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TBT: Editorial, ‘Love your enemies’

Editor’s note: Once again, we’re grateful to Richard Mammana for his archival work, the historical note that follows, and for this transcript from The Living Church (April 26, 1942), pp. 12-13.

The Living Church published this editorial during the tenure of Clifford Phelps Morehouse (1904-77), just a week after the Doolittle Raid in which the U.S. Army Air Forces conducted their first air attack on Tokyo. Morehouse subsequently took a leave of absence as editor, reporting in 1943-44 for duty in the U.S. Marine Corps as a correspondent and assistant editor for The Marine Corps Gazette. His wartime reporting included firsthand coverage of the Iwo Jima Operation and the Battle for Peleliu.

“Love Your Enemies”


THERE is no harder saying of our Lord to understand in wartime than this: “Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”

Was Jesus Christ a realist? Did he foresee that a time would come when wicked men, drunk with the lust for power, would set out ruthlessly to enslave the world? Could he anticipate the cruel Nazi conquest of Europe, or the Japanese rape of the Far East? What would he have said at the tragedy of Dunkirk, or the atrocities of Hongkong, or the agonizing sacrifice of Bataan? Would He have us love the Nazis, bless the Japanese that curse us, and do good to the Italians who hate us?

The question is not an easy one to answer, and many Christians, even Church leaders, prefer to leave it unanswered in war time. After all, there are many texts in the Bible, and there are plenty of them, particularly in the Old Testament, that are easier to use as bases for sermons today. But the Bible is not just an anthology of sayings, among which we can pick and choose at random. It is the record of God’s continuing revelation of Himself to man; and the life and teaching of Jesus Christ is the climax of that revelation. The sincere Christian cannot ignore His words, or save them for a more convenient season.

As a matter of fact, the teachings of Christ are intended for just such times as these. His earthly life was not lived in some ideal Utopia, in which love of one’s enemies was relatively easy. He lived in a time of hardship and cruelty, when love, except between individuals, was practically unknown. He lived in a world dominated by the philosophy of the Greeks, who had but a single word for “foreigner” and “barbarian.” He lived in a world conquered and ruled by the Fascism and military might of the Roman Empire. His own people were a subjugated race living under the yoke of a foreign invader exactly as much as are, for example, the Belgians or the Poles today. And eventually He was betrayed into the hands of those same foreigners, and put to death as a common criminal by the soldiers of the occupying power.

Yes, our Lord was a realist. In His human life He knew all there is to know of cruelty, and greed, and selfishness, and the lust for power. He lived and died as a member of a subjugated minority. He had His Dunkirk in the Garden of Gethsemane, His Hongkong in the cruel scourging by Pilate’s soldiers, His Bataan in the agony of Calvary. Yet in the midst of that agony He cried: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!” And from that life of suffering comes this categorical imperative to His followers: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”

How shall we apply this hard saying to our own times and our own situation?

Like Jesus in His earthly life, we live in a cruel world. Perhaps it is no more cruel than it has been in past centuries, but the abuse of the scientific progress of what we ironically call “civilization” has intensified the cruelty many times over. Herod at his worst tried to wipe out all firstborn Jewish boys under two years old, in the relatively small country of Palestine; Hitler bids fair to starve and kill or stunt an entire generation of non-Germans in all of Europe, while his Japanese allies, with their genius for imitation and refinement, do the same, with even greater cruelty, for the Far East. And our own young manhood, fighting in all parts of the world against their oppression, must suffer and die by thousands because of these things.

Shall we then teach our soldiers and our young people to hate their enemies? Shall we urge them to outdo the enemy in cruelty and ruthlessness? Shall we call upon them to exact vengeance many times over, when they gain the upper hand over the enemy, and have his conquered subjects to deal with?

No — a million times no! A righteous peace can never come that way; only an armistice leading to ever more and bloodier wars. And we cannot do in the name of Christianity what the Founder of Christianity expressly forbids us to do.

Our Lord shows us the more excellent way. It is not an easy way. It is, in the famous words of Winston Churchill, a way of “blood and tears, toil and sweat.” Our Lord knew all of these; He endured them even to the death. But He did not hate His enemies; He hated only their sins. And He prayed for them in the hour of His death.

WE ARE engaged in a great war — the most extensive war that has ever been fought on earth. Its battlefields are everywhere, and no one is remote enough to be safe or to escape its consequences. Civilians, women and children, are in it quite as much as the members of the armed forces. We are only beginning, in this country, to realize what is meant by total war; but it is a lesson that we shall have to learn, and learn quickly, if victory is to be ours.

And victory must be ours. Make no mistake about that. There can be no “negotiated peace” with our enemies, while their present leaders are in control. And defeat at their hands would set back the clock of civilization many centuries — back to the days when only the citizens of conquering Rome had any rights and all others were slaves or barbarians.

But it must be a victory of righteousness, not merely a victory of arms. And righteousness means justice, and mercy — yes, and love. It cannot be based on hatred and recrimination and revenge.

Last week Americans rejoiced to hear that American bombers had actually raided Japanese cities. We may well rejoice at this evidence of the power of American arms, and we may safely ignore propagandist statements by Japanese authorities as to the bombing of non-military objectives. We think that our leaders may be trusted to carry on military operations honorably and as humanely as possible, and the indiscriminate bombing of helpless civilians, of any race or nation, is neither honorable nor humane. Nor is it worthy of our cause to gloat (as some few have done) over the “incidental” suffering of the Japanese people, huddled helplessly in paper houses.

We must strike, and strike hard. We must take the offensive and carry the war to the enemy’s territory. We must outthink him, outmaneuver him, and outfight him, on land, at sea, and in the air. Above all, we must keep our heads clear — and we cannot do that if they are clouded by hate. Any reputable psychiatrist will testify to that. Not hate, but the consciousness of a righteous and imperative cause is the mental attitude that will lead to final victory — to the only kind of victory that is worth winning.

When the first word came of Japanese mistreatment of prisoners in the Philippines, General MacArthur declared that the American and Filipino troops would not retaliate with similar mistreatment of Japanese prisoners. We would, he promised, fight with clean hands. And because our troops kept that promise, through three months of increasing agony, until human bodies could endure no longer, General MacArthur was able without blasphemy to compare their suffering with that of our Lord on Calvary. He could not have made that comparison if they had been animated primarily by hatred and vengeance, nor would hatred have been a sufficient motive to justify them in their long and foredoomed resistance to the superior Japanese strength.

“Love your enemies” — it is a hard saying indeed. But it is a vitally necessary one. Until the world learns it, there will never be anything like a just and durable peace. And how shall the world learn it if we, who profess and call ourselves Christians, forget it in the stress of war?


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