Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment -- Jim Forest's Much Needed Meditation on a Shamefully Neglected Teaching

03/25/2015 02:18 pm ET | Updated May 24, 2015

I first met Jim Forest -- author of Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment (Orbis, 2014) -- about five years ago when he made the trek from Holland to the south coast of British Columbia to, among other speaking gigs, give an intimate talk on St. Ephrem's Lenten Prayer at my small Orthodox parish then meeting in a converted barn. While giving him a ride from the church to the place he was staying that night, our conversation veered into Eastern Orthodoxy's somewhat underestimated inclusive embrace despite its miscalculated reputation of cold exclusivism -- even if falling victim to this unfortunate reputation at times. From this initial encounter, I was instantly impressed by the judicious and calm manner in which Jim reflected on, in this case, a somewhat thorny ecclesiological issue that reflects the need for more peacemakers to engender ecumenical hospitality.

The inspiring talk he gave at an Orthodox Peace Fellowship conference I organized in Abbotsford, BC in the summer of 2012 only reaffirmed his stoic humility. And the open arms of Orthodoxy that we had discussed a couple years earlier was echoed by Jim's hospitality when he opened his cozy and welcoming home in the historic heart of Alkmaar, Holland to my friend and I while en route to Egypt for a research project on interreligious peacebuilding between Muslims and Coptic Christians. Over the years, I have witnessed -- even if mostly from a distance -- and come to admire Jim's ability to speak calmly, though no less confidently, in hostile arenas and on contentious issues. This is the avoidance of making enemies when speaking on the topic of loving our enemies -- however demanding and imperfect such attempts may be for anyone dipping their toe in such vexed exchanges and themes.

Like Jim Forest himself, Loving Our Enemies exudes gentle wisdom. Ever the engaging and vivid storyteller, Forest weaves together profound anecdotes and quote-worthy insights to ennoble the cessation of enmity and cultivation of reconciliation in this latest offering. For my money, the chapter "Holy Disobedience" is worth the price of admission alone. The book avoids highfalutin jargon and the reader won't get bogged down by esoteric theological terminology, making this a very accessible and fluid read befitting a lay audience -- which a book on this perennially sidelined topic should be. Much deserved, Loving Our Enemies is also the Gold Medal winner in the theology category of the 2015 Illumination Book Awards.

Where the book shines most is in its many inspiring and eye-opening stories accompanied by Forest's probing commentary: the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko's recollection of the sudden compassion of Russian women who watched as thousands of German war prisoners were herded across Red Square during WWII; St. George's witness in martyrdom during the fierce persecution under the 4th-century Roman emperor, Diocletian; the nonviolent manner in which Kasper Mayr, a secretary of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, diffused a potentially violent encounter with Russian troops banging ominously on the door of his house on the outskirts of Vienna; Mother Maria Skobtsova's ministry among the Parisian poor and marginalized in the 1930s and 40s and her efforts to assist, shelter, and smuggle out countless Jews after Paris had been occupied by the Nazis before she faced her own arrest and perished in the gas chamber of the Ravensbrück concentration camp in the place of a Jewish woman.

Each of these stories, and the many others that fill the pages of this very well-written and challenging volume, underscores the creative impulses that shield against the allure of violence and inspire its alternatives so that love of enemies transcends mere psycho-emotional feelings to become genuinely transformed behaviour. The act of storytelling that Loving Our Enemies favours not only eclipses the mere theoretical analyses that can be manipulated by "what if" speculation and convenient customization, but it underscores the very method and sensibilities that humanize the Other and make men of monsters. In a word, the book practices what it preaches and walks the talk.

Although Forest presents the love of enemies as the goal toward which we should all aspire, he makes no claim that adopting this behaviour is easy. It's not. Instead, the love of enemies requires a transformation that manifests itself as humility and a calm confidence that nevertheless doesn't undercut the courage to plunge oneself into tension-filled and potentially violent situations without a weapon in one's hand. Reminding us that "sinners are the raw material of saints," Forest shows us that "Jesus is constantly bringing about transformations" so that even "Peter became a man who would rather die than kill" (7-8).

This transformation is refined by distancing ourselves from the external and internal vices that trick us into embracing violence: nationalism, discrimination, vengeance, grudge-bearing, fear, anger -- lest we become someone else's enemy and produce two enemies in the process. As Forest astutely remarks, "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"; indeed, "[t]he enemy we encounter most often is seen not through the window but in the mirror" (17-18). If we don't deliberately redirect our critical gaze inwardly this way, we risk passively ascribing value and venerating the inundation of "[e]nemy images [that] are forged and reforged, images that give us no glimpse of what is human or decent in our adversaries, images that in the end condemn us to war" (127). These simplistic and superficial images that the mass media force feeds us render any obedience to Christ's commandment to love our enemies an act of dissent, an anomaly to be ridiculed. Rather than rehearse these misleading one-dimensional anti-icons in our fickle minds, we ought to learn that, as Mother Maria Skobtsova insisted, "Each person is the very icon of God incarnate in the world" (162).

