I’ve been thinking lately about whether it is possible, or even desirable, to love an enemy. In his sermon on the mount, Jesus says, ““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” (Matthew 5: 43-44). Just because Jesus said it doesn’t mean we need to do it without thinking. That’s not being faithful; that’s being an automaton. To be faithful is to trust and trust isn’t automatic; it’s nurtured over time.
We don’t have to do what Jesus said just because he said it, but we do need to trust that there might be something behind his injunction to love your enemies and pray for them. What could that something be? If we trust that Jesus incarnates God’s love and justice, then to love an enemy can’t perpetuate hate and injustice. Therefore, to love one’s enemies can’t mean:
- To love someone who is harming you without removing yourself from that position of harm and asking that they stop.
- To look the other way with indifference while someone hurts another person.
- To place all the responsibility for change upon yourself or upon your enemy.
Because he follows “love your enemies” with “and pray for those who persecute you,” Jesus seems to understand an enemy as someone who has the power to oppress you and/or the group you belong to. What would it mean to love such a person (or people) in a way that promotes love and justice?
Sometimes considering another tradition can give us a fresh insight into our own. In an “On Being” interview with Krista Tippet, Thich Nhat Hanh talks about having compassion for a terrorist. That sounds like “love your enemy” to me. He says that when we meditate, one thing we can do is to have compassion for ourselves and for our own suffering. All of us suffer, but if we do not acknowledge our suffering, we may be prone to behaving in ways that make others suffer. Having a wrong perception of the world can lead to suffering. The terrorist, Thay says, suffers from a wrong perception of themselves and the world. To love them is to acknowledge that their wrong perceptions are not who they really are, just as our wrong perceptions are not who we are. We don’t excuse what they’ve done, or look the other way, or just wish they weren’t like that. We “pray” for them as fellow sufferers who cause suffering because of their wrong perceptions.
In his sermon on the mount, Jesus is speaking to his disciples, but he is also speaking to a large crowd of people, adults and children, who are overhearing him. These are poor Galilean Jews, oppressed by Roman occupiers and those collaborate with them, such as tax collectors. Jesus isn’t spouting off pieties. He’s offering a radical way to throw off oppressors, namely, to pray for them, to acknowledge that they are pawns in a larger system of powers and principalities, perpetuating suffering and oppression becuase they don’t know a better way. The better way is to “pray for persecutors,” transforming enemies into kin.
In the next verse, Jesus gives the reason for this enemy-love: “so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous.” Using admittedly patriarchal language, Jesus is saying, “God is impartial with sun and rain; as God’s kindred, you should do the same.” He then points out that if you love those who love you, big whoop. Even mob bosses do that. Be more than that. Transform the world by having compassionate love for those who don’t deserve it. Desire their liberation as much as your own.
I don’t do this “love your enemies” thing often or well. One thing that has been helping me is simply to acknowledge that every person, however evil, is human, and to admit that I harbor tokens of evil in my own life, tokens of discrimination and lack of care of the earth and even subtle forms of violence.
Another thing that helps is to pray for those who are threatening to me or to those I love. By pray, I mean asking God to help me become a more loving person so I might see my enemy in a new light, see them for who they really, children of God. This prayer is not only good for me, which it most certainly is, but I have faith it is also good for my enemy. If love is the most powerful thing in the world, and I choose to believe it is, then love is the only thing that can transform an enemy into a fellow traveler, and that transformation needs to take place in me first before it takes place in my enemy.