What We Talk About When We Talk About Loving Our Enemies

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. 

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.


Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.