Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. (John 14:27)
Then Paul answered, “What do you mean by weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” (Acts 21:13)
Jesus told us that He was giving us His peace. He commanded us to love one another. As some have pointed out, peace and love are not feeling nouns, but rather are action verbs. Peace and love are not so much about how we feel, but more about how we act towards others. Not how we respond or react to them, but a way of life that we choose to follow no matter what the circumstances are.
Peace and love also are very difficult to attain and to maintain. Both have many nuances and complexities, as we discover when we try to live by them. Conflicting demands on us, complex relationships within the social groups to which we belong and the ambiguities of our understanding of other people and things in general as well as how others understand us, and our own ambivalence towards others, all mean we need wisdom to guide us in our relationship with others.
Jesus says He gives us His peace, and yet Christians have also suffered persecution, which Jesus also promised us as He forewarned us. St Paul found the love others had for him, created in him cognitive dissonance as he felt torn about what to do. He decided he needed to follow Christ even when those who loved him urged him to to take a safer path. They loved him and worried about him. He understood that, but knew his life could not be governed by emotions, but had to be guided by love.
“We have been commanded not to revile or abuse in return those who revile and insult us, but rather to speak well of them and to bless them (cf. Matt 5:44). For in so far as we are at peace with men we fight against the demons; but when we feel rancor towards our brothers and fight against them, we are at peace with the demons, whom we have been taught to hate ‘with perfect hatred’ (Ps 139:22), fighting against them without mercy.” (St Theodorus the Great Ascetic, THE PHILOKALIA Vol 2, p 31)
We can choose to love others, but what if they don’t respond in kind? What if they choose conflict despite our good will and intentions? We are to love them anyway, that is our choice if we want to obey our Lord. As St Theodorus points out above, we might decide to love and live at peace with others and still be insulted and reviled by them. Our task, as difficult as it is, remains to be at peace with them. In choosing to live at peace even with enemies, we directly fight the demons, who want us rather to be angry and vengeful towards our enemies. If we decide to hate and take vengeance, then we are at peace with Satan.
But how to handle people who constantly abuse us or oppress us or are indifferent to our suffering? Do we just allow them to continue or is it ever OK to resist? Here we come into the complexities of loving one another. What happens when our efforts at peace and love are rejected and in turn we are oppressed or mistreated? What does love look like then? Jesus does not let us off this hook, for He Himself showed us the way of divine love on the cross.
“Christ declared (and his works testified) that the mode of true existence and life is love – love not simply as a quality of behavior but as freedom from the ego, freedom from an individualistic existence, freedom from the necessities imposed by nature. Love, in the teaching of Christ and the testimony of his disciples does not mean doing good, being affectionate toward each other, or showing altruism. It means existential freedom: the active refusal to identify existence with natural atomic onticity and with the predeterminations, limitations, and necessities that govern it. and this active refusal is possible when existence is realized as a relation free from the demands of nature, that is, as self-transcendence, self-offering, and love.” (Christos Yannaras, AGAINST RELIGION, pp 24-25)
Yannaras writes as a Christian philosopher – his terminology is hard to understand. But his point is understandable. Love is not a feeling, not the same thing as affection or altruism or pity. Love means we always have a choice in every situation – we don’t simply have to react to things, we can choose to act towards things. We may feel that honor or justice or self-preservation demands that we respond in a certain way. Love says, we can choose to act differently. Like Christ, we can choose to love in every situation, even when our enemies are poised to triumph over us. The victory of love is not triumphalism but death and resurrection. Christ’s victory over death occurs only after He chooses to die on the cross.
“The Church’s gospel is summarized in the preaching of love. But for the Church love is not an atomic virtue, a quality of the behavior of the individual – it is not simply mutual friendship, compassion, altruism, affection. Before anything else it is a denial of egotistic properties, a renunciation of self-interest. It is the struggle of human beings to free themselves from subjection to the demands of their atomic nature, to draw existence from the freedom of relation and not from the necessities of nature, to exist by loving and because of love. ” (Christos Yannaras, AGAINST RELIGION, pp 31)
In Christ, we can choose to love even when our heart or mind demand some other response. We can bring Christ to every situation, no matter how hateful it is – to us or others.