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Deacon Kyle Eller: How can we love our enemies?

On Facebook a couple of weeks ago, I posted the following quote from Ven. Fulton Sheen: “The real test of the Christian is not how much he loves his friends, but how much he loves his enemies.” 

Deacon Kyle Eller
Mere Catholicism

If we take that seriously (as we must), it’s definitely a hard saying of our faith. 

In response, a Facebook friend of mine asked exactly the kind of question I imagine most deacons would love to get in such a circumstance: Basically, how? As my friend noted, often “enemies” are equated with “evil.” How can love exist in the midst of evil? 

I thought it was a good question, both in the sense that it reflects a good disposition of heart and in the sense that it’s a question I’ll bet many people have, on a teaching all of us struggle to live out at times, and one that cuts against the grain of our culture. 

So I thought I would expand on my answer here. 

We begin by recognizing some things that make it hard. First, powerful forces in our culture are working against our loving our enemies, even sometimes unintentionally. Think of the computer algorithms that influence our lives so profoundly, selecting everything from what media our favorite streaming service offers us to consume to what posts we see when we log on to social media. Those algorithms take into account what we’ve looked at and reacted to before, and they then show us more of those things. More user engagement means more clicks, which means more advertising and more money. 

But it turns out people engage not only with things they like but with things that make them angry — with things they “love to hate.” So when things make us angry, often we get fed more of that content, creating a kind of outrage loop. I have actually had people get upset with me for not getting as angry as they expected me to be about whatever they just saw on the Internet that angered them. I wonder how many times I’ve done the same. 

That’s to say nothing of actual demagoguery, where people deliberately attempt to spread hatred at perceived enemies, which is also very prevalent. 

Loving our enemies begins with intentionally resisting the pull of these temptations. 

There’s also the truth my friend was alluding to, that evil is real. Many are tempted to deny this truth, but there really are people who wish to do evil, who even sometimes intend to do harm to us or to others, from the small everyday harms to the kind that require police departments and armies and court systems. 

It’s these people that Sheen, echoing Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, is telling us to love. It’s a radical call that includes not just the little enemies — that annoying neighbor or overbearing boss or schoolyard smart-aleck — but the big ones too. 

It’s helpful to know what this love is — and isn’t. The love here is not primarily warm feelings of affection (although those are good too). It’s not a moral relativism that ignores or downplays evil or pretends everything is OK when it isn’t. It’s not even (or at least not always) a choice to let evil have its way, as though we would never defend the innocent or ourselves. 

Love is willing the good of that enemy. We can always do that. The highest good, of course, is heaven, and we can and should always will that for everyone. We also will the good of our enemies in this life, alongside our desire for justice. Even if an enemy is in prison, we will his rehabilitation and a dignified life and ultimately, insofar as justice and public safety allow, for him to be reconciled with the community and restored to a wholesome place in it. 

We love by seeking as best we can to overcome evil with good. We pursue justice with due restraint. We love by seeking understanding. Even people who do the worst things usually do so out of some misguided pursuit of a good. So we can (and in justice must) distinguish between evil actions and evil persons and resist making harsh personal judgments, leaving those to God who knows the heart. 

We can refuse the temptation to “gild the lily” and make the person’s wrongdoing out to be as bad as we possibly can, whether in our own hearts or in the hearts of others. Deeper understanding can even be a bridge to help bring reconciliation, a starting point for bringing them more fully to the truth. 

And we can always extend mercy, forgiving the wrongs done to us and to others. 

This, after all, is the way God loved us. St. Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, notes that “while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son” (5:10). In this Advent season, as we approach Christmas, consider in that light the words of the angels to the shepherds, proclaiming peace to people of good will. The Incarnation of Jesus, and ultimately the saving work of his cross and resurrection, act as an invitation to reconciliation to all of us, who by our own sins made ourselves enemies of God. 

When Jesus commands us to do something, he is also always the perfect model of how to live that out, and he always gives us the grace to do it. Humanly speaking, loving our enemies may be beyond our powers, but when we love with the same love with which God has loved us and filled our hearts, even this hard saying becomes truly possible. 

Deacon Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at [email protected]