Version published in Radio Veritas Asia
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you -Luke 6:27
One of the central themes that resonates through the Bible is the subject of forgiveness. Right from the Lord’s prayer, which dwells significantly on our promise to forgive others even as we ask for God’s forgiveness, Jesus takes us through every step of this spiritual exercise. Beginning from its passive aspect of non-retaliation, to its highest levels of prayer and blessing for those who are openly hostile to us, Jesus makes this the prime differentiator between those who claim allegiance to Him, and those who remain outside the fold.
Violence in different spheres
From time immemorial, we have been witness to the plight of victims of hostility under many labels. Some of us may have also been perpetrators of hate and violence in one context or other. The world has been torn apart with wars between nations in the name of territory, wealth , power, racism, religion and terrorism just to name a few reasons, and these massacres have been lauded and presented as honorable acts of courage in history books. Within the boundaries of the Indian sub-continent, while we claim that there is unity in diversity, there are blood-thirsty criminals that do not hesitate to kill for the cause they support, be it communal or political, however lawless it may seem to be.
Then, there are the lesser known antagonists that are found in the workplace, or within family circles whose weapons may be physical, psychological or vocal, with the capability of inflicting deep wounds to the human psyche.
The panacea for festering wounds
Those who have been at the receiving end of any of these virulent overtures know that it requires a great deal of equanimity to deal objectively with the situation, to discipline one’s mind and control the desire to strike back with equal potency. Physical wounds heal quickly, but our psychological injuries tend to fester with the passage of time unless they are immediately treated with the antiseptic of forgiveness prescribed by Christ the healer. Unfortunately, the panacea for spiritual health does not end there. Even if you have schooled yourself to view your enemy without bitterness, the next step is to start loving them, and doing something thoughtful for them like you would do for a good friend. And all the while, the likelihood of continued ill-treatment from the same source is imminent. After all, enmity doesn’t neutralize itself overnight. Rather, it feeds and fattens on the violence it spews.
How then, can we attain the state of being that Christ requires of every Christian who claims to be a faithful follower? How do we bless our worst enemies and pray for their well being even while we are still at the receiving end of their viciousness?
The biblical foundation of Satyagraha
One reflection in this direction struck me as I was watching the film Gandhi . The scene showed Gandhiji, the father of our nation, walking down a pavement in an all-white area in South Africa along with his friend, a white priest named Charles Freer Andrews. The discussion was on the fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus speaks about offering your left cheek to the enemy who has struck you on the right cheek. Gandhiji was profoundly influenced by this passage and explained to the priest his thoughts on this Christian teaching. He believed that human courage builds up when a man is willing to take a blow, or several blows for what he feels is right. And when that happens, there is something in human nature which makes your adversary’s hatred for you decrease and his respect for you increase. The impact of these words was phenomenal for the Indian freedom fighter. It was the bedrock that supported the strategy of non- violence (Satyagraha) and it proved to be the ultimate weapon that led to the defeat of the mighty British empire in India.
Jesus reprimands offenders
The fifth chapter of Mathew’s Gospel exclusively devotes itself to what Christianity expects from perennial offenders on the one hand, and the hapless victims of exploitation, on the other. Referring to the Ten Commandments, which condemns actions like murder and adultery, Jesus re-interprets these by raising the ethical bar to a much higher level. He reprimands those who harbor angry thoughts against their siblings, and insists on unconditional reconciliation before coming to offer sacrifice at the altar of God. To those who view women with sinful intentions, His advice is uncompromising—sever the part of your body that causes you to sin. God’s wrath and judgement awaits those who take the smallest step in the direction of violence or harm against others.
A Christian definition of forgiveness
Having admonished the perpetrators of hate-filled thoughts and actions, Jesus immediately turns His attention to the victims who have faced cruelty and exploitation in their lives. To them, He explains the step-by-step process of forgiveness from the Christian standpoint. He does away with the commonly accepted dictum- an eye for an eye. Instead, He advocates love for enemies. He also underlines how this love can be practiced. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well, If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. -Mathew 5:39-41.
Forgiveness-a step towards divinity
Our immediate reaction to this may well be that these things are easier said than done. And this is precisely why forgiveness is considered as divine— beyond the capacity of ordinary people. Jesus brings it within our reach by encouraging us to take deliberate, positive and proactive steps towards bridging broken relationships. If we are ready to overcome our natural urge to retaliate and hurt our enemies, God will do the rest. When we break away from the beaten track to follow Jesus, we will be filled with an indomitable spiritual courage that transcends our human instinct for revenge, and renders our adversary weak and incapable of harming us in any way. We are ready for the divine experience described by the Psalmist when he sang the beautiful lines –
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows….. Psalm 23:5.
If we are to stake our claim to be ‘heirs of God, and co-heirs of Christ’ we have to actively practice true forgiveness in our lives. Very often, relationships are distanced or broken because we do not initiate the process of reconciliation immediately after an unfortunate incident occurs. The important thing is to take the first step. It may require us to set aside our ego, or let go of more than a fair share of our possessions, but we are assured that what we give up to rescue a relationship, will be given back to us manifold from the abundance of God’s blessings, “pressed down, shaken together and running over.”