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: https://jimandnancyforest.com/2014/07/loving-our-enemies/ .

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