This past week, I have been thinking about Jesus’ commandment to love our enemies. I began thinking about it in earnest when the breaking news flash from the BBC came across my phone announcing to me that there had been an attack in London. Like the rest of the world, after reading the news, I kept coming back to the news to discover what had happened and as the details were release it became clear to me that it was another attack which would result in naming enemies.
Dare I say this? We live in a time when many see enemies all around. Sometimes it feels as if we are encouraged to call people who look differently or think differently or believe differently, our enemies. The world is a diverse place and it is made up of differences, but these differences are not meant to divide us and cause us to consider others enemies, but we do and probably, we have since the beginning of time.
How do we reach a point when we, as the human race, stop seeking out people that we can name as an enemy? How do we reach a point when we can hear one of the most fundamental teachings of Jesus and take it to heart? Jesus said: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44)
Henri Nouwen, a theologian whose writings have inspired me many times over the years addresses these questions of mine:
“One of the core messages of the Gospel is “Love your enemies.” When we’re dealing with our own needs, anxieties and fears, we tend to divide the world into enemies and friends. But God showers the rain over the bad as well as over the good. God doesn’t need to divide the world into those for God and those against God because God loves everyone uniquely and unconditionally. Our God wants us to do the same, but we can only do that if we believe in God’s unconditional love for us, and if we are not overly dependent on human affirmation or rejection. We will be able to love our enemies precisely when we no longer need to divide the world into friends and enemies anymore.
To love our enemies is the core message of the Gospel because it is a reflection of the way God loves us.” (From the Henri Nouwen Society, wwwhenrinouwen.org)
“Love your enemies.” I read Nouwen’s words after praying for a dear friend who has had enemies that emerged in life last year this time. As I reflected about the notion of “enemies” this week I was aware that enemies come in forms that are not always recognizable. Maybe that is why it is so powerful to understand and try to live by the words of Jesus, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” whether you recognize the enemies or not.
These days those who want to take away services or harm the lives of the neighbor families that we work with at Crosslines and the Parish House are “enemies.” It isn’t always easy to love them; I wish I could figure out how, but Nouwen’s words do help me. His words remind me that it is us that tend to divide the world into enemies and friends, possibly because we don’t take the time to try and understand those who are different than we are—to try and hear their stories and find out what we have in common. God doesn’t need to divide us into enemies and friends, because God knows, understands, and loves all people. Maybe that is difficult for us to comprehend because unconditional love does not come easily for humanity, but we must try and understand how God sees all of us. We must try and understand how God can love all us. And we must learn to love unconditionally.
My early childhood years occurred during the sixties, during the Viet Nam War. During the summers of my childhood, my family spent as much time as possible at my grandparents’, my mother’s parents. It was the tradition to gather each night before bedtime to read the Bible and pray. My grandfather always prayed the same prayer, the same words every night. Often, I have wondered where he learned that prayer. Who taught him that prayer? Was it the prayer that his parents prayed each night? Or maybe the prayer came from grandparents several generations back from me.
There was one line in the prayer that I have never forgotten. Each night I waited for my grandfather to get to that one line. I would hold my breath to make sure I would hear him say the line because even as a child, instinctively, I knew it was possibly the most important line in the prayer. I can still hear my grandfather’s aging voice, with a gentle Southern draw say, “We pray for the enemy.”
Do we pray for our enemies? I think now, maybe more than any other time in my life, it is important for all of us to be praying for our enemies.
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute us.”
To God alone be glory.
My grandparents, Thorn and ruby Oliphant, whose nightly prayer ritual taught me to pray for all people, including the enemy.