"But I say to you: Love your enemies. Bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. For he makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust." (Jesus, Sermon on the Mount)Some people suppose that, because Christians do not retaliate in kind when people abuse us, insult us, or even attack us -- that we must not take our religion as seriously as the Muslims. But the more seriously we take Jesus, the more likely we are to return good to everyone, even those who have been evil in their treatment of us. The more seriously we take our religion, the less likely we are to retaliate in kind when someone does evil. Our response to the current attacks has been encouraging so far, for those of us who wonder if we still take Jesus seriously here in the U.S.
When we pray for Muslims, we are not to pray only for those who do not hate us, or pray for them by consoling ourselves that not all Muslims are willing to kill for their religion, or by concealing from ourselves that violence in Islam traces back to Mohammed himself and so is not likely to be disowned by the Muslim community, or by concealing from ourselves that many Muslims believe that such acts are holy rather than evil. All this effort is meant to make it easier for us to pray for them and befriend them, but it takes a wrong turn when it denies the reality that among them we find genuine enemies who genuinely hate and spitefully use and persecute -- and that these are the ones that Jesus singles out to make sure we do not forget them in our prayers and our acts of kindness. It is no good to imagine we have prayed for our enemies when we have merely focused on those who are not truly enemies.
When we pray for Muslims -- and particularly, the ones who genuinely are enemies -- we are not to blame their victims, as if the way we can love the Muslim community is to excuse any violence and blame their targets. We are called to be brothers and sisters to the oppressed. This does not mean that we imagine the people they hate and attack are some kind of saints who are free from any accusation of wrongdoing; no human is free from all wrongdoing. It means that we do not justify when someone kills those who have not, themselves, killed -- that we recognize that a wrong or an insensitivity on one side does not justify murder on the other side.
Jesus told us about our blindness when it comes to sin, how we tend to criticize the spec in someone's eye and overlook a log in our own eye. The same thing may happen even when we ourselves are not directly involved but are sympathetic to one side and unsympathetic towards the other in a dispute: our sense of proportion can be distorted so that we see a smaller fault in one side as graver than a larger fault in another. In fact, whenever we pay more attention to a small fault on one side than a large fault on the other side, we can be sure that our sense of proportion has somehow been distorted, and we must work to see clearly. We are not to look at a spec in one person's eye and say it justifies or causes the log in the other.
If an evil man insists that someone else's wrong justifies their own greater wrong, we should not embrace either evil; we also should meet the greater wrong with greater condemnation, so that we are not accomplices in self-justifying hypocrisy. When we find fault with the victims -- and everyone does have fault in them -- then it is easier for us to return good to those who do evil -- but we do this by implying that evil is good, a justified response to whatever fault may be found. If we do not recognize evil as evil, then it is no good thing to return good for it, and we have not followed Jesus.
If there is some case where we genuinely believe those who are attacked are the evildoers, then it is to these people that Jesus' command would then apply. When he says to return good to those who do evil, it would now mean to return good to those who are attacked. So it is impossible for Jesus' words to be used to support a hateful and murderous attack, even on people who really have done evil. Jesus' words about returning good for evil will turn us away from using someone else's evil as a justification for our own. His words are a cure for that particular kind of self-justifying vindictiveness and fault-finding to which religion is so easily corrupted whenever we forget Jesus' words, or in religions that do not hear or consider Jesus' words. We know too well that murder done in God's name has caused people all around the world to condemn religion as an evil thing; we must not stand by and justify something that desecrates God's name and causes the unbelievers all around the world to blaspheme God.
When we pray for those who do evil, that act can be misunderstood as support for that evil, so we must take particular care that we are clear: we do not pray because we excuse the evil, but precisely because we do not excuse it. We pray because here we find an urgent need for God's goodness.
When we pray even for the hateful and violent among the Muslims, we are not to pray for their destruction, as Jesus said: "bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, pray ..." -- here we cannot imagine that the blessing and good he has called for would suddenly become a curse when we pray for them. And again it is written, "As I live," says the Lord GOD, "I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live." (Ezekiel 33:11).
How then do we pray for enemies? Here is a first try, but I think that better might be prayed, and invite you all to add your prayer to mine.
Lord God, who has mercy on the sinful, who has had mercy us, and whose mercy endures forever: we remember before you the sinners of the world: may they know you, and may their hearts turn to you. Lord, who takes no delight in the death of the wicked, we pray for the wicked: may they turn from their ways and live. May they despise all evil, even in their own hearts. Your heart, O Lord, is full of mercy: in your very nature, you are love. May all the world acknowledge that you are a God of compassion and mercy, and that those who truly serve you are people of compassion and mercy.