The Lord Jesus taught those who would listen: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to every one who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again. And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:27-36; see all Matthew 5:43-48)
Among the most difficult sayings of Christ are His words specifically directed to how we should treat our enemies. Some have tried to take His Gospel commandments regarding enemies literally, others have tried to interpret them more “pragmatically” to make them either more palatable or doable. S0me have wrestled with them trying to understand what the words could possibly mean. Others have treated them as a mystery that represent an “other-worldly” ideal but not practical in the real world.
Of course in life there can be many different kinds of enemies, not all of them make us think of a military or lethal response. When nations are enemies that might involve armies. But one can have political enemies and fight on the level of words. On a personal level we may consider someone an enemy without ever feeling threatened by them or without our trying to harm them. Even within families or Christian parishes people can become enemies one of another over issues great and small. On this level enemies might even figure out some way to get along by simply using avoidance. In the modern world we have also recognized the existence of frenemies, which is another level of the enemy phenomenon. Christ made no distinctions in His teachings on enemies. His words stand as commandments on how to treat any enemies. St Basil the Great says:
“An enemy is by definition one who obstructs, ensnares and injures others. He is therefore a sinner. We ought to love his soul by correcting him and doing everything possible to bring him to conversion. We ought to love his body too by coming to his aid with the necessities of life. That love for our enemies is possible and has been shown to us by the Lord himself. He revealed the Father’s love and his own by making himself ‘obedient unto death’, [Phil. 2:8] as the Apostle says, not for his friends’ sake so much as for his enemies. ‘God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.’ [Rom. 5:8] And God exhorts us to do the same. ‘Be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us.’ [Eph. 5:1-2] God would not ask this of us as a right and proper thing to do, if it were not possible. On the other hand, is it not perhaps true than an enemy can be as much help to us as a friend can? Enemies earn for us the beatitude of which the Lord speaks when he says: ‘Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kind of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.’ [Matt. 5:11-12]” (in Drinking from the Hidden Fountain: A Patristic Breviary, pp 232-233)
The last comments by St Basil bring to mind A Prayer for One’s Enemies, St. Nikolai Velimirovich’s prayer for those who hate and oppress us. Sometimes enemies can inspire in us a desire to change and to be more Christ like.