09/10/2011 11:15 am ET Updated Nov 09, 2011

The Call to Love Our Enemies (Including Terrorists)

In the prophetic books of the New Testament, the enemy of the Christian peacemaker is the Beast, who is empowered by the Dragon that we find in the book of Revelation and supported by the false prophet. The Christian peacemaker is a servant of the Lamb who is slain from that same Biblical text. The two are in opposition to each other.

The Dragon seeks power through domination, an exertion of force, coercion and law. Its action in the world is understood in terms of a "common sense" that devolves into the depravity of cynicism. It expresses itself through conflict on every level from the global to the personal, in terms of war, the lust for power, a pride of life that denies the sovereignty of God, consumerism and its subsequent addictions, and the lack of peace that is temporarily satiated by control and exploitation, pleasure and self-indulgence.

The Lamb that is slain who is in opposition to the beast, and who prevails, is Jesus. His kingdom follows a completely different set of principles, which are described by Christ in the beatitudes. The peacemaker does not use the same weapons as those who live in the world of the beast, but is rather armed with truth, faith, forbearance, forgiveness, mercy, grace and the love of enemies.

Loving enemies, however, seems on an experiential and existential level to be counterintuitive, and contrary to common sense. The religious leaders, teachers and scribes of Christ's time were challenged by Him because they held the "traditions of men"; we may hold onto similar ideas, political assumptions, or our own notions of "common sense" that are rooted in our own finite and tainted experiences, our own rationality, rather than in the experience and knowledge of God.  But the peacemaker engages in warfare with weapons that are not of this world.

We tend to balk at the idea of loving our enemies even more strongly than we resist the notion that the way to true riches is through poverty of spirit, or that the way to find comfort in the face of death is not by going out and trying to be happy, or by trying to evade pain by lifting our spirits, whether in more healthy ways or through addictive but destructive escape mechanisms - but rather we find comfort in Christ through mourning, fullness through hunger, forgiveness through forgiving others, and so on through all the beatitudes.

Jesus teaches us that the way to the fulfillment of the promise of the kingdom of heaven is to accept and be transformed through the difficulties with which we are faced. We become children of God through peacemaking, which involves facing conflict, rather than avoiding it.  Therefore, the path to healing, reconciliation and peace is to love our enemies, rather than fight them.

As St. Silouan writes, ""When you will love your enemies, a great divine grace will be living in you."

How can we possibly love our enemies? St. Silouan reminds us that we cannot do so apart from the grace of God. In other words, we must be emptied of our own attachments to the things that we clamor for in an attempt to satisfy lust or evade pain, and allow ourselves to be filled with the presence of God. We empty ourselves so that we may be filled.

There is a Stoic understanding of apathy that seems to regard the lack of attachment as a negation, a difficult ascetic endeavor, self-denial, a notion that assumes that it is primarily marked by absence, the absence of passions or attachments. That element does exist on a subjective level. We do not want to give up the idols which comfort us, which we were reared on, which appeal to our intuitive sense of what is rational or normal, or to which we are addicted and enslaved by. But the ancient Christian idea of apathy does not stop there. It is more characterized by the reality of presence, the experience of the energies of God in the context of our lives here and now, the overwhelming personal manifestation of divine love. When we are filled with the love of God as a real experience, it is not quite so difficult to let go of attachments, or to transform the passions. This includes the capacity to see others as they are and not as potential threats to us, or people who might benefit us in some way.

Through the presence of grace, we can understand that our enemy is like us and as we seek to know our enemies we pay attention to them as they really are, and in merely paying attention we begin the action of loving them. Without the grace and presence of God indwelling us and filling us, truly loving our enemies is not possible.

Martin Luther King Jr. asks, 'how do we love our enemies?' and he has practical suggestions, including learning how to forgive, recognizing that the wrong your enemy has done does not totally define him, and by not seeking to defeat or humiliate our enemy but rather to win his friendship and understanding.

St. John Climacus writes,

Remembrance of wrongs is the consummation of anger, the keeper of sin, hatred of righteousness, ruin of virtues, poison of the soul, worm of the mind, shame of prayer... You will know that you have completely freed yourself of this rot, not when you pray for he person who has offended you, not when you exchange presents with him, not when you invite him to your table, but only when, on hearing that he has fallen into bodily or spiritual misfortune, you suffer and weep for him as for yourself.'

We begin to love our enemies by paying attention to them, by seeing them as they truly are and not as our fears would make them out to be. Martin Luther King takes it further, and writes,

Why should we love our enemies? The first reason is fairly obvious. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction....So when Jesus says "Love your enemies," he is setting forth a profound and ultimately inescapable admonition. Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies-or else? The chain reaction of evil-hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars-must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.

The peacemaker's love for enemies seems impractical when terrorists blow up our buildings and kill thousands. It seems impractical for Martin Luther King, too, when he describes the way black people are treated in his letter to eight white Clergyman who find his protests distasteful and tell him to stop agitating things and rather wait patiently for justice to eventually be brought to fruition.  He writesto them eloquently. movingly and passionately from his jail cell in Birmingham, where he has been
incarcerated for marching without a permit,

[W]hen you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness"--then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.

In that context, being treated as a nobody without dignity, as less than fully human, not many people would see the practicality of loving one's enemy. How do you love an oppressor who, as per the image from George Orwell's 1984, is constantly slamming his boot into your face?  In fact, in circumstances like this, many people advocate not only the humiliation and defeat of the enemy, but outright violence, killing the enemy, whether in war, assassination, capital punishment or violent revolution. Yet Martin Luther King Jr. continues,

To our most bitter opponents we say: "We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.


To this I would add the word of St. Maximus the Confessor, who writes,

The Lord says, "love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who persecute you." Why did he command these things? So that he might free you from hatred, sadness, anger and grudges, and might grant you the greatest possession of all, perfect love, which is impossible to possess except by the one who loves all equally in imitation of God.