Posted February 26, 2019
‘Love your enemies.’ That’s a tall order. There’s enough in the New Testament to suggest that the early Christians did not always live up to the ideal. St John’s Gospel has Jesus calling some Jews ‘the children of the devil, who is a murderer and a liar’. Elsewhere too in the Gospels some very harsh things are said about the Jews: ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees! Hypocrites!’, St Matthew’s Jesus says. And in the same Gospel of St Matthew we have that hideous depiction of the crowd screaming to Pilate: ‘His blood be upon us and our children’, almost certainly a product of later Christian anti-Jewish polemic rather than historical reporting. Then again, St John, in the first chapter of his First Epistle, says that ‘he who hates his brother is in the darkness still’; but a few verses later he calls people who have recently defected from his community ‘antichrists’ – and, of course, you can hate antichrists as much as you like. Even the more gentlemanly St Paul says that if your enemy is thirsty, give him a drink, ‘for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head’ – which does not strike me as the most gentlemanly of motives for buying someone a drink.
I suppose hating one’s enemies is a particular temptation for religious people, because religious people see their enemies as enemies of God. Listen to the Psalmist: ‘Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God! O men of blood, depart from me! They speak against you with malicious intent; your enemies take your name in vain. Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with a perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.’ That is a form of religion that feeds off hatred of enemies, and we have seen it in action throughout history and often enough in today’s world, even within Christianity.
But perverted religion apart, there are people who do things that irresistibly and, one would say, justly arouse in us feelings of revulsion and detestation. It is in our moral makeup to loathe such people, to hate them with a perfect hatred, as the Psalmist puts it. How could I not hate someone who has murdered my child? How should we not detest people who inflict wanton harm on others? How could we not hate wretched, dictatorial states that imprison innocent people, torture them, poison them, execute them without charge or trial? Of course we hate them. And when Jesus, in St Matthew’s Gospel, tells us that on judgment day God will say to some people: ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’, is St Matthew not telling us that God’s instincts in this matter are not different from our own?
And yet, one does hear words of forgiveness even in circumstances where one would expect, instead, everlasting detestation. ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’ (Jesus on the cross); ‘I forgive my son’s killers’ (Stephen Lawrence’s father); ‘I forgive them’ (Eva Kor, Holocaust survivor, who lost her parents and two elder sisters at Auschwitz and was herself, with a twin sister and countless other children and adults, subsequently subjected to ghastly human experimentation). Yet: ‘I forgive them.’
We ourselves may find it impossible to love our enemy in such circumstances. Certainly, we must acknowledge that people who have forgiven in such circumstances, who have ‘loved their enemy’ to that extent, experience (so they themselves attest) a liberation from bitterness and hatred that might otherwise have destroyed their lives. But still, I couldn’t do it, I’m sure of that. Perhaps, perhaps, if I were the sole victim I might by God’s grace be able to forgive. But my child? My loved ones? I don’t think so.
So there you are, another tormented sermon with no clear answers on the biblical text. Although one thing is clear, and it might turn out to be a powerful and crucial lesson for ourselves. I mean: Unlike Neville Lawrence and Eva Kor, we live not in the land of heroes but in a miniature arena. And in this miniature arena, enemies are mostly pretty harmless and offences quite trivial. Yet when someone offends us, or differs from us or refuses us something, do we not often nurture a life-long hostility for that person? We break off relations; or we even go on the offensive: we conduct a personal campaign against them, often just out of petty spite, or to indulge our feeling of superior virtue or to maintain our status in our clique.
The miniature arena in which we live are our communities, our families, our workplace, our religious community. In this miniature arena we can ‘love our enemy’ and choose to be friendly and forgiving without any huge cost to ourselves. One day we shall have occasion to think of Neville Lawrence and Eva Cor, and realize, too late, that whereas they rose to the superhuman in the face of unspeakable injustice, we were hateful and unforgiving in matters that were trivial in the extreme. And we shall have that realization to live with in eternity.
Love your enemies.
Fr Tom Deidun