Lorenzo Rosebaugh, an Oblate colleague shot to death in Guatemala two years ago, used to share at Oblate gatherings some advice that Daniel Berrigan once gave him. Lorenzo, contemplating an act of civil disobedience to protest the Vietnam war, was told by Berrigan: If you can’t do this without becoming bitter, then don’t do it! Do it only if you can do it with a mellow heart! Do it only if you can be sure you won’t end up hating those who arrest you!
That’s hard to do; but, in the end, it’s the ultimate challenge, namely, to not hate those who oppose us, to not hate our enemies, to continue to have gracious and forgiving hearts in the face of misunderstanding, bitter opposition, jealousy, anger, hatred, positive mistreatment, and even the threat of death.
And to be a disciple of Jesus means that, at some point, we will be hated. We will make enemies. It happened to Jesus and he assured us that it will happen to us.
But he also left us the ultimate example of how we need to respond to our enemies. When scripture tells us that Jesus saved the people from their sins, it doesn’t just mean that in offering his death to his father as a sacrifice in one eternal act he took away our sins. It also points to his way of living and how, as he demonstrated, forgiving and loving one’s enemies take away sin, by absorbing it. Jesus’ great act of love, as Kierkegaard once said, is meant to be imitated not just admired.
But how do we do this? It seems that we don’t know how to love our enemies, that we don’t have the strength to forgive. We preach it as an ideal and naively believe that we are doing it. But, for the most part, we aren’t. We really don’t love and forgive those who oppose us. Too often we are distrustful, disrespectful, bitter, demonizing, and (metaphorically speaking) murderous towards each other. If there is much love and forgiveness of enemies in our lives, it’s far from evident, both in our world and in our churches. As Ronald Knox once said, as Christians, we have never really taken seriously Jesus’ challenge to love our enemies and to turn the other cheek.
I say this sympathetically. We need help. The old saying is true: To err is human, to forgive is divine. So how do we start?
We might start by both acknowledging our failure and admitting our helplessness, individually and as churches. We aren’t very loving and forgiving in the face of opposition! Next, we need to highlight this inadequacy and the importance of this failure in our preaching and teaching. Loving our enemies is the real moral and religious litmus test! We don’t have a right to call anyone a “cafeteria Christian” or a compromised follower of Christ unless, first of all, we, ourselves, are persons who are gracious, respectful, loving, and forgiving in the face of anyone who opposes us. Let’s start, all of us, from this humble place of admittance: We aren’t very much like Jesus in the face of opposition.
Then, perhaps most important of all, we need to seek each other’s help, akin to the dynamics of an Alcoholics’ Anonymous meeting. Alone we haven’t the strength to love those who hate us. We need grace and community, God’s power and others’ support, to retain the most difficult of all sobrieties, that is, to walk within a steady strength that enables us to remain warm, gracious, forgiving, loving, and joyful in the face of misunderstanding, jealousy, opposition, bitterness, threat, and murder.
Speaking personally, I consider this to be the greatest challenge of my life, morally and humanly. How to love an enemy: How do I not let a jealous glance freeze my heart? How do I not let a bitter word ruin my day? How do I not demonize others when they oppose me? How do I remain sympathetic when I’m misunderstood? How do I remain warm in the face of bitterness? How do I not give in to paranoia when I feel threatened? How do I forgive someone who doesn’t want my forgiveness? How do stop myself from slamming the door of my heart in the face of coldness and rejection? How do I forgive others when my own heart is bitter in self-pity? How do I really love and forgive as Jesus did?
I often wonder how Jesus did it. How did he retain peace of mind, warmth in his heart, graciousness in his speech, joy in his life, resiliency in his efforts, the capacity to be grateful, and a sense of humor in the face of misunderstanding, jealousy, hatred, and death threats?
He did it by recognizing that this was, singularly, the most important challenge of his life and mission, and, under the weight of that imperative, by falling on his knees to ask for the help of the One who can do in us what we can’t do for ourselves.
Ronald Rolheiser, a Roman Catholic priest and member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. He is a community-builder, lecturer and writer. His books are popular throughout the English-speaking world and his weekly column is carried by more than seventy newspapers worldwide.