I believe that without question, the most unpopular of all Christian Virtues is the one I am going to address today: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself”. Because Christian morals mean that “your neighbor” includes “your enemy”, thus we are pushed up against this terrible duty of forgiving our enemies. Nearly everyone you ask will tell you that forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive. Then to mention the subject at all is to be greeted with distain and anger. It isn’t that people think forgiveness is too high and difficult a virtue; it is that they think it hateful and contemptible. Most of who are reading this have already decided to ask me “I wonder how you would feel about forgiveness if you had a family member inside the World Trade Center on September 11th, or if your spouse had betrayed you with cold and calculated malice.
So do I: In answer to the first question I wonder very much, in answer to the second it is a battle I fight each and every day. Christianity tells me that I must not deny my religion to save myself from death or torture, I wonder what I would do if it came to that point. Do not mistake me for one of those who writes a book telling you that I have mastered the Christian doctrine of forgiveness – I am simply telling you what Christianity is. I did not invent it, yet right in the middle of it, we find “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” It is made perfectly clear that if we do not forgive we will not be forgiven. There are no two ways about it. So what are we to do?
It is going to be hard, but I think I there are at lest two things we can do to make it easier. First, just as when you start learning math, you did not begin with calculus, you began with simple addition (1+1=2) In the same manner, if you really want to learn how to forgive (but you have to really want to forgive) perhaps you should start with something easier then those things that repulse everyone with any morals, those things that there can be no justification for. Start instead by forgiving something someone has said this week, and continue to build on top of that.
Second, I think we should try to understand exactly what loving your neighbor as yourself means. I have to love him as I love myself? Then exactly how do I love myself? I can only speak for myself but I have not exactly got a feeling of fondness or affection for myself. Nor do I always enjoy my own company. So apparently “love your neighbor” doesn’t mean “to feel fond of him, or to find him attractive” Do I think I am good, think I am a nice person? Honestly, sometimes I do (and those are no doubt my worst moments). But that is not why I love myself, in fact it is the other way around: my self love makes me think myself nice (thus those who argue that they are a good person are without doubt the most narcissist of all) but thinking myself nice is not why I love myself. So if you extend that, that loving your enemies does not mean thinking they are nice either. Which at least to me is a great relief as forgiving my enemies does not mean that I have to say they are not such bad people, when it is quite plain that they are.
Taking that one step further, in my most clear sighted moments not only do I not think of myself as a nice person, but know that I am a wicked one. I can look at some of the things I have done with horror, which apparently means that I am allowed to hate some of the things my enemies do. Remember Christian theology teaches that we are to hate the evil person’s actions but not the evil person.
For a long time, I thought that was just hair splitting, how could you hate what the person did and not hate the person? However, with time it occurred to me that I have been doing this all my life – namely with myself. I might dislike some of what I have done, yet I went on loving myself. In fact the reason I hated the things was because I loved the man. Because I loved myself, I was sorry to find that I was the sort of person who did those things. Consequently Christianity does not want us to reduce our hatred we feel for cruelty, treachery, deceit, and self-fishiness. We should hate them, but we are to hate them in the same way in which we hate things in ourselves. Being sorry that the person could have done such things, yet hoping that somehow, sometime, somewhere, someway, he or she can be cured and mad human again.
Does loving your enemy mean not punishing them? No, for loving myself does not mean that I should not subject myself to punishment for my sins. If one had committed murder, the right Christian thing to do would be to give yourself up to the police and accept your punishment, even if that meant death. Thus what is the Christian thing for a thief to do, or an adulterer, an unscrupulous businessman? The modern church has removed punishment, (JUSTICE) from its teachings. But I do not think God has suddenly, due to popular demand ceased being JUST. It is therefore in my opinion perfectly right for a Christian Judge or minister to deal swiftly with perpetrators, demanding justice for both the perpetrators and the victims. Mercy is measured by Justice.
Some (more often then not those who are guilty of things that repulse the average moral Chrsitian) will say “if one is allowed to condemn the enemy’s acts, and punish him, what is the difference between Christian morality and the secular view?” All the difference in the world. Remember, Christians think man lives forever. Thus what really matters is those twists on the central inside part of the soul which are going to turn it in the long run into a heavenly or hellish creature. We may punish, if Justice is necessary, but we are not to enjoy it. The ‘feeling’ of vengeance must simply be killed.
Even while we punish we must feel about the enemy as we feel about ourselves – to wish that he or she were not bad, to hope that he or she may in this world be cured; thus in fact to wish him or her good. That is what is meant in the Bible by loving him: wishing for your enemy good, not feeling fond of him or her, nor saying he or she is nice and a good person when they are not.
I admit that I struggle with this myself, because it means loving people who have nothing lovable about them. But then again do I have anything loveable about me? I love me, simply because I am 'me'. God intends us to love all “ME’s” in the same way and for the same reason. I find it easier to do, when I remind myself of how He loves me. Not for any nice, good attractive qualities I think I have, but because I am me. Because really there is nothing in us to love: we are creatures who actually find hatred pleasurable, and that to give it up is like giving up alcohol or cigarettes.