Jesus teaches us, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you….” (Mt. 5:44) If forgiveness and praying for enemies were easy, there would be little reason for Jesus to make the command. Our capacity to forgive depends upon the totality of Christian virtue, and forgiving enemies is the crown jewel of martyrdom.
In those vintage black and white cowboy movies, the good guy defeats the bad guy and, with pent-up rage, has an opportunity to exact revenge. But self-control prevails, and the hero surrenders the villain to the authorities. Perhaps this pattern is a cultural reflection of Christian sensibilities: “…judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy; yet mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13)
More recent action movies, suggesting a cultural regression to a pagan ethic, usually show no such restraint. The bad guy customarily dies in increasingly elaborate, emotionally appealing acts of violent retribution. But the destruction of those we hate not only fails to satisfy but can inflame further acts of vengeance. The history of war provides countless examples.
Try as we might, we cannot extinguish an innate—and sometimes latent—desire to forgive and seek forgiveness. In Goodbye, Darkness, historian William Manchester describes his gripping experience as a Marine in the South Pacific during WWII. Killing an enemy in a just war is not a sin, but it’s not likely most soldiers delight in the carnage. After a hand-to-hand struggle and the horrible death of an enemy soldier, Manchester vomits, collapses, and mutters to the corpse, “I’m sorry.”
Jesus also teaches us to pray for our enemies. John Brown’s infamous raid at Harper’s Ferry in 1859 to spark a slave uprising failed, leading to his gallows rendezvous. Major Thomas Jackson—later known as “Stonewall”—was present as a soldier with his VMI cadets at the execution of Brown. Jackson opposed secession from the Union. He hated the prospect of war, but also opposed the violent uprising that John Brown attempted to ignite. Remarkably, standing beneath the gallows, Jackson prayed for his enemy, writing: “…before me stood a man, in the full vigor of health, who must in a few minutes be in eternity. I sent up a petition that he might be saved. Awful was the thought that he might in a few minutes receive the sentence ‘Depart ye wicked into everlasting fire.’”
It is helpful to emulate the example of great men. But none of them provides a complete package of virtue necessary to untangle our spiritual web of error, confusion, and evil impulses. The same Major Jackson who prayed for the salvation of his enemy wrote that, should the nation go to war, an avenging army should take no prisoners. “More tortuous than anything is the human heart…” (Jer. 17:9) So it’s best to return to the font of perfect mercy and love to obtain the spiritual tools to forgive enemies.
Here are a few lessons from the life of Jesus:
- Jesus calls the band of brothers, the Apostles, and disciples, as coworkers. He heals the sick and raises the dead. He forgives the woman caught in adultery, and He instructs her to go and sin no more. Jesus responds with love for the rich young man who keeps God’s commandments.
Lesson: Cultivate a spirit of genuine affection, appreciation, and care for the people we meet.
- Jesus enters into an extended and patient conversation with a Samaritan woman living in adultery. As a consequence, many of the apostate Samaritans of the city come to believe the woman’s joyous testimony and accept Jesus as “the Savior of the world.’” (cf. Jn. 4:1-42)
Lesson: Be a patient and persistent in truth.
- On several occasions, Jesus avoids confrontation. At Nazareth, the crowd turns on him, and He escapes from their midst. When He reveals His divinity to the Jews (“before Abraham was made, I am”—Jn. 8:58), He escapes from the temple and hides to avoid stoning.
Lesson: Know when to hold them, know when to fold them, etc. Prudence.
- Indignant at the abuse of the temple as a place of commerce, Jesus overturns the tables of the money-changers. “My house shall be called a house of prayer”; but you make it a den of [thieves].’” (Mt. 21:12-13)
Lesson: Righteous indignation under the control of reason prevents an all-too-common slothful indifference to evil, including the evil lurking in our hearts.
- Jesus fearlessly confronts the Pharisees for their busybody pride and obduracy. His litany of charges begins with, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” (cf. Mt. 23:15)
Lesson: Call evil for what it is. Be honest and endure the consequences, content with God’s favor.
- When Jesus reveals that He is the good shepherd, the Jews prepare to stone Him. Jesus responds, “I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of these do you stone me?” (John 10:32)
Lesson: There’s some truth to the saying, “No good deed goes unpunished.” Get used to it.
- Jesus is condemned to death and is crucified. The crowds in Jerusalem turn on Him, demanding, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
Lesson: Another proverb has some truth: “Friends come and go, but enemies accumulate.” We will all die, but resolve to die in the state of grace.
Jesus’ virtues—his love, fellowship, patient suffering, righteousness, honesty, courage—are the foundation of his priestly prayer amid His agony: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
But do not consider the imitation of Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, a futile endeavor. “For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning.” (Heb. 4:15)
Conflicts—nations at war, family feuds, even the most insipid of personality clashes—will forever be part of the human condition. But it’s not too late to seek the virtues of Jesus that prepare us to forgive and beg forgiveness.