Love Thy Enemy: That Is, You Don’t Have One*

Jesus himself became a victim of this human desire to see the other as enemy, as one whose voice must be eliminated.

Love Thy Enemy: That Is, You Don’t Have One*

Teaching the Scriptures to undergraduates often precipitates in me a remembering of the Gospel’s prophetic quality. Because of the rancorous discourse around the synod among Catholic commentators, journalists and theologians alike, I was particularly attuned this semester to Jesus’ command to love the enemy:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Mt. 5:43–48)

The historical context of this passage is most likely Jesus’ reinterpretation of what constitutes the reign of God. The expectation that God would raise up Israel to conquer the Romans, enacting God’s justice upon the oppressor, is interrupted throughout the Gospels. Instead, what is demanded for citizenship in God’s kingdom is the politics of the cross, one in which the enemy, the outsider, is to become the neighbor whom we love as the Father first loved us. In this context, the Gospel of Jesus which is the parousia of the kingdom of God, necessitates the elimination of the enemy qua enemy. What is required is a cruciform love that sees all humanity as destined to be citizens of the reign of peace.

Christ’s words, addressed to the Israel of his day, now echo in the Church. Our “enemies” are no longer Romans but German bishops, the pope, New York Times columnists, conservative and liberal theologians, bloggers on the left and the right and anyone we see as a threat to the Church’s flourishing in the modern world. The problem with current discourse in the Church is not the presence of disagreement. Theological and pastoral arguments have been present at pivotal moments in the life of the Church including the Council of Jerusalem, the Councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon, the Council of Trent and both the first and second Vatican Councils (to name but a few). In the midst of frequently virulent disagreement among bishops who often acted with mixed motives has arisen dogmas, doctrines and pastoral practice integral to Catholic identity.

The real concern around the synodal debate is that our disagreements have become occasions by which our interlocutor becomes the enemy. Rather than presume the good will of the one with whom we disagree, we create an imaginary enemy whom we delight in shutting down through verbal attacks or ascribing to our “enemy” motives we have imagined.

To love thy enemy is not to accept a benign and beige tolerance where serious disagreement is passed over. But it is to remember that the one with whom I disagree will one day participate with me, God willing, in the discourse of praise within the city of God. In the meantime, it may be my vocation as theologian and columnist, as blogger and bishop, as ordained and baptized Catholic living out Christian existence in the world, to argue for or against certain proposals. But at least according to the rules of order of God’s reign, I am obliged to see this interlocutor as neighbor, as fellow-pilgrim seeking to see God face to face.

To be honest, this is a hard teaching. It is far more satisfying to imagine a world of potential enemies, all of whom are conspiring against me. There is a disordered delight in despising or dismissing my interlocutor. Jesus himself became a victim of this human desire to see the other as enemy, as one whose voice must be eliminated. But in continuing to create enemies out of our fellow Christians, we renew the cycle of violence that Jesus came to defeat in his cross and resurrection. We ignore the law of the kingdom that he gave to us on the night before he died: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all … will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34–35). It’s hard to love human beings in a similar way that Jesus did, yet when did Jesus tell anyone that citizenship in the reign of God would be a breeze?

Because of the importance of the topic of the synod on marriage and family, the debates will carry on. Yet if we continue to see those with whom we disagree as enemy, we fail to proclaim the good news of God’s reign to all the world—a proclamation that is the fundamental vocation of the Church in the world. For those of us whose career necessarily involves participating in such debates, it would be wise to remember that to love thy enemy ultimately means that there is no enemy left for us hate. Only future citizens in the Eucharistic praise of the city of God.

*Title changed for the sake of clarity. Editor had been too clever by half.

Timothy P. O’Malley, PhD, is director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy in the Institute for Church Life and Associate Professional Specialist, University of Notre Dame. He is the author of Liturgy and the New Evangelization: Practicing the Art of Self-Giving Love and editor of the Center for Liturgy’s blog, Oblation.