You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
Matthew 5: 43-45
For me, the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 5 concerning the nature of God as the Father of all, including my enemies, is one of the most difficult and challenging in the entire scripture. Yesterday I was speaking with a friend who told me of hesitatingly revealing to someone that she would be needing to undergo several radiation treatments in the coming weeks. She hesitated to do so, because she didn’t want to draw attention to herself and didn’t want others to be troubled by her condition. In response the person to whom she finally revealed her condition said to her: “We’re Christians. Caring for each other is what we do.”
Today we hear that to be Christian is not only to care for those who believe as we do and act toward us with reverence and respect, but also to care for our enemies in the same way. Jesus says it is what Christians do because it is what God does, who continues to pour out his gifts and his love to all, just and unjust alike.
In the past few months the trial of the surviving Boston Marathon bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, has been dominating much of the news. There was never a question of his guilt or innocence but only whether or not he would receive the death penalty, which he did. As the ongoing public conversation about what constituted justice in this case unfolded, it evoked the question of the place of revenge in public life. For, in whatever other ways we may try to cloak justification for our society’s killing of a human being, the reality always finally emerges, which is it is our enacting of revenge on one who has done us evil.
One of the witnesses in the sentencing phase of the trial was Rebecca Norris, a former teacher of Tsarnaev. In an interview following her appearance she said:
He has this little smile that goes all the way to his eyes. The smile that I saw in court Wednesday was that exact same smile.
When you love and care for someone, that doesn’t stop even when they do the most terrible things. I really have come to believe that’s a universally human response. That that’s the nature of compassion.
I very much want people to tap into their compassionate side. I think that if we lose compassion because somebody does something terrible then we’re letting that terrible action get the better of us.
Although this description of a person who has done horrible things may sound sentimental to our ears, it serves to remind us of the “inconvenient truth” that Jesus speaks of: the universality of good and evil, that we are all just and unjust, yet all loved by God. That is not the way I think. When someone wrongs me, in infinitely less serious ways than Dzhokhar Tsarnaev did his victims, I am quick to resentment and revenge and slow to compassion and mercy. A teacher of ours once said to us that it was the nature of human consciousness to want to balance the scales. That is our very image of justice. But the scales cannot be balanced. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells his disciples that God is infinitely merciful and compassionate. God’s makes the sun to rise and the rain to fall on all of us equally. We are quick to feel, when we are hurt, that this is not fair. Yet, in the depth of our hearts, we know that our own lives would be impossible were this not true.
There is a story told of St. John of God. When he is confronted by the Roman authorities for housing and caring for criminals in his hospital, he replies to them that the only sinner there is he, himself. And, of course, this is profoundly true. We do not know the state of another’s soul before God, but we do know our own sinfulness.
Without question a society, to be able to function, must punish those who violate its norms. The motives for this, however, can be very different from revenge. There is something in our need for revenge that is a denial of our most basic humanity. It is acting on the illusion that we can balance the scales, as we perceive the need to do so. Is this not, however, a very refusal to receive and accept the justice and mercy of God? Is it not in some way a refusal to recognize our own need for God’s compassion and mercy, and so, at some level, an act of despair?
We drove into town with Senator Dawson, a neighbor of the monastery, and all the while I wondered how I would react at meeting once again, face to face, the wicked world. I met the world and I found it no longer so wicked after all. Perhaps the things I had resented about the world when I left it were defects of my own that I had projected upon it. Now on the contrary, I found that everything stirred me with a deep and mute sense of compassion. Perhaps some of the people we saw going about the streets were hard and tough.. .but I did not stop to observe it because I seemed to have lost an eye for merely exterior detail and to have discovered, instead, a deep sense of respect and love and pity for the souls that such details never fully reveal. I went through the city, realizing for the first time in my life how good are all the people in the world and how much value they have in the sight of God.
Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas: The Journal of Thomas Merton, pp. 91-92.