Bless Your Persecutors

Bless Your Persecutors

At some thoughts one stands perplexed – especially at the sight of men’s sin – and wonders whether one should use force or humble love. Always decide to use humble love. If you resolve to do that, once and for all, you can subdue the whole world. Loving humility is marvelously strong, the strongest of all things, and there is nothing else like it.                                                                                                          Fyodor Dostoevsky
In the well-known passage of the Gospels called the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches us to love our enemies – in fact, to “bless” those who persecute us. But it wasn’t just a sermon. As his unmistakably compassionate plea from the cross shows – “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” – he practiced what he preached. So did Stephen, the first Christian martyr, who prayed much the same thing as he was being stoned to death: “Father, do not hold this against them.”
Many people dismiss such an attitude as self-destructive foolishness. How and why should we embrace someone intent on harming or killing us? Why not fight back in self-defense? Raja Shehadeh, a Palestinian human rights lawyer, is no stranger to repression, but he takes a very different view of the matter: For me, the act of forgiveness carries a lot of power. 

It is an assertion of one’s dignity to have the means and ability to forgive…It may be difficult to understand, because it turns conventional logic on its head, but idealistically speaking, I think that if there is to be peace, there has to be forgiveness…
Though misunderstood and ridiculed, Raja’s understanding of forgiveness is not entirely unusual – it has been embraced by hundreds of persecuted minorities throughout history, from the earliest Christian believers, to the Anabaptists of the radical Reformation, to our century’s followers of Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King.

It is probably best explained in this passage from King’s book Strength to Love:
Probably no admonition of Jesus has been more difficult to follow than the command to love our enemies. Some people have sincerely felt that its actual practice is not possible. It is easy, they say, to love those who love you, but how can one love those who openly and insidiously seek to defeat you…?

Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, the command to love one’s enemy is an absolute necessity for our survival. Love even for our enemies is the key to the solution of the problems of our world. Jesus is not an impractical idealist; he is the practical realist…
Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction…
Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate; we get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity. By its very nature, hate destroys and tears down; by its very nature, love creates and builds up. Love transforms with redemptive power.

King’s commitment to love as a political weapon grew out of his faith, but there was a good streak of pragmatism in his thinking as well. He knew that he and other African-Americans involved in the civil rights movement would have to live for decades to come with the same people they were now confronting. If they let their treatment embitter them, it would soon lead to violence, which would only lead to new cycles of repression and embitterment. Rather than breaking down the walls of racial hatred, it would build them higher. Only by forgiving their oppressors, King said, could African-Americans end the “descending spiral of destruction.” Only forgiveness could bring about lasting change:
We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. Whoever is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. It is impossible even to begin the act of loving one’s enemies without the prior acceptance of the necessity, over and over again, of forgiving those who inflict evil and injury upon us.

It is also necessary to realize that the forgiving act must always be initiated by the person who has been wronged, the victim of some great hurt, the recipient of some tortuous injustice, the absorber of some terrible act of oppression. The wrongdoer may request forgiveness. They may come to themselves, and like the prodigal son, move up some dusty road, their heart palpitating with the desire for forgiveness. But only the injured neighbor, the loving father back home, can really pour out the warm waters of forgiveness.

Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship. Forgiveness is a catalyst creating the atmosphere necessary for a fresh start and a new beginning…
To our most bitter opponents we say: We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you.

We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer.

One day we shall win our freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.
in The spring oF 1965 I marched with King in Marion, Alabama, and experienced firsthand his deep love and humility in the face of injustice. I was visiting the Tuskegee Institute with colleagues from New York when we heard about the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a young man who had been shot eight days earlier when a rally at a church in Marion was broken up by police. State troopers from all over central Alabama had converged on the town and beaten the protesters with clubs as they poured out onto the streets.

Bystanders later described a scene of utter chaos: white onlookers smashed cameras and shot out street lights, while police officers brutally attacked black men and women, some of whom were kneeling and praying on the steps of their church. Jimmie’s crime was to tackle a state trooper who was mercilessly beating his mother. His punishment: to be shot in the stomach and clubbed over the head until almost dead. Denied admission at the local hospital, he was taken to Selma, where he was able to tell his story to reporters. He died several days later.

