Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment
Reviewed by Paul Buckley
Jim Forest is the religious child of American Communists who discovered he was a conscientious objector while serving in the U.S. Navy. He joined the Catholic Church and, after being discharged from the service as a CO, moved to New York to work with Dorothy Day in the Catholic Worker movement. He has been a vigorous peace activist since the early days of the Vietnam War and, from 1977 to 1988, was secretary general of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation. That work led him to visit Russia, resulting in many person-to-person relationships with “the enemy” and, in 1988, conversion to the Russian Orthodox Church—a spiritual tradition that illuminates his writing.
Over the years, Forest has written more than a dozen books that display his skills as a journalist and lay theologian. The most recent one, Loving Our Enemies, should be on every Quaker’s reading list.
The title, of course, comes from Matthew 5:44: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Many people would not identify this as a commandment—after all, it doesn’t start with “Thou shalt not.” Many Friends would say it doesn’t apply to them since, they will tell you, they don’t have any enemies. This claim is partly why Forest identifies it as the hardest commandment.
Forest advises us to focus on “the enemies we have, rather than the enemies we are . . . An enemy is anyone I feel threatened by and seek to defend myself against . . . An enemy is someone whose death I would not mourn” (italics original). She or he is anyone who bears you ill will.
Some enemies are people you know—a neighbor or co-worker who doesn’t like you and wouldn’t mind if you were to suffer for it. Other enemies don’t know you by name, only by your membership in a hated community. I belong to many such communities: I am a white, middle-class American, a car driver, a peacenik, a vegetarian, not a Muslim nor an Evangelical, and many more things. If you are alive and care about the world around you, there are those who consider you an enemy. You may not think of them as enemies or treat them as enemies, but they know they are your enemies.
Admitting and accepting them as enemies and making a conscious decision to love them is the starting point. In the first 15 chapters, Forest examines various situations we all encounter in our lives, illustrating his points with concrete examples from his own life and stories told of others. He draws freely on the lives of saints, both ancient and modern, and many of these examples are challenging.
In the next nine chapters, he lays out “Nine Disciplines of Active Love,” starting with “Praying for Enemies.” In this chapter, he presents a simple exercise for identifying our own enemies, “even if you think the word ‘enemy’ is too strong,” and learning to genuinely pray for them. The purpose of prayer, he suggests, is not to change our enemies’ minds or behavior. Rather, “Prayer that doesn’t influence your own actions means little.”
True love and prayer are not hidden away in our hearts, nor does Forest believe we will build peace by wishing for it—he is a pacifist, not a passive-ist. Whether we seek peace between nations or try to establish it in our individual lives, we need to practice public acts of love—our love for those who hate us. We need to pray honestly, truthfully, and unambiguously for their happiness.
The final part is titled “Epilogue.” In it, Forest writes of a Baptist couple in rural Tennessee whose lives were broken into by an armed man who had escaped from the state prison. When first confronted by Riley Arzeneaux and threatened with death, Louise Degrafinried said, “Put down that gun and sit down. I don’t allow no violence here”—instructions she repeated to the police who came to arrest him.
Louise maintained a relationship with Riley for the rest of her life—he spoke at her funeral. Her kindness and hospitality were catalysts of reconciliation within Riley and between him and society. He had come as an enemy. Her love made him whole. This book is a guide for each of us to go and do likewise.