OUR OPINION: The hard demands of love and forgiveness

By NEMS Daily Journal

This is a space usually devoted on Saturdays to discussing the application of Christian faith, theology and ethics in our individual and corporate lives. It’s a tradition of this newspaper that dates back nearly 70 years.
Love of enemies has been a periodic topic through the decades. So has forgiveness. Sometimes they’ve been intertwined.
These may be the two most difficult tenets of the Christian faith to put into practice. For most of us, they were the farthest thoughts from our minds and hearts on Sept. 11, 2001.
But those who claim the faith must hold to it even – and especially – when it is hardest to do. Jesus did not promise comfort and ease, but a cross.
A cross we have to bear 10 years later is not to be consumed by hatred and bitterness toward an enemy that, now as then, wishes our destruction.
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” Jesus said.
How in the name of God is that possible? How can the manifestation of evil so evident in 9/11 produce in any rational person a response of love and forgiveness? Isn’t the desire for vengeance a much more natural human emotion?
Well, of course it is. But that’s because, as the Christian understanding of humanity tells us, we are all sinners. Jesus, on the other hand, came to save us from our sin, according to orthodox Christian theology. What is natural in man’s fallen state is not what the “new creation” in Christ is to exemplify.
The world tells us to hate our enemies. Jesus tells us to love them.
The world tells us to bear a grudge, to throw fuel on the fire, to hate with abandon. Jesus tells us to forgive.
If it were easy, the world wouldn’t have needed a savior.
And yet there we are. What do we do when confronting this knowledge, if we are to take our faith seriously?
Those who would scoff at the notion of love and forgiveness for the perpetrators of 9/11 and similar acts of terrorism might claim it’s a sure path to suicide, but it’s not that simple. Loving and forgiving enemies doesn’t mean acquiescence to evil. In this morally complex world, it may mean choosing the lesser evil – even using violence to combat the perpetrators to protect the loss of future innocent lives.
There is much to commend in pacifism. There are some high-profile historic examples of its practical success as well. But it is simply not always the best moral choice when confronting evil.
But in defending innocent lives against insidious evil, we must never lose sight of the humanity of the perpetrators. And we must never deceive ourselves into thinking that there does not linger, in the darkest recesses of our being, the seeds of such evil in our ourselves given different life circumstances.
Love does not mean approval, certainly not in the way Jesus discussed it. It means willing the best for someone else. In the case of terrorists, it would mean praying for their disavowal of a murderous and self-destructive life.
Forgiveness does not mean acceptance of the act. It means, instead, relieving ourselves of the burden of the hate that gnaws at us more than it hurts the other. It means acknowledging that reconciliation, however unattainable it may seem, is ultimately God’s way.
The Christian life, lived fully, is hard. Nothing in it is harder than these precepts. But how can we, how do we, ignore them if Christ is whom we claim – and is the one who has a claim on us?