Have you tried loving your enemies? It isn’t easy. An enemy is someone who hates you, makes you suffer, hurts you callously.
My natural reaction to someone who’s hurting me is to fight back or to run away – fight or flight. And my natural reaction to someone who hates me is to hate them back.
I’m usually – not always – able to curb my tendency to fight back. I am, after all, a pacifist, supposedly committed to nonviolence. It becomes difficult to live with myself, when I hurt someone deliberately. I also believe that when I hurt someone deliberately I do more damage to my own soul than I do to them.
The alternative is to flee, to run away – or walk away, to leave the room, to leave the relationship. But that is invariably also a form of violence.
There is another alternative, another way: to stand one’s ground as lovingly as one possibly can. We can only truly do this, if we are grounded in love. Otherwise, standing one’s ground can easily become another way of fighting back. If we are to stand our ground lovingly, we must love our enemies.
And the first step towards loving an enemy, is to refuse to hate them – even when they hate us – or seem to. In response to hatred we choose to love. We choose to do what seems to be impossible: to love an enemy and to do good to someone who’s hurting us.
Jesus did this, and if we’re serious about following Jesus we should do this too. Never mind how difficult or even impossible it may seem.
Love comes with practice.
Jean Goss had to practise love in a prisoner of war camp near Lübeck during the Second World War. He had killed a great many German soldiers when he and his comrades were holding the German army back whilst allied soldiers were being evacuated from Dunkirk. After he had been fighting non-stop for five days and nights, in the early hours of Easter Day, Jean experienced an epiphany. He saw that all the soldiers, Germans as well as French, had been created by God and were loved by God, and that God just wanted all these human beings to love each other and to be happy. That night Jean learnt that his mission was to pass this message on to all the human beings who were fighting each other.
Soon after this exhilarating encounter with God, Jean – along with many others – was captured. He spent more than three years in the POW camp near Lübeck. There he tried to love not only his fellow prisoners of war but also the German officers who ran the camp. He asked his fellow prisoners to tell him, whenever they observed that he wasn’t being loving. His loving actions in difficult situations got him into serious trouble more than once. In a POW camp, serious trouble meant that you could easily be killed.
In one of these difficult situations, after some discussion with a Marxist fellow prisoner, Jean decided to go to the camp commandant and tell him that he would take the blame for what was going wrong. The commandant cried out, “No, not you! Go away! You can’t do that!” and chose to take the responsibility upon himself. He was taken away by military police two days later.
Seven or eight other prisoners joined Jean in what he was doing – asking others to challenge them, if they weren’t being loving in a certain situation. This transformed the camp to such an extent that prisoners from other camps asked what was going on. Jean’s reply was: “We try to love, as Christ has loved us.”
Just staying out of things and doing nothing to alleviate suffering or put an end to injustice is not loving. Intervention is necessary. Jean took the risk of intervening in a serious conflict and very nearly lost his life. He was beaten, tortured, and sentenced to death. When he was about to be executed, Jean told the camp commandant that he felt joy at the prospect of being united with the God of love, and that this God also loved the camp commandant. As he was speaking to the commandant, Jean was able to love him with all his strength and from the bottom of his heart. The officer clearly sensed this. He laid his revolver aside and refused to carry out the execution.
Many years later, in 1985, Jean wrote to his wife, Hildegard (Goss-Mayr), about this episode:
“You know, before that I had tried to love the Germans, the officers who were running the camp. But it wasn’t until I was being beaten and tortured that I really began to love them. That released within me an incredible, a most extraordinary love. And, look! It was at that moment that I understood that it isn’t me who loves. It is HE, Jesus Christ, who loves in me!
“If this love is so strong that it can convert even a Nazi, an enemy, then, I said to myself, it is the truly revolutionary power which can make people and the world new again.”
Footnote: Jean Goss’ experiences as a soldier and prisoner of war are recounted by Hildegard Goss-Mayr in her book, “Wie Feinde Freunde Werden: Mein Leben mit Jean Goss für Gewaltlosigkeit, Gerechtigkeit und Versöhnung”, published by Verlag Herder, Freiburg im Breisgau, in 1996.