There is nothing particularly spiritual about forgiving a friend who hurts us by accident. But what about forgiving a sworn enemy whose intent is to cause us as much harm as possible? Where is the spirituality in doing something like this?
Recently, I had this question put to me by a reader stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, who in his words is still “obsessed” with the actions of a fellow soldier, Major Nidal Hasan. The major, you will recall, was convicted last August for committing mass murders and inflicting even more injuries on the base. My reader is struggling with our legal system’s delay in giving Hasan “what he deserves.”
What interested me especially about the e-mail was its insistence that we look upon this terrible crime as a test case for the credibility of Christian ethical principles. The specific principle it questions comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors.” (Matthew 5:44)
I don’t understand these words as testing the credibility of Christian ethics. I do understand them as testing the integrity of everyone who tries to live by them.
No conscientious Christian can possibly deny that people should be held accountable for their actions. To forgive a wrongdoer is not to dismiss the wrong(s) done. But it is to withhold judging his or her worthiness as a human being solely in terms of particular actions done and specific punishments deserved.
And this does put us to a test. The test is not to come up with reasons for loving an enemy, but with reasons for believing that we are capable of such a love.
If we are ever to love our enemies, we will have to let go the idea of holding back forgiving them until they satisfy their debts to us. That idea will have to be replaced with — and here is where the test becomes almost overwhelming — compassion.
It isn’t possible to pass this test without bringing to it a sense of gratitude for the good that there is in a world that also contains genuine evil. As I see it, the logic goes something like this:
Forgiveness is the means to becoming more loving. Compassion is the means to becoming more forgiving. And gratitude is the means to becoming more compassionate.
Maybe we can love our enemies after all.