Love your enemies. That statement by Jesus is unique to Christianity. What is even more unique is how that statement is lived. We see ‘love your enemies’ when we look at Jesus in His Passion. He tells Peter to put away his sword, and then heals one of the men brutalizing Jesus. He doesn’t resist. He isn’t defensive. And as He is dying, He asks God the Father to forgive them because they are ignorant about who they are really attacking; because He truly loves them.
We also see ‘love your enemies’ in action with St Stephen. His last moments are similar to Jesus. Treated with injustice, brutalized, put to death—and this holy deacon begs Jesus to forgive them.
‘Love your enemies.’ But that’s not all. ‘And pray for those who persecute you.’ Which is what Jesus, St Stephen, St Peter, St Paul, and holy women and men throughout history have done. They have prayed for their persecutors, those who terrorize them, the abusers, and those who mistreat them. And the prayer is not ‘Make them stop’ but ‘Forgive them, be merciful to them, do not hold this wrong they are doing to me against them.’
All of this is challenging in the abstract. When our enemy is a nameless, faceless person; someone on social media or someone in the news or someone far away—those folks are difficult but also easier to love.
But when someone is attacking you, someone from your own family, someone you know well, someone like Judas or Saul—when that is your enemy, then the command to ‘love your enemy’ truly matters. And that is really what Jesus is talking about. The person who is raging against you. The one who is getting in your face, yelling and screaming at you, threatening you, making you feel unsafe—that is the one, above all else, that we are called to love. That person, in that moment, is the one out of 99 that Jesus, through you, reaches out to.
“That’s what I would really like: that even at the moment when your enemy is raging against you, you then turn your eyes to the Lord your God and speak the words of Jesus or St Stephen: Father, forgive them.” (St Augustine)
So watch yourself, especially when your enemy is someone close to you, someone you know. Watch yourself that you don’t become their enemy. Instead, love them. For “in no way at all can your raving enemy do you more harm that you do to yourself, if you don’t love your enemy. He can damage your house, your stuff and, at most, if he’s given the authority, he can harm your body. But can he do what you can do by your hatred: can he, as you yourself can, do any damage to your soul?”
To love your enemy, then, is to protect your soul. To love your enemy is not simply an ideal for saintly people. It is what you must do to make sure you don’t throw away the love of God and your heavenly inheritance. We must not let our passions, our hatred, our desire to strike back, our extreme words, or any aggression of any kind get ahold of us. For then we kill our very self far more than no enemy, no matter how brutal, can do to us.
I say this to you for two reasons. First, too many of us are saying and sharing and posting and retweeting things that are truly hurtful—to our family, to our parish, to those who aknow us. This is hatred in words, and it is slowly killing us when we give into it. Standing up for what we believe in does not mean lashing out at those who disagree or who are even wrong. The Christian responds to these things, not by laying down, but also not by picking up the gun or the phone or any other weapon of metal or words. The Christian responds by saying, “Father, forgive them” and by trying, at all costs, to win the enemy by love. And he does this chiefly to guard his own soul; and then also to help Christ win back one from the 100.
The second reason I’m reflecting on our Lord’s command is because of the response to terrorism from our Patriarch in Damascus. The decades, even centuries, Christians have been persecuted and put to death. These brothers and sisters in Christ know their enemies—their faces, their names, where they live. And the Patriarch’s own brother, together with another bishop, were kidnapped and possibly brutalized 7 years ago. And what is His Beatitude’s response? “Christians…are still paying, with their lives and their fate, taxes to terrorism and violence: displacement, kidnapping, murder, and many a tribulation. Despite all this, [Christians] remain faithful to their pledge of love for Jesus Christ, as the Lord who redeemed them on the Cross and implanted them in this East two thousand years ago, to proclaim the joy of His Gospel.”
To proclaim the joy of the Lord’s Gospel: the Gospel of mercy, love, kindness, forgiveness—that is our only task. And that, more than anything else, is what it means to love your enemy.