Scrolling on my phone during another “week of bleak” in the media cycle, I took a detour to a popular satirical site, hoping for a good-natured chuckle to offset the otherwise grim headlines. The first article to catch my eye was a tongue-in-cheek piece about a fictitious woman who applied a home organization method to her Bible, “decluttering” Scripture by removing “all verses that don’t spark joy.”
By the end of her task, the woman was left with precious little of the holy book, and one of the first passages to be axed was Christ’s description of the cost of discipleship (Mt 16:24-26, Mk 8:34-35, Lk 9:23-27). “This verse about taking up your cross and following Jesus? I feel no joy there because it sounds difficult and painful,” the woman said before tearing out the page.
We may laugh at such a send-up, but most of us sinners do try in some way to “edit” Scripture, softening or sharpening its tone as we please, dismissing some portions entirely and filling in our biblical literacy gaps with pious sayings and wishful thinking.
And nowhere is that tendency more apparent than when we read Jesus’ truly incomprehensible command to “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:44; see also Lk 6:27-28).
Such words are obnoxious to a culture in which asserting one’s rights is literally a matter of life and death. From triviality to travesty, every offense these days is weighed and measured, and the offender is always found wanting to an infinite extreme. No recompense is sufficient, and interest on the debt is exacted relentlessly. As a result, our social media accounts surge with toxic taunts, bullets fly through Philadelphia’s streets, jails are at capacity — all while our hearts remain strangely empty.
Those who have been traumatized by horrific injustice such as murder, rape and torture can attest that the prospect of forgiving one’s enemies seems utterly unimaginable — even if the victim is a devoted follower of Christ.
In her autobiography “The Hiding Place,” concentration camp survivor Corrie ten Boom described the task of extending mercy to her Nazi captors as “the most difficult thing (she) ever had to do.”
Arrested with her family for sheltering Jews in their home near Amsterdam, Corrie and her sister Betsie were eventually sent to Ravensbruck, where Betsie resolutely put the family’s devout Christian faith into practice, offering forgiveness to the guards who starved, beat, humiliated and slaughtered their prisoners. Days before Corrie was released, Betsie died, but her legacy lived on through Corrie’s decades of post-war missionary work, which included numerous speaking tours.
At one such event in Germany, a heavy-set man approached Corrie. Instantly she recognized him: a Ravensbruck guard before whom she, Betsie and other women prisoners had been forced to walk naked.
Although he didn’t remember Corrie specifically, he explained to her that he had become a Christian and wanted to seek her forgiveness for the atrocities he had committed.
He held out his hand, and Corrie’s heart froze. She knew her faith compelled her to share the mercy she herself had received as a believer in Christ. Nothing in her wanted to reciprocate, but she recalled that “forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.”
Praying silently, she promised she would lift her hand if Jesus would “supply the feeling.” And he did just that. As she “woodenly, mechanically” clasped the former guard’s fingers, a rush of warmth enveloped Corrie, bringing tears to her eyes and enabling her to say, “I forgive you, brother! With all my heart!”
Rather than retraumatizing her, the encounter deepened her experience of the divine. “I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then,” she wrote.
In a very real sense, to look at your enemy is to look at yourself. No other mirror will reveal how clearly the Lord’s love has been imprinted on your own soul. Reflecting on the words of the “Our Father,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that God’s “outpouring of mercy cannot penetrate our hearts as long as we have not forgiven those who have trespassed against us” (no. 2840).
The message is, as the church admits, “daunting” (CCC, 2840), and indeed “this crucial requirement of the covenant mystery is impossible for man” (CCC, 2841).
But if we are willing to surrender to a Lord who breathed forgiveness even as his wrists were riven by Roman nails — and who rose “with healing in (his) wings” (Mal 3:20) — we will find that “with God all things are possible” (Mt 19:26).
Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors.” Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.
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