How Do We Love Our Enemies?

In the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus once again presents a new and radical way of thinking to His disciples.

It is quite a stark contrast to what His disciples were used to.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies” (Mt 5:38-39,43-44).

In 1994, Immaculée Ilibagiza was a 22-year-old Catholic college student when violence erupted in her homeland of Rwanda. Over the course of 100 days, more than 1 million Rwanda Tutsis were killed by Hutu mobs in a time of national upheaval. Among them were Immaculée’s mother and father and two of her beloved brothers. Only one of her brothers would survive. He was out of the country studying abroad.

Today, Immaculée is a much sought-after speaker on the topic of forgiveness and mercy. Her book, “Left to Tell” (Hay House, 2006), details her survival and the aftermath of the Rwanda genocide. Her message of mercy and forgiveness is inspiring.

Once the bloody struggle ended, she made a decision to forgive her enemies.

She went to the prison and met the leader of the gang who killed her mother and one of her brothers. As she tells the story, she came face to face with Felicien. She recalled that he had been a successful Hutu businessman known for his expensive suits and impeccable manners. She had, in fact, grown up and played with his children. Now, here he was sobbing. His clothes were hanging like rags from his emaciated body. Shamed, he could barely make eye contact with her.

“I wept at the sight of his suffering,” Immaculée said. “He was now the victim of his victims, destined to live in torment and regret.” She reached out and touched his hands and said, “I forgive you.” His Tutsi jailer was furious at this, hoping that she would spit on the man. “Why did you forgive him?” he demanded. “Forgiveness is all I have to offer,” Immaculée responded.

How Did She Do It?

Even Immaculée admits that her decision to forgive her enemies wasn’t easy. It went against her deepest inclinations. She was full of hatred toward her family’s killers. There was no way she could even begin to pray for them, much less love them.

However, an epiphany came one day when the words of the Our Father, which she had prayed ever since she was a little girl, hit her: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

She realized that hating the killers was preventing her from trusting God.

“Their minds had been infected with the evil that had spread across the country, but their souls weren’t evil,” Immaculée writes. “Despite their atrocities, they were children of God. I knew that I couldn’t ask God to love me if I were unwilling to love His children.”

At that moment, she prayed for the killers, that their sins be forgiven, and that they recognize the horrific error of their ways before their time on earth expired. She held onto her father’s rosary beads and again heard God’s voice: “Forgive them; they know not what they do.”

Who Is My Enemy?

Immaculée’s story of love and forgiveness for her enemy is quite heroic. By God’s grace, most of us will not be faced with such horror. We will not have to deal with a killer on such a personal, intimate level.

In fact, some of us probably think we have no enemies. Perhaps we get along with everyone. On the other hand, there are quite a few of us who could probably name a number of co-workers, family members or friends who seem to hate us. Maybe we have offended them, and apologized, but they have refused to accept our apology. Or it could be they are jealous of us or simply do not like us for some incomprehensible reason or another.

It is one thing to forgive them, and to keep them far away from your day-to-day existence. But Jesus is asking us to “love” them? Impossible?!?

It must be noted that in the New Testament Greek, there are three words used for love. There is eros, which connotes a romantic or spousal love. There is philios, the love between two friends. However, what Jesus uses in Matthew’s passage about loving your enemies is agape. This is the type of love that wills the good of another. It is a form of love that doesn’t keep score or allow bitterness to enter into our hearts. It is a call to live without resentments.

So, where do we start to agape our enemy? How about at the foot of the cross, where we here Our Lord say, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). By doing that over and over again we can allow the Lord to work on us and walk with us down the road of love and forgiveness.

There will be times in our lives in which we need to realize there are those who will cross our paths and simply dislike us. No matter how much we try to have them like us, nothing changes. We cannot control whether an enemy is open to dialogue or reconciliation. But we can certainly turn the struggle over to the Lord on the cross.

Also, to give up revenge or, as Jesus puts it, “turn the other cheek” is a necessary practice. Difficult as it may be we don’t have to fight back when a fight is taking shape. We can instead acknowledge our anger and frustrations, but do not need to give in to those emotions. St. Paulinus of Nola (354-431) said that to love one’s enemy is a “heavenly revenge.”

Finally, prayer for our enemies is paramount. Pray for the grace to love your enemy as God loves them. Being unforgiving and holding grudges keeps our anger alive and squelches that divine love we are called to offer. Lack of forgiveness keeps us trapped in a scorekeeping mentality and stuck in a cycle of revenge. Prayer turns the whole situation over to God, who certainly knows what He is doing.

Is it easy to love our enemy? No. At the same time it is not impossible, for nothing is impossible with God (see Lk 1:37). Instead, to love our enemy is a real opportunity to live the Gospel day in and day out as Christ has taught us.

Eddie O’Neill is a freelance writer for the Catholic press. He and his family live in Rolla, Mo.

Forgiving Your Enemy: Blessed Isidore Bakanja (1887-1909)
Isidore Bakanja was born a pagan in Belgian Congo in Africa, which is now called Democratic Republic of Congo. He was baptized at age 18 after receiving instructions from Trappist missionaries. Isidore worked on a Belgian rubber plantation, but was subjected to brutal treatment from his supervisors, many of whom were anti-Catholic. Even though he had no formal education, Isidore spent hours teaching his fellow workers about the Catholic faith, and he became known by all as “the catechist.” During one confrontation with a supervisor on the plantation, Isidore was told that he had to stop teaching the workers how to pray and was ordered to remove his scapular. When he refused, he was beaten more than 100 times with a whip of elephant hide with nails on the end. He was bound and tossed into a hut to die a slow death like an animal.

Isidore was eventually discovered by an inspector visiting the site, who was horrified by his injuries. The inspector took Isidore into his home to heal, but Isidore knew his time had come, and he asked the inspector to pass on this message: “If you see my mother, or if you go to the judge, or if you meet a priest, tell them that I am dying because I am a Christian.” Before he died, Isidore forgave the man who killed him, saying, “When I am in heaven, I shall pray for him very much.” He died in 1909 at the age of 21, with his rosary beads in his hands and the scapular around his neck.