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At center: Republican U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson sits beside Democratic President Joe Biden during the annual National Prayer Breakfast at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Feb. 1, 2024. (OSV News photo/Evelyn Hockstein, Reuters)At center: Republican U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson sits beside Democratic President Joe Biden during the annual National Prayer Breakfast at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Feb. 1, 2024. (OSV News photo/Evelyn Hockstein, Reuters)

In my last column, I asked, “Are we willing to pray for our political enemies?”

This is an uncomfortable question, because we know we are not supposed to have enemies. Yet when we think of the parable of the good Samaritan as Jesus’ answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?”, we recognize that we often fall short of this imperative. Most of us do have people we treat as enemies, and we are called to do something about this. Indeed, in a world where our faith is so easily privatized, praying for our enemies is one of the most public things Christians can do.

The urgency to pray for our enemies is only heightened during campaign season, when we can come to view our political opponents almost as a different species. Praying for them (which does not mean praying that they change their political views) becomes a way to address our need to see them as human again. And we do need to see them as human, regardless of how they see us. We do not fulfill this need by making our prayers conditional on their changing views or behavior, or offering our prayers only if they will be reciprocated.

Praying for your enemies really implies at least two things: You desire good for them and you desire the healing of divisions. But there is a third thing that unites both of you: God and his providence of the world. Psalm 51, for instance, says: “I will teach the wicked your ways, that sinners may return to you” (Ps 51:15). Sometimes the wicked are us; sometimes we are the ones who need to be taught.

Praying for your enemies, in other words, supports a growing openness to recognizing that your enemies are people, too, and children of God—including the presidential candidate you can’t stand and his supporters.

The struggle to pray

If you struggle to pray for your enemies, you are not alone. James Martin, S.J., has called this “the hardest part of the Christian life.” His advice? “The first step is not to wish your enemies harm or rejoice over their misfortunes,” he says. “If you have, as St. Ignatius says, ‘the desire for the desire’ to love your enemies, God can work with that. Start by wishing them no harm. Then let God free your heart of malice for them. Then love them and pray for them.”

Recounting his own experience with a difficult person in his Jesuit community, Father Martin said, “You can’t control how he feels about you. But you can do the right thing yourself. Don’t return the hatred.”

But here’s the kicker: “You probably expect me to say that all this loving and prayer led to some sort of reconciliation. But it never did. He hated me all the way up until we stopped living together. That was really sad. But the happy thing for me is that I never returned his hatred, and I prayed for him. I couldn’t control his actions, but I could control mine.”

Father Martin’s comments underscore the personal growth that comes from praying for our enemies. It is a movement from praying for their conversion to praying for our conversion.

His words also underscore that we will not find perfect reconciliation with everyone on this side of paradise. We will always have to battle the temptation toward enmity, the temptation to put ourselves above them in judgment rather than to recognize that the Lord alone is God.

The end of enemies?

Our “enemies” might indeed be people who are wrong about important things, who champion injustice or promote dangerous and false beliefs. They might also be difficult, stubborn people who willfully hurt others for their own benefit.

But Jesus called us to pray for our enemies.

None of this denies the obvious: Some people and some actions are deeply evil. Sin plays a pervasive role in our world, and the use of power by even the most competent and holy people often leads to unintended and negative consequences. But if we are going to take Jesus’ call seriously, it has to mean something for our relationships with our enemies.

The task of political and social reconciliation does not mean that we can be smug and complacent until other people, the bad people causing all of the problems, realize our superiority. Instead, we must try to find ways to keep our hearts open to dialogue with them, to keep the door open to compromise in daily life and politics.

We would not want our partisan politics to limit our imagination of who we consider to be part of the church. And our ecclesial imaginations, at their most catholic, can help us to imagine and promote a more inclusive political life, one in which everyone’s needs and voices count.

Here, the psalms again illustrate our challenge. Psalm 3, for instance, opens with a complaint of the psalmist surrounded by attackers: “How many are my foes, Lord! How many rise against me!” (Ps 3:2). And yet the victim refuses to enter into their cycle of violence. Rather, the psalmist says, “With my own voice I will call out to the Lord, and he will answer me from his holy mountain” (Ps 3:5). The psalmist trusts the Lord to mete out justice. And therein lies a possible awakening to the idea that human justice is not God’s justice, which for Christians will be revealed most fully on and by the cross.

As I wrote in my previous column, we don’t want to be like David and Absalom, reconciled only through death.

The difference Christ makes

Praying for our enemies will not change the world overnight. Moreover, the unity offered by the Gospel is not the work of human hands unaided by God. And yet, if our society presupposes visions of unity that it itself cannot provide, then we run the risk of devouring our birthright as Christians.

Our society is so stuck in division and polarization that talk of reconciliation and unity can seem utopian. But that makes all the more urgent the task of training our attention and imagination to images of peace and unity. It is a peace Christ preaches even from the cross, and even for those who put him there: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Lk 23:34).

This is part of a series of columns by Bill McCormick, S.J., on the 2024 election. Also read:

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