Throughout the book, Forest draws from his past and present friendships of such luminaries in the world of peacemaking and social action as Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Thich Nhat Hanh to show us how to transform the Other into co-labourers in the vineyard of collective humanity. Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and social activist with whom Forest maintained a long and meaningful written correspondence, once remarked, "Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy" (14). The Other, however, is not just another member of the human race, but the least of these with whom Jesus directly identifies -- rendering the inability to recognize this mystery "the most common form of Christian spiritual blindness" (24):

"If I cannot find the face of Jesus in the face of those whom I regard as enemies, if I cannot find him in the unbeautiful and damaged, if I cannot find him in those who have the 'wrong ideas,' if I cannot find him in the poor and the defeated and damaged, then how will I find him in bread and wine or in the life after death. If I do not reach out in this world to those with whom he has identified, why do I imagine that I will want to be with him, and them, in heaven? Why would I want to be for all eternity in the company of those I avoided every day of my life?" (165).

And when this transformation take place -- in myself and the Other, so that the Other becomes Christ -- "Suddenly, when we least expect it, a word is said, an expression alters an unexplored face, we glimpse beauty in someone we regarded with irritation, and the two-dimensional ideas we had concerning that other person are demolished. We find ourselves in the presence of a huge mystery" (37).

To equip those who are willing to enter into the great mystery of transformative reconciliation, Loving Our Enemies is divided into two complementary parts, the first -- a more reflective exploration into enemy-love -- laying the groundwork for the second -- a sort of manual outlining a number of practical ways to genuinely cultivate love of enemies. Both parts are equally as insightful, but the second fills a void often entirely missing in literature on love of enemies and interpersonal peacemaking, making this missive all the more valuable. Together they create a -- perhaps even the -- handbook on love of enemies available today. Jim even divulged to me that rather than giving the book the subtitle, Reflections on the Hardest Commandment, he considered calling it Reflections on the Most Neglected Commandment -- a frustration that ironically creates even more enemies who we need to learn to love.

The ascetic invasiveness of the practical portion perhaps explains why this commandment is so neglected, sanitized, and sabotaged. To wit, after listing your personal enemies, Forest advises us, "[t]ry and take the point of view of those you have listed. Are they actually your enemies? Or might it be truer to say you're their enemy? Or is it half and half? In either case, what have you done or failed to do that might explain or justify their hostility?" (90). Uncomfortable stuff. Yet through such exercises, we may come to "realize that those who threaten us feel threatened by us, and often have good reasons for their fears" (117). In the process, we hopefully begin to recognize "God as a weaver" wherein "[a]ll creation, from the book in your hand to the most remote galaxy, is part of that endless and ongoing weaving. To approach God," Forest continues, "is to discover connections, including the ways that I and my enemy are bound together like crisscrossing threads in the same tapestry. ... We are part of an interconnected human unity in which our worst enemy also exists" (95).

Through this acknowledgement of the interconnectedness of the entire cosmos of which we are each an important part, we learn to pray for our enemies in a way that asks "God to use us for the well-being of those we fear" (98). Again, as a practical -- though no less difficult -- choice, Forest reminds us that "[l]ove of enemies and the willingness to forgive are bound together" (115), which is part and parcel with the transformative and equalizing measure of turning the other cheek, epitomized in Dr. Marin Luther King's words, "We will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering" (114). In the end, it is hoped that this practical manual on loving our enemies will help us, as Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh advises, "to live in such a way that if the Gospels were lost, they could be re-written by looking at us" (105).

But if we look at Christian behaviour in the past and today -- including theirs and my own -- would the Gospels be re-written to instead prescribe bombing our enemies, torturing our enemies, slandering our enemies, competing with our enemies, suing our enemies, bankrupting our enemies, demonizing our enemies, neglecting the welfare of our enemies -- in a word, having enemies at all? "We need the church," Forest counsels, "to help us see beyond, and reach beyond, national borders, for Christianity has no borders and waves no flags" (169). Loving Our Enemies further reflects on the terrifying reality that violent behaviour derives from our impulse to "just follow orders," as it did for Adolf Eichmann as he orchestrated the shipment of millions of Jews to the death camps and for the creators of the Gulag Archipelago and for those who dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and showered Agent Orange on Vietnam, wherein "sanity has come to mean merely the capacity to live successfully in society, no matter how toxic it is" (158).

"In that case," Forest declares prophetically, "God bless the mad."