“You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…
– Matthew 5:43-44
By Randy Lord-Wilkinson
Not long after 9/11, someone asked me how in the world we were supposed to pray for somebody like Osama bin Laden. I can only speak from my experience and beliefs. One of the reasons I am an Anglican is because our tradition takes human beings seriously. By this I mean that Anglican Christianity sees our formation toward the full stature of Christ as a process, not an instantaneous consequence of “accepting Christ.” For many of us, our journey in and to Christ begins before we have made up our minds about him. And even then my transformation continues until I die, and possibly beyond that.
The implication of this for praying or one’s enemies, or forgiveness in general, is that we know from our walk in faith that God knows our frailties and foibles better than we do, and still expects us to do these extraordinary things. The operant word is ‘do’. So often I have confused how I feel with sin, or sanctity, if I’m feeling particularly holy. But love as Jesus lived and taught it, and the forgiveness that can issue forth from love, is not about denying my humanity or having God take it away from me.
Love is what I am doing when I pray for my enemy or forgive one who hurt me. God does not demand of me a psychological impossibility, or that I deny my human nature! I can be angry, feel hatred, desire revenge, want to kill somebody with my bare hands… and do love. I think it is cheap grace that teaches that I can forgive, or heal, or overcome loss and grief or anger, just by praying really well. My feelings are part of how God put me together. My actions are my response to God’s command to love.
So I consider the people who murdered all those human beings in New York, D.C. and Pennsylvania my enemies. Note that Jesus never said, “you shall have no enemies.” He said pray for them. Sometimes I pray for those who have violated my world by imag- ining how they were when they were first born: vulnerable, loving, needing, open. Inside every murderer – somewhere! – is buried that innocent. The stamp of the author of all life is deep inside, somewhere!
And then I begin to grieve and grow angry that years of formation in the ways of hate – mixed in with mother’s milk and later the love of family and friends – gradually erodes the humanity of the infant. I curse the evil that creates the conditions where such malice and murder can flourish! Can a Christian, then, support retribution and revenge? Can a Christian who prays for enemies wave the flag and cheer when the country or countries giving terrorist cells sanctuary are bombed back to the Stone Age? Does forgiveness mean just letting it go?
Some seem to think this is what it means. I don’t think either lots of bombs or letting it go are effective responses to what we are dealing with. I’ve heard the attacks of 9/11 com- pared with Pearl Harbor. But I think they’re more aptly compared with Oklahoma City. The disciples of bin Laden are murderers and outlaws every bit as much as Timothy
McVeigh. We should deal with these criminal nomads in the same way. I think it would be a great step forward for the world if we began to recognize that what happened on U.S. soil that day was not just about America. All humankind was wounded.
If we “let it go” then such atrocities will happen again, and no one will be safe. But neither will a declaration of “war” eradicate the existence of murderers who hide behind, in this instance, the banner of Islam. We who want to rescue civilization – regardless of which flag we salute (American citizens were not the only victims on September 11, 2001, people from many other nations lost their lives as well) – will work together. When we pray for peace and preach love and forgiveness it does not mean we condone evil, but face it in all its horror and mystery. The peace of Christ is not like the world’s peace, which is typically an armed truce. It is the peace that comes from knowing where our true home and life is, so that we are not intimidated by evil, but confront it with goodness and justice.
The Rev. Randy Lord-Wilkinson is rector of the Church of the Ascension, Gaithersburg, Maryland. This essay originally appeared in the Washington Window.