Love your enemies.

One of my guilty pleasures is listening to audio books – and of those, I’m particularly fond of biography and autobiography, including political autobiography. One book I listened to recently included a very touching scene – the more touching for being unexpected.

I was listening to the former shadow chancellor, Ed Balls – a Norfolk man! – describing his relationships with other MPs – both in his own party and in others. This unexpected passage described how he and his opposite number, the former chancellor George Osbourne, would have a warm personal relationship, even though they had very different views on politics, and were most often seen shouting at each other across the House of Commons. But if they were being interviewed separately on the radio or TV, one of them would look after the other’s children, and afterwards they would go for breakfast together. 

It’s an unlikely scene, especially in this era of parliamentary defections and division, but for me a heartwarming one because of that. Is this what Jesus means when he talks about loving our enemies?

If anything marks the message of Jesus out among the varying philosophies of life at the time, it is this command – totally unparalleled. The Old Testament taught the Jews to love their neighbours, but it was often taught that this meant “Love your friends and hate your enemies”  - even if that command doesn’t actually appear in the Jewish law.

Seneca, the Greek stoic philosopher who was one of the most famous of his day, encourages his followers to give help even to their enemies, and to lend even to those who do not repay – but his reason is not out of love for their enemies, but rather it’s a self-centred kind of generosity – just designed to stop a person becoming resentful. 

Jesus, by contrast, encourages his disciples to turn the other cheek – literally! – not because it helps to make a person less bitter, or to have an attitude like the duck that lets water slide off its back, but because the enemies we are commanded to love are already loved by God.

And being on the receiving end of that love, being shown the other cheek, can be a remarkable way of seeing how God loves us. 

If you go to St. Alban’s Cathedral, you will find the shrine of the saint who gave his name to the city, Alban – the first martyr of England. He was beheaded at the top of a hill, but the soldier ordered to carry out his execution was converted by seeing the love Alban showed in going to death in the place of a priest with whom he had swapped clothes. 

We see this same trend even in the life and death of Jesus. Jesus, we are told, refuses to defend himself, and goes to his death like a lamb to the slaughter. As he dies, the centurion overseeing the crucifixion comments, “Truly, this man was the son of God!”

And what about us? How can we follow Jesus’s commands to love our enemies, to bless those who curse us, and to pray for those who treat us badly?

We are lucky as Christians in Britain that we are remarkably well-treated compared to our brothers and sisters in other countries who face persecution. We aren’t arrested, or heavily taxed, or having our homes and businesses torched, because we are Christians. The most we might have to put up with is some not-so-nice coverage of our internal affairs in the media. 

But we don’t have to look far to see Christians suffering for their faith. In the last two weeks there has been a spate of vandalism in France where churches have been desecrated, the Blessed Sacrament scattered and statues destroyed – and we only have to look back to 2016 when the French priest Fr. Jacques Hamel, Servant of God, was martyred while saying mass.

We have our own trials though: people who get on our nerves and people we wish would just go away and stop bothering us. Perhaps for good reasons! – and then again, perhaps for less than good reasons. 

Whoever they are, they are a man or woman created in the image of God, and loved by him – and one of the people for whose sake Jesus, at his trial and execution, did not defend himself but turned the other cheek and more, when he went to the cross.

Let’s remember that, and pray for those we see as our enemies. Imagine that person being the person who encourages us to pray!

Saint Josemaria Escriva said, “Don’t say, ‘That person gets on my nerves.’ Think: ‘That person sanctifies me.’”