Yes, what a conundrum. When I was a little girl, I used to take some comfort from Jesus’ command to “love your enemies” because — to my very backward way of thinking — the fact that he used the word “enemies” seemed like a useful acknowledgment that they exist and are a normal part of life. It almost seemed like Jesus was giving us tacit permission to have enemies, to make a place for enemies within our lives, as though they could be compartmentalized and shoved into an unused storage portion of our soul. When someone explained that “loving one’s enemies” meant little more than “not wishing them ill,” well, I felt like I had figured it all out: I would have my enemies, and as long as I didn’t actually wish evil on them, I was set for heaven.
That was pretty much how I rolled for about 20 years, until I actually heard someone use the word “enemy” when speaking about another. I had asked a woman in the office why she was so aggravated with a fellow we worked with. “I’ll tell you why,” she steamed at me, “because that man is my enemy. If he were dying in the street, I would walk right by him.”
Coming from the mouth of a woman I generally found to be pleasant and generous in nature, these were some of the most chilling words I had ever heard; they literally gave me goose bumps. I asked what the man could possibly have done to have earned such a vehement condemnation, and she said, with a terrible expression, “He complained about one of my kids not being friendly on the phone.”
It was one of those uncomfortable light-bulb moments, when one realizes that complacent ideas from our youth can no longer work and demand reassessment. I had turned the notion of enemies into the equivalent of a benign spot on a spiritual X-ray: nothing to worry about, no threat to the soul.
That was incorrect. The evidence before my eyes — demonstrated in the dark, tense expression of my co-worker and her brutish tone — hit me like a swift punch to the solar plexus; with breathtaking clarity I understood that to entertain the concept of “having an enemy” was to give it room to grow. No benign practice, this was instead a path to spiritual malignancy — a true cancer that could kill the soul.
Jesus did indeed recognize that there are such things as enemies — and we are not meant to wander through our lives reckless and unaware of that which can threaten us or do us harm, and certainly should not turn a blind eye to evil, which is the true enemy — but his command that we love those we perceive to be our enemies is actually a tool for discernment and for our own salvation. To love our enemies means a great deal more than to simply not wish evil upon them; it means making a conscious effort to find a path to our own mercy, for their sake and our own. That path is found, Jesus tells us, through prayer: “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:44).
My workplace friend had made an enemy of a man who presumed to criticize her child. Particularly in light of the real persecution suffered by Immaculée Ilibagiza, that might seem like a trivial thing, but we do not know the whole of anyone else’s story. Perhaps my friend’s child was mildly autistic and his weak phone manners were actually part of a long process of victories and setbacks that had left her with no tolerance for picky critiques. Perhaps the man — her enemy — had been bullied by a parent into caring overmuch about social niceties and was knee-jerk and unthinking in his complaint.
The woman’s enemy was the creation of her seething resentment; it was wounding her, not him. To pray for his good would ultimately have helped my friend discern thoughtlessness from real evil, and brought a measure of peace.