Of all the teachings of the Gospel, one of the least heeded is the command to love and pray for our enemies. Though embedded in the Sermon on the Mount, Our Lord’s words on this subject often go mysteriously missing in exhortations to the faithful. And one would be hard-pressed to find many references to them in the socio-political debates that often consume Christians. But the authority and starkness of Christ’s words cannot be avoided, for they highlight an essential requirement of being His disciple:

You have heard that it was said, “Love your friends, hate your enemies.” But now I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may become the children of your Father in heaven. … Why should God reward you if you only love the people who love you? Even the tax collectors do that! And if you speak only to your friends, have you done anything out of the ordinary? Even the pagans do that! You must be perfect—just as your Father in heaven is perfect.

Early in his pontificate, Francis reminded us that this command was meant for all Christians, not just for “holy souls” or “cloistered nuns.” He then challenged his listeners with a pointed question: “Let me just ask … and let us each answer it in our own heart: ‘Do I pray for my enemies? Do I pray for those who do not love me?’”

Many Christians, if they are honest with themselves, would have to answer “No.” There is something about expressing love and offering prayers for those who are cruel and evil that makes even the most virtuous Christian hesitate. Do we have the strength to love and forgive a spouse who has selfishly betrayed us and shattered our family? Is our first instinct to storm heaven for a relative who constantly mistreats and humiliates us? Who wants to pray for a rival or business associate who has been ruthless or vindictive? How can we spiritually embrace a wicked criminal who has robbed us? How can any Christian love and pray for deadly groups like Al-Qaeda or ISIS, especially when Christians are so often their victims?

The words of Christ seem almost impossible to live up to, and yet, He not only commands us to do so, but even to be “perfect,” as our heavenly Father is.

Were it not for the transformative power of the Gospel, this would be an unreasonable expectation. But it is precisely the graces of Christian discipleship, beginning with baptism, that enable us to live as Christians should. As Francis says, baptism “isn’t just some formal ritual; it profoundly changes people, giving them unwavering hope and the strength to forgive and love others.” For with baptism, “we are immersed in that inexhaustible source of life that is Jesus’s death, the greatest act of love in all of history.” Baptized Christians are thus “able to forgive, to love—even those who offend and hurt us”; and to recognize the face of Christ in everyone, including our enemies.

Although homilies about Christian miracles or heroism are much easier to listen to, the best Christian preachers have always highlighted the Sermon on the Mount, and the need to practice its principles.

Speaking in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1957, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered one of his greatest sermons, titled “Loving Your Enemies.” Referring to this command of Christ, King said: “Certainly, these are great words, words lifted to cosmic proportions. And over the centuries, many persons have argued that this is an extremely difficult command.” But “we have the Christian and moral responsibility to seek to discover the meaning of these words, and to discover how we can live out this command.”

King outlined three ways we can live up to Christ’s teaching.

First is to “begin with yourself,” rather than your enemy. Aware that some people may dislike us, simply because they have an inclination to be hostile, King nevertheless encourages us to face the possibility that “an individual might dislike us because of something that we’ve done” in the past to him: “There might be something within you that arouses the tragic hate response in the other individual.” If so, we must remove that mote from our own eye, and ask forgiveness, in hopes of influencing our enemy—even as we pray for him to change his heart as well.

Second, as difficult as it is, we must look for any good in our enemy, and realize that if we can find it, there might be more, and those good points might eventually, especially if we love and pray for them, outweigh the bad. Even when our enemies are so corrupt and evil that there is no discernible sign of good in any of them, we can at least recognize that they are fellow human beings and children of God—however much they have violated His commands—and love and pray for them on that basis alone.

Third, when the opportunity presents itself to defeat our enemies on a personal level, “we must not do it: It might be in terms of a recommendation for a job; it might be in terms of helping that person make some move in life.” Or it might be something much greater, on a global scale, in a struggle with an international foe. That is exactly when we must act with Christian principles, said King, and not revenge, for “that is the meaning of love. … When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system.”

King was speaking at the height of the Cold War, and he specifically addressed resistance to the evils of Communism, which he said Christians had a right and obligation to mount—but always justly, and not out of hatred, and not with the desire to destroy individuals who could be saved. His words remain powerful today, as we seek to defeat terrorism.

Which brings us to the most important reason we should love and pray for our enemies—not only in hopes of saving them, but in saving ourselves from overwhelming hatred. As King warned:

Begin hating somebody, and you will begin to do irrational things. You can’t see straight when you hate. You can’t walk straight when you hate. You can’t stand upright. Your vision is distorted. There is nothing more tragic than to see an individual whose heart is filled with hate [for] he comes to the point that he becomes a pathological case.

This is why Christ’s words have taken on a new urgency in our time. Our Lord’s command, said King, is not “the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer,” but “an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization,” lest it destroy itself through a vicious cycle of endless violence and retribution. “Yes, it is love that will save our world and our civilization, love even for our enemies.”

William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.

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