Every Sunday, we pray a dangerous prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It’s dangerous because we’re asking God to judge us as we judge others, creating our own measuring stick for God to use: “The measure you give will be the measure you get” (Mt 7:2). There is good news here as well. If we need forgiveness from God, he promises it to us so long as we ourselves show mercy. We are not judged, however, by how we treat our friends, but how we treat our enemies.
Dirk Willems provides one of the most radical examples of loving an enemy. He was born a Catholic in the Netherlands, though he renounced his baptism as an infant and joined the Anabaptist movement that held only to adult baptism. For this he was arrested, as heresy was a capital crime according to civil law. While in prison, he escaped through the window using a rope of tied rags. While crossing a marshy pond to safety, a pursuing guard fell through the ice. Willems specifically thought of Jesus’ words “love your enemies,” and turned back to help the guard, saving his life. In turn, Willems was arrested again, and in 1569 was burned at the stake. Even if we would not admire his theology, Willems shows us practically what it means to love you enemy and to “do good to those who persecute you” (Lk 6:27).
Who is my enemy? This in the inverse of the question, “who is my neighbor?” that a Pharisee asked Jesus, leading to the parable of the Good Samaritan. We find our neighbor in those people we directly meet who are in need. Our enemies, likewise, are those who directly do us harm. It’s tempting to think of our enemies as abstract and distant figures, like terrorists in another country or a foreign dictator. Loving our enemies, however, is much more concrete, consisting in doing good to those who harm us in our daily lives.
What are some examples? Your boss who unfairly passes you over for a promotion. Your neighbor who keeps you up with a loud party. Someone on the road who cuts you off. And most often, your own family. Think how many times we have either experienced or heard of family members who refuse to talk to each other for years. “Yes,” we could respond, “but do you know what my aunt said to me and how hurtful it was?” Or, “Did I tell you what my Dad did to me when I was little? How could I forgive him for that?” It is true, we all have been hurt by those closest to us (and we also have hurt them). But, do we respond with love? Love is recognizing that someone has trespassed against us and still willing and working for their good. It means letting go of a self-focus that seeks vindication and retribution.
God does not ask to love people because they deserve it. He asks us to love them because He loves and forgives us and loves the person who hurt us as well. If we hold onto grudges and refuse to forgive, we will become weighted down and unable to grow in holiness. If we accept injustices with love, this willing burden will make us more like Christ. I think of the example of St. Germaine, who lived in 16th century France. Born with a crippled arm and diseased skin, her stepmother beat her and left her to sleep in the stable. She returned only kindness to her and, even in her neglect, served others generously.
God looks carefully at how we respond to those who harm us, because we ourselves were once his own enemies, as St. Paul says (Rom 5:10). Nevertheless, he came to us in love and died for us so that we could be friends with him. In return, he asks that we do the same to others. In fact, Jesus says that if we love our enemies, we will become like God himself: “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” (Lk 6:35-36).
This mercy should flow out to others. Christians are called to be people of peace and to overcome division. As Catholics, we are beginning to be persecuted more and more in our own country. What should our response be? Paul tells us, “When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we try to conciliate” (1 Cor 4:12-13). Paul is telling us what it means to turn to the other cheek. When we are wronged, rather than seeking revenge, we patiently and lovingly endure and seek reconciliation. This does not mean that we cannot defend ourselves. If we are in a position of responsibility, we have a particular obligation to care for those under our watch and keep them safe. There is just self-defense, but, even then, we must do so by praying for the aggressor and even doing good for him as much as we can. Even in those situations, we are called to be generous, forgiving, and humble.
Christians have a litmus test. Forgiving those who have wronged us comprises an essential act of the Christian faith and one that calls us to God’s mercy. If we are holding on to any grudges, let’s let them go. If we just cannot forgive someone, ask the Lord for help. When we are put down for our faith, respond with charity. When politics divides, seek peace. When we are faced with lies, patiently and humbly bear witness to the truth. Jesus gives us a path to holiness: imitating his own humility and self-sacrificing love. If we love our enemies and work for their good, we will become a source of healing within our families, the Church, and our country.