“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).
As Jesus utters those words, I imagine the crowd staring back at him, eyes blinking, mouths agape, as they listen to one of the most powerful teachings in the entire Gospel. Assuredly, some looked around in confusion or even left. I am supposed to love my enemies? I am supposed to pray for my persecutors?
In the Old Testament, the LORD commands the Israelites to “take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your own people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Although there is no statute of Old Testament law that commands the hatred of one’s enemies, “neighbor” in this context referred to the people of own’s own country or village. As understood by the people of ancient Israel, there was no prohibition against revenge exacted against foreigners. Rather, justice was popularly held to be “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Exodus 21: 24-25).
In Mesopotamian history, there are frequent accounts of conflict surrounding allegiance to one’s homeland. Human nature has not changed much in two thousand years, as conflict over national interests continues today. Most of us will never have to apply ethical principles to state decisions, and I for one am not here to prescribe a course of state behavior. However, as 2014 draws to a close, I would like to propose a sort of collective examination of conscience, one that is directed at our attitude toward those we consider our collective “enemies.”
In our hearts, do we truly love our enemies? As Christ tells us, it profits us nothing to love those who love us in return. What is our attitude toward those whom it is hardest to love? Those to whom it is much easier to hate?
On Christmas Day, a topless woman associated with the protest group FEMEN rushed toward the nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square. She grabbed the statue of the infant Jesus from his crib and held it by the leg, shouting insults to the faithful gathered to celebrate the solemnity. As I read this story, love for this woman was admittedly not the emotion that came to mind. But love, in its truest sense, is not an emotion. It is the desire for the other’s ultimate good. With practice and divine grace, I can learn to will this desire. When I choose love over the admittedly easier feelings of indignation or even outright hatred, I become more and more like Christ.
This is not to say I cannot be outraged at groups like FEMEN, with their offensive tactics and appalling message. But I cannot allow that outrage to be channeled into vitriolic rhetoric. I cannot allow hatred to seize my heart.
For a second, more difficult examination, let us consider the Islamic State, a terrorist organization whose violence and depravity is hard to match. Again, I emphasize that I am not referring to state-level decisions or counterterrorism strategy. That question is for someone else. I simply ask for a reflection upon our own attitudes toward those who commit evil actions. Do we pray for their conversion? Or do we wish violence upon them, but take comfort in the fact that we cannot wreak vengeance ourselves?
The path of the Christian disciple is clear, but it is not easy. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, if you are looking for a religion that is easy, I’m afraid you have picked the wrong one. May each of us may find it in within our own hearts to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us.