At the news of Jimmie’s death, we drove to Selma immediately. The viewing, at Brown Chapel, was open-casket, and although the mortician had done his best to cover his injuries, the wounds on Jimmie’s head could not be hidden: three murderous blows, each an inch wide and three inches long, ran above his ear, at the base of his skull, and on the top of his head.
Deeply shaken, we attended a memorial service there. The room was packed with about three thousand people (many more stood outside), and we sat on a window sill at the back. We never heard one note of anger or revenge in the service. Instead, a spirit of courage emanated from the men and women of the congregation, especially as they rose to sing the old slave song, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ’round.”

Later, at a second service in Marion, the atmosphere was decidedly more subdued. Lining the veranda of the county court house across the street stood a long row of state troopers, hands on their night sticks, looking straight at us. These were the same men who had attacked Marion’s blacks only days before. The crowd of whites gathered at nearby City Hall was no less intimidating. Armed with binoculars and cameras, they scanned and photographed us so thoroughly that we felt every one of us had been marked.

Afterwards, at the cemetery, King spoke about forgiveness and love. He pleaded with his people to pray for the police, to forgive the murderer, and to forgive those who were persecuting them. Then we held hands and sang, “We shall overcome.” It was an unforgettable moment. If there was ever cause for hatred or vengeance, it was here. But none was to be felt, not even from Jimmie’s parents.

Not long ago I read about a remarkable act of forgiveness by the children of Selma in those same days of early 1965. Local students had organized a peaceful after-school march when the town’s notorious Sheriff Clark arrived. Clark’s deputies began to push and prod the children, and soon they were running. Initially the boys and girls thought the sheriff was marching them toward the county jail, but it soon became clear that they were headed for a prison camp almost five miles out of town. The men did not relent until the children were retching and vomiting. Later they claimed they wanted to wear out Selma’s “marching fever” for good.

A few days after this incident, Sheriff Clark was hospitalized with chest pains. Unbelievably, Selma’s school children organized a second march outside the court house, chanting prayers for his recovery and carrying get-well signs.
Eminent child psychiatrist Robert Coles observed the same remarkable attitude of forgiveness among children when he was working in a New Orleans hospital in 1960. White parents, openly opposed to a federal court decision that ended segregation in the city’s schools, not only withdrew their children from any school that admitted blacks, but picketed these schools as well.

One child, six-year-old Ruby Bridges, was the sole African American student at her school, which meant that for a while she was also the only student there. For weeks she had to be escorted to school by federal marshals. One day, her teacher saw her mouthing words as she passed the lines of angry white parents hurling abuse. When the teacher reported this to Coles, he was curious: What had she said?

When asked, Ruby said that she had been praying for the parents of her white classmates. Coles was perplexed. “But why?” “Because they need praying for,” she answered. She had heard in church about Jesus’ dying words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” and had taken them to heart.

Through James chrisTensen, the prior of a Trappist monastery in Rome, I recently learned of a remarkable story of someone who not only forgave his persecutors, but did so before the fact. In May 1996, the GIA, a radical Islamic group in Algeria, kidnapped seven of James’s fellow Trappists in the Atlas Mountains and threatened to hold them hostage until France released several of their own imprisoned compatriots. When the French government refused, the GIA slit the monks’ throats.

All France was horrified, and every Catholic church in France tolled its bells at the same time in the monks’ memory. What struck me most about the tragedy, however, was something that had quietly foreshadowed it two years before. The prior of the Algerian monastery, Christian de Chergé, had had a strange premonition that he would soon die a violent death, and wrote a letter forgiving his future assassins. He sealed the letter and left it with his mother in France. Opened only after his murder, it read in part: If it should happen one day – and it could be today – that I become a victim of the terrorism that now seems to encompass all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to Algeria; and that they accept that the sole Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure.

