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On Having Enemies to Love

Among the hard teachings of the Sermon on the Mount is the commandment on loving enemies: “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.” (Matt. 5: 43–44)

This presupposes we have enemies. Our Lord, not being the sentimentalist he is mistakenly thought to be, assumes we will have enemies, promising beatitude when “men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”

However radical the Sermon, Jesus never tells us to “have no enemies.” In part, this is out of our control and no not sensible to command. St. Paul does instruct that we ought to “live peaceably with all,” when “possible” and insofar “as it depends upon you.” (Rom. 12:18) Even that, however, is bookended with the hardheaded recognition that evil will be done to us (v. 17) and that God will take vengeance on our behalf. (v. 19)

Given the scandal of the Gospel, Catholics are likely to be free from enemies only if they are invisible or if they alter their proclamation simply to imitate and support the norms and assumptions of their neighbors and societies. In either of those events, Catholics would appear to have denied their Lord and refused their inheritance.

We seek peace, we offer peace, and yet insofar as we keep faith with Christ we will have enemies. Fidelity entails our presence as a sign of contradiction, even a scandal.

Yet it seems painfully obvious that many Catholics, unfortunately including some in the hierarchy, seek “’peace, peace’ . . . when there is no peace.” (Jer. 6:14)

Long before I entered the Church, I found the Catholic vision of the world’s integrity a beautiful and attractive teaching. My earlier formation had taught me a kind of suspicious reticence about the “world,” a kind of fideism which rejected or only grudgingly accepted the domains of science, art, literature, music, sport, drink, and dance.

Among pagans: St. Paul Healing the Cripple at Lystra by Karel Dujardin, 1663 [Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam]

Catholics seemed so at home in the world, even while longing for heaven. The Church insisted that the Incarnation really happened, and there was a gritty commitment to candles and stone, bread and wine, water and oil, vestments and art. Against this, my earlier understanding seemed ethereal, “spiritual,” Gnostic, and the earthy crunchiness of Catholicism dazzled me.

In a similar way, the Church was unafraid of the humanities and the sciences, for it knew, in the words of Gaudium et Spes, “that created things and societies themselves enjoy their own laws and values. . . .all things are endowed with their own stability, truth, goodness, proper laws and order.” (36)

Fundamentally, I learned from the Church that the grace of the Incarnation did not destroy human nature but perfected it, completed it, elevated it.

Still, the Church rightly insisted that the autonomy of nature made sense only in light of creation and redemption. Any attempt to view the independence of the world as if it did not depend on God was false. As Gaudium et Spes continued, “when God is forgotten. . .the creature itself grows unintelligible.”

Well, God has been forgotten. In the contemporary West, this forgetfulness is not merely passive, as when you cannot remember where you parked. The forgetting is active: an erasing, a tearing and pulling down – it is an enforced forgetting, and new “gods” demand our pious allegiance.

If the Church is against anything, it is against paganism and idolatry. And pagans and idol worshippers are against us. But you can attend Mass for days and weeks and not hear anything of our ancient and true revulsion against the degradations of paganism. You can go for months (years?) and not be reminded that we have been purchased and saved from something and for something.

Our “at-home-ness” in the world is no longer Catholic but bourgeois, stemming not from our commitment to the Incarnation of the perfect God as perfect man who restores all things in Himself. It is increasingly a capitulation, an enervation, a malaise, a sleepy satisfaction with ourselves and the ways of the world. Forget condemning and damning the world, we won’t even disagree with it.

When it comes to music, art, architecture, prayer, feasts, and fasts, we hardly recognize ourselves in our hazy conformity. Worse, far worse, we are chummy with the world when it comes to life, death, sin, and salvation. We tend not to profess our story but to dialogue. Of course, I am not pining for some sort of naïve triumphalism, but we do think our account of the world’s meaning is true, don’t we? And we do think that the eternal fate of our souls and souls of many others depends on that story being true, don’t we?

Or don’t we?

I recently read through the Jewish prayer book, the Siddur, and came across the Alienu, which ends morning, afternoon, and evening prayers. Part of it, the V’al Kein, reads, “we place our hope in You, LORD our God, that we may soon see the glory of your power, when You will remove abominations from the earth, and idols will be utterly destroyed. . .when all humanity will call on Your name, to turn all the earth’s wicked toward You. All the world’s inhabitants will realize and know that to You every knee must bow and every tongue swear loyalty.”

We, too, anticipate such a day. (Phil. 2:10) Yet we hardly ever speak of it, let alone boldly proclaim it, choosing instead the hazy, feeble, and disappointing comforts of generic, contemporary Western values.

So we have fewer enemies. And this makes keeping the commandment “love your enemies” harder than it should be.

R. J. Snell is visiting lecturer at Princeton University and a Director of the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, NJ. His most recent book is Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire.