Doing the Impossible: Loving Our Enemies

Loving Our Enemies cover aa sermon given at a retreat of the Orthodox parish of St Nicholas of Myra in Amsterdam

By Jim Forest

Today happens to be one of the Sundays when the Gospel reading calls on us to do something — love our enemies — that seems completely impossible:

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? [Matthew 5:43-46]

Love? We love persons who are dear to us. We love our families. We love certain works of art, certain pieces of music, certain writers, certain books, certain films, certain activities. We love good food. We love a certain restaurant. We don’t love enemies or even wish to love them. How can we love someone who has done us harm or even seeks our destruction, someone who is a threat to my family or my homeland?

Is Jesus Christ serious in commanding his followers to love those who, in fact, we hate?

Partly it’s a problem of definitions. It helps if we understand that when the word “love” is used in the New Testament, it means something very different than most of us imagine. The biblical meaning has almost nothing to do with sentiments. But most of us think of love as entirely about feelings. One widely used English-language dictionary defines love as “intense affection and warm feeling for another person; strong sexual desire for another person; a strong fondness or enthusiasm.”

Love in that sense was not what Jesus was speaking about. A much better definition, more complex and with theological content, is provided by The Oxford English Dictionary:

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 is not what we feel but how we choose to relate to another person or group of people. Love has first of all to do with action and responsibility, not about liking someone. To love is to do what you can to provide for the wellbeing 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.” [Matthew 6:45]

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.

If you want a vivid image of love in action, 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 icon of actual love.

To become even vaguely aware of each person being a bearer of the divine image helps open the door to unsentimental love. 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. [1 Corinthians 13:4-13]

One more word to think about is “enemy.”

The English words “enemy” and “enmity” come 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 challenging 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 a double-edged 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 called the Gulag, discovered while a prisoner that the line of enmity ran not between himself and his adversary but through 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? [The Gulag Archipelago, vol. 2, “The Ascent.”]

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? The enemy we encounter most often is seen not through the window but in the mirror.

Once you recognize that you have enemies, the thing to do is to make it a daily habit to pray for them. As Jesus said, “Love your enemies, pray for them.” Prayer is the first step. Make a list of your enemies and keep it in your icon corner. Such prayer creates a thread of connection between you and the other. It can be a very simple prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on {so-an-so).” Little by little, prayer can open the door to compassion.

Let me end with a remarkable story of compassion toward enemies occurring on a large scale. It happened in Moscow in the next-to-last year of the Second World War. Among the witnesses was the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, then still a child. He was standing at his mother’s side on July 17, 1944, part of the crowd watching a procession of twenty thousand German war prisoners being marched across Red Square. Yevtushenko writes:

The pavements swarmed with onlookers, cordoned off by soldiers and police. The crowd was mostly women — Russian women with hands roughened by hard work, lips untouched by lipstick, and with thin hunched shoulders which had borne half of the burden of the war. Every one of them must have had a father or a husband, a brother or a son killed by the Germans. They gazed with hatred in the direction from which the column was to appear.

At last we saw it. The generals marched at the head, massive chins stuck out, lips folded disdainfully, their whole demeanor meant to show superiority over their plebian victors. ‘They smell of perfume, the bastards,’ someone in the crowd said with hatred. The women were clenching their fists. The soldiers and policemen had all they could do to hold them back.

All at once something happened to them. They saw German soldiers, thin, unshaven, wearing dirty, blood-stained bandages, hobbling on crutches or leaning on the shoulders of their comrades; the soldiers walked with their heads down. The street became dead silent — the only sound was the shuffling of boots and the thumping of crutches.

Then I saw an elderly women in broken-down boots push herself forward and touch a policeman’s shoulder, saying, ‘Let me through.’ There must have been something about her that made him step aside. She went up to the column, took from inside her coat something wrapped in a colored handkerchief and unfolded it. It was a crust of black bread. She pushed it awkwardly into the pocket of a soldier, so exhausted that he was tottering on his feet. And now from every side women were running toward the soldiers, pushing into their hands bread, cigarettes, whatever they had. The soldiers were no longer enemies. They were people. [A Precocious Autobiography (New York: Dutton, 1963), p 26]

It was a truly eucharistic moment initiated by the compassion of one brave woman. Food was in short supply — everyone in the crowd was undernourished. Even the smallest scrap of bread was valuable. Yet hungry women gave bread to hungry enemies. We might say it was a reenactment of the miracle at Emmaus. Once again Christ was known in the breaking of bread.

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Jim Forest’s most recent book is Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment. More about the book here:
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text as of 23 December 2014