Can you remain loving in a time of opposition?
How do you stay positive, preach hope, and remain loving and big-hearted in the face of opposition, misunderstanding, hostility and hatred? This is what Jesus did and that particular quality of his life and teaching constitutes perhaps the greatest personal and moral challenge to all of us who try to follow him. How do you remain loving in the face of hatred? How do you remain empathic in the face of misunderstanding? How do you love your enemies when they want to kill you?
Virtually every instinct inside us works against us here. Our natural instincts are mostly self-protective, paranoid even, antithetical to self-abnegation and forgiveness. Our innate sense of justice demands an eye for an eye, a giving back in kind, hatred for hatred, distrust for distrust, murder for murder. And this isn’t just true for the big things, our struggle to remain loving in the face of death threats. We struggle to remain loving even in the face of irritation.
Sometimes our response is paralysis. We get so intimidated by opposition, misunderstanding and hatred that we retreat and go underground. We retain our ideals but no longer practise them in the presence of those who oppose us. We continue to speak love and understanding, but not to our enemies (whom we don’t exactly hate, but whom we now stay away from).
Sometimes our response is the exact opposite: in the face of opposition we develop a skin that’s so thick that we don’t need to care about what others think of us: let them think whatever they want! They can like it or lump it! The problem with a thick skin is that our capacity to go on saying the right words and doing the right actions is partially based upon a certain blindness and insensitivity. In our mind, we don’t have a problem. Others do.
This insensitivity sometimes takes a more subtle form: condescension. This happens when we believe that we are big-hearted enough to love those who oppose and hate us, even as our empathy and love are predicated on a certain elitism, on the feeling that we are so morally and religiously superior to those who hate us that we can love them in their ignorance: Poor, ignorant people! If only they knew better! This is not love, but a superiority complex masquerading as empathy and concern. That’s not how Jesus treated those who hated him.
In the face of hatred and being put to death by his enemies, Jesus wasn’t intimidated, nor did he become thickskinned or condescending. What did he do? He rooted himself more deeply in his own deepest identity and, inside of that, found the power to continue to be warmed-hearted, loving, and forgiving in the face of hatred and murder.
How so? As Jesus was being executed he prayed: “Forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.” Karl Rahner, commenting on this, astutely points out that, in fact, his executioners did know what they were doing. They knew they were crucifying an innocent man. So why does Jesus say they were acting in ignorance? Their ignorance, as Karl Rahner points out, lay at a deeper level. They were ignorant of how much they were loved, whereas Jesus was not. When the Gospels describe Jesus’s inner state at the Last Supper, they say: “Jesus, knowing that he had come from God and that he was going back to God and that therefore all things were possible for him, got up from the table and took off his outer robe...” Jesus was capable of continuing to love and forgive in the face of hatred and murder because, at the very heart of his self-awareness, lay an awareness of who he was, God’s son, and how much he was loved. He wasn’t thick-skinned or elitist, just in touch with who he was and how much he was loved. From that source he drew his energy and his power to forgive.
Very few things, I believe, are more needed today, in both society and the Church, than this capacity for understanding and forgiveness. To continue to offer others genuine love and understanding in the face of opposition and hatred constitutes the ultimate social, political, ecclesial, moral, religious, and human challenge. Sometimes Church people try to single out one particular moral issue as the litmus test as to whether or not someone is a true follower of Jesus. If there is to be litmus test, let it be this one: Can you continue to love those who misunderstand you, who oppose you, who are hostile to you, who hate you, and who threaten you – without being paralysed, calloused or condescending?