There are many things that bring us up against the hard reality of the Kingdom of God. The Gospel given to us by Christ, the verbal icon of the Kingdom, often gives us commands or parables that run radically counter to instinct (as we experience it) and, not infrequently, against reason (or so it seems).
No commandment in the teachings of Christ fits this description better than “forgive your enemies.” Our instinct is generally always to avoid and protect ourselves from our enemies, and, in extreme cases, to kill them or imprison them if possible. Again, this seems entirely reasonable for enemies may indeed be genuinely serving the cause of evil, and present a danger (physical, moral, etc.) to those around them.
It is this instinctual reasonableness that makes the teaching of Christ regarding our enemies difficult, and, frequently the subject of modification or amelioration. There are many who would brook no amelioration of Christ’s teaching on divorce and remarriage, who will quickly agree to modifications on Christ’s teaching regarding our enemies.
There is a significant question to be asked: what is the meaning and purpose of Christ’s difficult teaching on the love of enemies? What do they reveal to us about the nature of God and the reality of the Kingdom? Christ Himself makes it clear that the commandments are an inherent part of our conformity to the Divine Image. His appeal is not to morals, but to the very goal of our salvation.
The commandments of Christ are not mere iterations of an abstract moral code: they are revelatory of who God is? To a degree they answer the question: “What kind of God would command such a thing?”
But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful (Luke 6:35-36).
Christ answers the question. A God who is kind to the unthankful and the evil, a God who is merciful is that “kind” of God who would command such a thing – and would do so in order to make us “sons of the Most High.”
Years (centuries) of scholastic torment have rendered the commandments of Christ of little effect, transforming them into virtual rabbinic arguments about the rightness and wrongness of certain actions. Their dynamic in the role of salvation is completely lost (particularly where salvation itself is seen through a forensic lens). Salvation is to be conformed to the image of Christ – a work of grace – a gift from God. However the distortion of that image becomes an enemy of grace and stumbling block to salvation.
And so we come back to our salvation and the commandments of Christ. It is a difficult thing to ponder and yet we must – who are my enemies that I should love? Why does my heart hate them so? Why do I rejoice at their downfall and not weep for the sins of another human being – who is – by definition – my brother?
The human heart is a complex matter – rendered complex by the presence of sin. Rather than simplicity and straight-forwardness, our hearts are fragmented producing both good things and bad. Our very core is distorted and we cannot trust our deepest instincts. This does not mean that we are “totally depraved,” but that we are damaged. The Christ who forgave His enemies from the Cross is more than an example of brave martyrdom – His pronouncement is a declaration of the heart of God and an icon of the kindness and goodness to which we are called to be conformed.
My own life, like that of others, is no stranger to enemies. Some of them are imagined (most, indeed) – some of them are well-defined and self-declared. My family has endured to murders over the years – one brutal and evil – the other stupid and senseless. In both cases the perpetrators were caught, tried and sentenced (none executed). Learning to pray for those who so hurt and injured not only my family – but changed its course in history – has been a difficult journey. I am not sure that all of my family has completed that trek.
But I know from this the pain that can drive the heart of vengeance and can also say that such pain never drives us closer to the Kingdom of God. We cry for justice – but only selectively. For myself, I do not want justice. I cry for mercy.
I have not killed – but I have wished others dead. I have not committed mass murder, but I have brought my curses down upon the heads of entire categories of people. As the heart of murderers are dark – so is my heart. Murder is the second oldest of human sins.
In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the murderer, Raskolnikov, is advised by the prostitute Sophia:
Go at once, this very minute, stand at the cross-roads, bow down, first kiss the earth which you have defiled, and then bow down to all the world and say to all men aloud, ‘I am a murderer!’ Then God will send you life again. Will you go, will you go?
– Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, Ch. 30
And the call goes out to all of us, hiding in the darkness of our hearts, “Will you go?” Our culture has witnessed the death of another mass-murderer. They come and go – Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Osama bin Laden, etc. The crimes committed against humanity within the life-time of many of my readers is truly devastating. It is a deep pain which echoes the memory of Cain and Lamech and even our arch-enemy.
But our hearts were not created for righteous anger, just-retribution, or any such noble thing. They were created for conformity to the image of God, who is “kind to the unthankful and evil.” And so with great difficulty we strive to “pray for our enemies.” We do not pray because our enemies deserve such kindness – but because our hearts cannot bear the darkness of hate or the joy at their destruction. Such sentiments only remove us from conformity with Christ.
This is a most difficult matter – and I do not wish to judge anyone who has struggles with this commandment of Christ. I am not free from sin in this matter myself. But it is necessary for us, as Christians, to remind one another of the nature of our calling in God.
Let us pray for one another – that God may give us grace in a time of temptation – that He may lead us not into temptation – but deliver us from evil. Let us pray that He will be kind and merciful to our enemies – for we ask nothing less for ourselves.
Forgive me. God help us!
Article by Fr. Stephen Freeman