I would like, when the time comes, to have a space of clearness that would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who will strike me down.
I could not desire such a death; it seems to me important to state this: How could I rejoice if the Algerian people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder?

My death, obviously, will appear to confirm those who hastily judged me naïve or idealistic: “Let him tell us now what he thinks of it!” But they should know that…for this life lost, I give thanks to God. In this “thank you,” which is said for everything in my life from now on, I certainly include you, my last-minute friend who will not have known what you are doing…I commend you to the God in whose face I see yours. And may we find each other, happy “good thieves” in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both.

like so many oThers on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Bishara Awad, a Palestinian acquaintance of mine, has been wounded by his share of injustices. Speaking recently about his life-long struggle to forgive, he told me:
In 1948, during the terrible war between the Arabs and the Jewish settlers, thousands of Palestinians died and many more became homeless. Our own family was not spared. My father was shot dead by a stray bullet, and there was no decent burial place. No one could leave the area for fear of getting shot at by either side; there was not a priest nor a minister to say a prayer. So Mother read to us from the Bible, and the men who were present buried my father in the courtyard. There was no way they could have taken him to the regular cemetery in the city.

Mother thus became a widow at the age of twenty-nine, and she was left with seven children. I was only nine years old. For weeks we were caught up in the crossfire and were unable to leave our basement room. Then one night, the Jordanian army forced us to run to the Old City. That was the last time we ever saw our home and our furniture. We ran away with nothing but the clothes on our backs, some of us only in pajamas…

In the Old City we were refugees. We were put in a kerosene storage room that had no furniture. A Muslim family gave us some blankets and some food. Life was very hard; I still remember nights when we went to sleep without any food.

Mother had been trained as a nurse, and she got a job at a hospital for $25 a month. She worked at night and continued her studies during the day, and we children were put in orphanages. My sisters were accepted in a Muslim school, and we boys were placed in a home run by a British woman. To me, this was a real blow. First I had lost my father, and now I was away from my mother and my family. We were allowed to visit home once a month, but otherwise we stayed at the boys’ home for the next twelve years. Here, with my two brothers and eighty other boys, my suffering continued. We never had enough to eat. The food was terrible and the treatment harsh.

As an adult, Bishara went to school in the United States and became an American citizen. Later he returned to Israel and took a job teaching in a Christian school. Looking back, he says: That first year I was very frustrated. I did not accomplish much and I felt defeated…There was mounting hatred against the Jewish oppressors: all of my students were Palestinians, and all had suffered in the same way I had…I wasn’t able to help my students, because of the overriding hatred in me. I had harbored it since childhood without even realizing it.

One night I prayed to God in tears. I asked forgiveness for hating the Jews and for allowing hatred to control my life…Instantly he took away my frustration, hopelessness, and hatred and replaced it with love. In a culture that emphasizes self-preservation and individualism, forgiveness is scoffed at so routinely that most people never stop to consider its potential to heal wounds such as the ones Bishara described. But neither do they consider the fruits of its alternative, which is bitterness. Naim Ateek, a well-known Palestinian priest in Jerusalem whose father lost everything he had to the Israeli Army in 1948, says: When people hate, its power engulfs them and they are totally consumed by it…Keep struggling against hatred and resentment. 

At times you will have the upper hand, at times you will feel beaten down. Although it is extremely difficult, never let hatred completely overtake you… Never stop trying to live the commandment of love and forgiveness. Do not dilute the strength of Jesus’s message; do not shun it; do not dismiss it as unreal and impractical. Do not cut it to your size, trying to make it more applicable to real life in the world. Do not change it so that it will suit you. Keep it as it is, aspire to it, desire it, and work for its achievement.

Far from leaving us weak and vulnerable, forgiveness is empowering, both to the person who grants it and the one who receives it. In bringing true closure to the most difficult situations, it allows us to lay aside the riddles of retribution and human fairness, and to experience true peace of heart. Finally, it sets into motion a positive chain re-action that passes on the fruits of our forgiveness to others.

WRITTEN BY: Johann Christoph Arnold


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