(Brian graciously granted permission to re-publish from his book)
The question of forgiveness - UNconditional
By Brian Zahnd
FORGIVENESS — THE HEART OF THE CHRISTIAN GOSPEL
I have found it very interesting to ask non-Christians what Jesus taught. Nearly without exception they will mention that Jesus taught us to love our enemies. Among nonbelievers, Jesus seems to be famous for teaching that his disciples should love their enemies. Yet when I ask Christians what Jesus taught, they very rarely bring up this commandment. But I think the intuition of the non-Christian is correct—Jesus’s emphasis on loving enemies is central to Jesus’s teaching and is especially prominent in the Sermon on the Mount. The command to love your enemy is memorable because it is radical. But the command to love your enemy is a command that we who are followers of Christ tend to forget because it is so very hard to do.
Yet Sermon on the Mount Christianity is the very kind of Christianity that can change the world. The Christlike love that absorbs the blow and responds with forgiveness is the only real hope this world has for real change. To respond to hate with hate enshrines the status quo and only guarantees that hate will win—it’s what keeps the world as it is. We tend to think that our hatred of our enemies is justified because we can point to their obvious crimes, and, as the logic goes, if we were in charge instead of our enemies, things would be different. But history tells a different story. Hatred, no matter how justifiable, simply fuels the endless cycle of revenge. Nothing really changes except that lines on a map get redrawn. Meet the new boss; same as the old boss. Christianity has more to offer the world than recycled revenge.
September 11, 2001, is testament to the power of hate. On that day, nineteen men filled with hate and armed with box cutters changed the world. Think about that.
- Nineteen men
- Box cutters
- Changed the world
It seems almost incredible, but it seems to be true.
Yet as followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to believe in the radical proposition that love is more powerful than hate. We are called to believe that although hatred may be very powerful, it’s love that never fails, and that love is the greatest thing of all. If we hate our enemies because they first hated us, and return hate for hate because that’s what hate does, we will continue to live in the ugly world of hate and its endless cycle of revenge. But when love enters the world of hate and is willing to love even its enemies, a new and real kind of change comes to the world—a change where hate does not have the last word. Yes, nineteen men full of hate and armed with box cutters changed the world. Or did they? Did the world change, or was that day simply the addition of the latest chapter in the long legacy of hate? Maybe the world didn’t change at all; maybe it’s just the same old thing that’s been happening since Cain killed Abel.
Jesus Christ taught us to love our enemies and to pray for those who abuse us. And he modeled it to the extreme. He carried his cross to Calvary and there forgave his enemies. As Christians, we believe that Calvary is the time and place that the world began to change. Did nineteen men full of hate and armed with box cutters change the world? What about twelve men full of love and armed with forgiveness? Yes, in the Upper Room on the evening of the Resurrection, Jesus breathed upon his disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.”* Loving and forgiving our enemies, this is how we are to change the world!
During the Armenian Genocide of 1915– 1917, one and a half million Armenians were murdered by Ottoman Turks, and millions more were raped, brutalized, and forcibly deported. From the Armenian Genocide comes a famour story of a Turkish army officer who led a raid upon a home of an Armenian family. The parents were killed, and their daughters raped. The girls were then given to the soulders. The officer kept the oldest girl to himself.
Eventually this girl was able to escape and later trained to become a nurse. In an ironic twist of fate, she found herself working in a ward for wounded Turkish army officers. One night by the dim glow of a lantern, she saw among her patients the face of the man who had murdered her parents and so horribly abused her sisters and herself. Without exceptional nursing he would die. And that is what the Armenian nurse gave - exceptional care.
As the officer began to recover, a doctor pointed to the nurse and told the officer, "If it weren't for this woman, you would be dead."
The officer looked at the nurse and asked, "Have we met?"
"Yes," she replied.
After a long silence the officer asked, "Why didn't you kill me?"
The Armenian Christian replied, "I am a follower of him who said, 'Love your enemies.'"
She simply said, "I am a follower of him who said, 'Love your enemies.'" For this Christian no other explanation was necessary. For her, forgiveness was not an option: it was a requirement.
Do we carry the same conviction? Do we see the practice of forgiveness as synonymous with being a Christian?
When grappling with the question of forgiveness, we eventually have to grapple with the question of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. It's all too easy to reduce being a Christian to a conferred status - the result of having "accepted Jesus as your personal Savior." But that kind of minimalist approach is a gross distortion of what the earliest followers of Jesus understood being a Christian to mean.
The original Christians didn't merely (or even primarily) see themselves as those who had received a "get out of hell free" card from Jesus but as followers, students, learners, and disciples of the one whom they called Master and Teacher. Jesus was the master, and they were the disciples.