Loving our enemies

Tapestries of Bose, Feet washing, detail
...up until the moment he washed the feet of Judas...

Words of Spirituality
Those who do not hold grudges or take revenge, but who correct their brothers and sisters, are also capable of forgiveness

"All people love their friends, but only Christians love their enemies." It is significant that when Tertullian (Ad Scapulam 1:3) seeks to express the Christian 'difference,' he chooses to focus on love of one’s enemies. Love for our enemies is a genuine summary of the Gospel: if the entire Law is summarized in the commandment to love God and our neighbor (Mark 12:28-33, Romans 13:8-10, James 2:8), life according to the Gospel finds its full realization in Jesus’ words and actions, which reveal that love for one's enemies is the fulfillment of Christian praxis. Jesus said, "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you" (Luke 6:27, cf. Luke 6:28-29 and 35, Matthew 5:43-48), and his entire life - up until the moment he washed the feet of Judas, who had made himself his enemy; up until the cross, where he expressed his love for his own "to the end" (John 13:1); up until his prayer for his torturers as they were crucifying him (Luke 23:33-34) - proclaims his unconditional love for all, even his enemies. Christians, who are called to have in themselves the thoughts, attitudes, and will of Christ (cf. Philippians 2:5), find themselves confronted with this requirement day after day. Yet we cannot help asking, is it really possible to love our enemies, and to love them as they are displaying their hostility, opposition, hatred and aversion?

Is such a scandalous return of love for hatred humanly possible? We learn from experience that our fascination with the idea of total love for our enemies vanishes without a trace when we are faced with specific, concrete situations of hostility, and in such situations we find ourselves unable to act in a way that corresponds to our convictions. Perhaps this experience is already a first small step, and one that is humanly necessary, along the path toward loving our enemies. In addition to this, the Gospel leads each Christian to recognize him- or herself as an enemy loved by God and for whom Christ died. This fundamental experience of faith is the only possible departure point for the spiritual journey that leads us toward love for our enemies! Paul writes, "God proves his love for us in that while we were sinners and enemies Christ died for us" (cf. Romans 5:8-10). We must join to this experience of faith a step-by-step journey toward human maturity in which we learn to view alterity as positive, to meet others, to build relationships, and to grow in love. In the Old Testament, the invitation made to the Israelites to love their neighbors as themselves is proposed as part of an itinerary: "I am the Lord. You shall not bear hatred for your brother in your heart. Though you may have to reprove your fellow man, do not incur sin because of him. Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your fellow countrymen. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord" (Leviticus 19:17-18).

What is first asked is personal attachment in faith to the one who is the Lord. The Israelite is then called to avoid feelings of hatred (a negative attitude), to correct those who do wrong (a positive attitude) without seeking revenge (a negative attitude), and, in this way, to love his neighbor as himself (a positive attitude). Love is reached through a journey, and it requires practice. Love is not spontaneous: it involves discipline, asceticism, and a struggle against the instinct of anger and the temptation of hatred. Through this combat we acquire the responsibility and courage that allow us correct our brothers and sisters, criticizing in a constructive way the wrong done by others. Love for our enemies is not the same as complicity with those who sin! Rather, the freedom of those who know how to correct and reprove those who do wrong springs from deep faith and love for the Lord, and this faith and love are the necessary precondition for loving our enemies. Those who do not hold grudges or take revenge, but who correct their brothers and sisters, are also capable of forgiveness: and forgiveness is the mysterious maturity of faith and love that allows us, when we have been offended, to choose freely to renounce our own rights in a relationship with someone who has already trampled on our rights. Those who forgive sacrifice a juridical relationship in favor of a relationship of grace! When Jesus asks those who follow him to love their enemies, he also asks them to undertake a journey.

We are called, first, to make an effort to go beyond the lex talionis ("an eye for an eye") in each new situation we face. We must then reach the point of not offering resistence to those who wrong us, countering evil with the extremely active passivity of nonviolence, and trusting in God, who is the one Lord and Judge of human hearts and actions. An enemy is our greatest teacher, because he or she unveils what is in our heart but does not emerge when we are on good terms with others. If we are convinced of this, we will find it possible to obey the words of our Lord, who asks us to turn the other cheek and to hand over even our cloak to the one who wants to take our tunic. For all of this to happen, prayer and intercession for our persecutors and adversaries is indispensable. The Gospels, which place this commandment next to the command to love our enemies ("Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you," Matthew 5:44), remind us of this. Unless we carry others in prayer - and in a particular way others who make themselves our enemies, oppose us, act with hostility toward us and insult us - and unless we let prayer teach us to see others through God's eyes, in the mystery of their identity and vocation, we will never manage to love them! Yet it must be said clearly that loving our enemies requires deep faith, ‘intelligence of the heart,’ interior richness, and love for God, and not simply good intentions!

From: ENZO BIANCHI, Words of Spirituality,
Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London 2002