"I suspect that this need for a change in perspective, more than anything, is the reason Jesus immediately follows the command to love your enemies with the instruction to pray for them (Matt. 5:44). The purpose of these prayers is not to change our enemies, and even less to change God's mind about what should happen. It is to change us: what we can see in the situation and what we can hope for, what we fear and what we want, so that we may finally change what we are able to do.

"Now, I would not be surprised if most of our prayers for our enemies started out as really prayers about them (prayers that they would stop doing whatever has made them our enemies) and prayers for us (for example, that God would keep them from doing us harm). There is nothing wrong with prayers like these, especially if we really have been the victims of some kind of serious and unprovoked assault. (The Psalms include many such prayers.) But we are not yet on the path that would lead us to the love of enemies. For that we have to take another step, one that is far harder. We have to ask God to bless those whom we fear and wish to hate.

"I do not want to minimize the difficulty or the strangeness of such a prayer. It requires that we do something that feels like abandoning our own skin: that we stand alongside Jesus and ask God's kindness for those who may be seeking our lives. It means that we have to put aside all our claims, the just along with the unjust, to lay down our anger and our desire for revenge. It asks us to trade our own causes for God's cause, which is the reclaiming of the world through mercy.

"Though it is the same mercy shown to us in Jesus Christ, the same mercy on which we all depend, nevertheless in my slender experience it does not come to us naturally. We may have to ask for help even to frame the words, and considerably more help ever to begin to mean them. Here is where Christians invoke the aid of the Holy Spirit to enable us to pray as we ought. But this is also where we begin to offer our enemies along with ourselves to God, so that God's reign may come and God's good purposes be fulfilled.

"If prayer is the crucial turn toward loving our enemies, it must be acknowledged that such prayer takes time, perhaps a whole lifetime, to learn. It also takes a community. We need a community of others to challenge and support us in rejecting the common sense of retaliation, and to model the thousand small acts of patience and forbearance by which we learn to practice forgiveness and charity toward one another. It is also in communities of faith, where the love of neighbor is practiced and the truth is spoken, that we come to see just how much forbearance we ourselves require from those who love us, and how little true justice any of us could bear. There we may even learn to question the perfect justness of our own most cherished causes."