the ladder. Even among those religious Jews trying to remain faithful to tradition, there was argument about what was essential and what wasn’t, and there was sharp political division about how to relate to the Romans. The Zealots saw no solution but armed struggle. Others, like the Essenes, chose withdrawal.

Not only Jews but Romans were listening when Jesus spoke, some out of curiosity, others because listening was their job. From the Roman point of view, the indigestible Jews, though momentarily subdued, remained enemies. The Romans viewed this one-godded, statue-smashing people as well deserving any lashes they received.

Those drawn to Jesus were mainly “marginal” people. He loved sinners, the gospel says plainly. He loved them not just for who they might become but who they were already. Still there were others who came to him whose brokenness was less visible: scholars, soldiers, ordinary working people, respected and secure people, people with something to lose. They were drawn by his readiness to forgive, his ability to heal, his common-sense, his utter truthfulness, his quiet courage. They were drawn by his love, a love which included even them.

There were those drawn by his grief. When he performed miracles, it wasn’t with a magician’s detachment but with a profound sense of connection. The gospel notes two times when Jesus wept in public: before the tomb of his dead friend Lazarus, and again as he approached Jerusalem en route to the cross.

His capacity for grief was matched by his courage. Jesus was no coward. He kept no “prudent silence.” He didn’t hesitate to say and do things which made him a target. Perhaps the event that assured his crucifixion was what he did to the money-changers. He made a whip of chords (which sting but cause no injury) and set the bankers running, scattering their precious money. In so doing, he made clear that love of enemies doesn’t mean submitting to them. In fact we are obliged to do good to them–very possibly a good they don’t want.

Is it possible to love an enemy? I know the answer is yes because I have experienced it in my own life and I have seen it happening in every country my work brings me to. Yet I know it isn’t easy. By oneself, the love of enemies is probably impossible. Just as problems in a marriage often benefit from the help of skilled marriage counsellor, discovering the human being within the enemy involves being part of a community working on it together.

But help from others isn’t enough. I need to ask God to help me see my enemy with God’s own care and hope.

While the love of an enemy involves a range of actions that may include active resistance, it always begins and ends with prayer. Jesus told us to pray for our enemies.

I think about Staretz Simeon Silouan, an uneducated Russian peasant, a powerful man with a volcanic temper. One day he was playing a concertina at a village festival when two brothers began to tease him. The older brother tried to snatch the concertina and a fight broke out. “At first I thought of giving in,” Silouan later admitted, “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.”

Silouan felt ever after that there was only an accidental difference between himself and a murderer. As time passed, he found himself increasingly drawn toward prayer and penance. Finally joining a monastery on Mount Athos, he thought and prayed deeply about violence and its causes. A profound sense of human inter-connectedness was one of God’s gifts to him. 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.”

Without prayer for enemies, he realized, we are powerless to love them. In fact the only love we can offer is God’s own love. Prayer can give us access to God’s love for those we would otherwise regard with hostility.

One of the people of prayer who inspires me is another Russian, an old woman I know only through the autobiography of her grandson, Maxim Gorky. In Russian churches, I have often been surrounded by crowds of women cut from the same loaf. As a child, Gorky watched his grandmother praying aloud before her candle-lit icon.

“She always prayed for a long time after a day of quarrels and aggravation [for she was married to a violent, quarrelsome husband]. She told God about everything that had happened in the house, down to the last detail. Massive, like a mountain, she would kneel down and start off very quickly and in an unintelligible whisper and then deepened her voice to a loud grumble. `As you know too well, God, everyone wants the best of things. Mikhail, the elder, should really stay in the town, and he wouldn’t like it if he had to go across the river, where everything’s new and hasn’t been tried out yet. I’ve no idea what will happen. Father has more love for Yakov. Do you think it’s a good thing to love one child more than the other? He’s an obstinate old man. Please, God, make him see reason!’ As she looked at the dim icon with her large, shining eyes, she instructed God, ‘Let him have a dream which will make him understand how to give himself to both his sons!'”

She went on and on, reflecting before God, with God, about each person in the house, than the neighbors. She would at times cross herself, bow down to the floor and even, in moments of anguish, bang her head against the floorboards. At times there were extended silences. Her grandson thought she had fallen asleep. Then she recovered her voice and continued the dialogue.

I hope to live long enough to learn to pray like that, to be that free of embarrassment about being a praying person. But I have already lived long enough to know that to pray whole-heartedly is the most vital force in life.

In praying for enemies, I find it helpful to spend time quietly visualizing the face of a person I dislike, reciting the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Such prayer becomes a mirror. I see myself as I am seen. I realize I not only have enemies. I am an enemy. I find myself praying not only for the conversion of my adversary but for my own conversion.

That’s asking a lot. As Gandhi said, “I have only three enemies. The one most easily influenced for the better is the British nation. My second enemy, the Indian people, is more difficult. But my hardest opponent is a man named Gandhi. With him I seem to have very little influence.”

This text is based on material in Jim Forest’s book, Making Friends of Enemies, published by Crossroad/Continuum.