What really is love for our neighbor? Part II of II
Dear Father John, I have a question which may seem silly but I would like to ask it… Can you explain,
what really is love for our neighbor? We hear you don’t have to like your neighbor but you have to love your neighbor. Take the…Boston bombings. Do we have to love the person who did so much damage, injured people, killed people for absolutely no reason, except that they wanted to commit murder? Then on the other hand, the book club’s “33 Days to Morning Glory,” [looked] at the Polish priest, St. Maximilian Kolbe, who suffered so much in the German Camp. What would he have done to show love for his tormentors? Which brings me back to my question, what really is love for our neighbor?
In our first post, we discussed that Christian love is universal. It is a responsibility, not an option, to love our neighbors – even the most horrible of sinners.
What Does Love Really Look Like?
So now we are ready to move on to your second question: What exactly does that love look like? What does it mean, in practical terms, to love a sadistic Nazi guard who makes your life a living hell inside a concentration camp?
The better we understand the essence of Christ-like love, the better we will be able to live it out in whatever circumstances we may encounter. And the essence of love is sincerely wanting what is truly best for the beloved. To love someone is to desire that they reach the very fullness of their human potential, to desire that God’s will for their lives be fully accomplished. If that desire is sincere, then it will move us to action whenever we are able to help procure what is good and helpful for the beloved. And so, when people lack something, or when they are hurt or impeded from moving towards their fullness, love impels us to do whatever is within our power to give them what they lack, or to heal them, or to remove whatever obstacle is keeping them from being all they can be.
A Circle of Merciful Influence
The traditional works of mercy, both corporeal and spiritual, exemplify this core identity of Christian love. They all have to do with meeting real needs of our neighbor, needs that, if not met, will seriously impede them from reaching their full, God-given potential as human beings.
It will never be within my power to meet all the needs of all people through my own activities, but as a Christian my heart does want what is best for all. And so, within my circle of influence, I keep my antennae up so I can help people around me live as full a life as God wants them to. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, my circle of influence may increase, or change, or decrease; the needs I perceive and am sensitive to may also change, or be somewhat different from someone else’s in a similar situation. Some Christians are moved to serve the basic material needs of the poorest of the poor; others are moved to focus more on the needs society has for just laws and political policies; others are inspired to expand the reach of education, or to fill the world with inspiring works of beauty. Thus, under the Spirit’s guidance, the members of the Church create a worldwide symphony of active, Christ-like love, each of us becoming a unique channel and reflection of God’s love to those around us, helping each other grow to full human maturity.
Loving Terrorists, et alia…
When it comes to loving people who have given themselves over to evil, like terrorists or Nazis, the same principle applies. We desire what is best for them. Obviously, then, our first desire is for their repentance from sin. We want them to reject the evil they have embraced. To that end, we pray for them, we show the beauty of goodness through our example of virtue, we may even be able to be a witness to them with our words. With God’s grace animating our faith and our hope, we can, and must, love sinners – desiring and striving for what is best for them – without condoning their sin: “Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good” (Romans 12:21).
But we also strive to limit their range of activity, both to protect potential victims and also to create some space in which they themselves may be better able to hear and heed God’s voice within, calling them to repentance. These are key goals for prisons: to protect society from criminals, but also to administer punishment that, with God’s grace, may spur them towards moral and spiritual reform. When prison is not an option, and violent criminals are spreading destruction, ordered love can also move us to active self-defense. Even then, however, our hearts are still focused on protecting the good of all – including the good of the attacker; by impeding him from committing evil actions, we are pursuing what is best for him as well as what is best for everyone else.
When St. Maximilian Kolbe was in the starvation chamber, he loved his captors most clearly by not hating them. And in fact, he made a deep, evangelical impression on the Nazi doctor who euthanized him. When the doctor came into the bunker to administer the lethal injection, St. Kolbe was so filled with faith and joy, and love, that his countenance seemed to glow. The saint turned towards his executioner with a smile so radiant that the doctor simply couldn’t look into his victim’s face. St. Maximilian Kolbe’s testimony, even in such an abysmally evil situation, was enabled by God’s grace to touch a very hardened heart.
One of my favorite examples of loving enemies shines out in the life of Cardinal Nguyễn Văn Thuận, who spent 14 years in Communist prisons and reeducation camps in Vietnam. During those horrible years, he asked himself the same question you asked. And God gave him an answer. I will let the venerable Cardinal tell us the story in his own words to wrap up this post:
When I was put into solitary confinement, I was initially entrusted to a group of five guards, two of whom always accompany me. The wardens change them every two weeks, so that they do not become “contaminated” by me. Later they decided not to change them anymore, otherwise they would all be contaminated!
At first, the guards do not speak to me, they respond only with “yes” and “no.” It is truly sad; I want to be kind, courteous with them, but it is impossible; they avoid speaking with me. I have no presents to give them: I am a prisoner, even all my clothes are stamped with big letters “cải-tạo,” that is, “re-education camp.” What am I supposed to do?
One night, a thought comes to me: “Francis, you are still very rich. You have the love of Christ in your heart. Love them as Jesus has loved you.”
The next day I began to love them, to love Jesus in them, smiling, exchanging kind words. I begin to tell stories of my travels overseas, how people live in America, Canada, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, France, Germany… the economy, the freedom, the technology. This stimulated their curiosity and pushed them to ask me about many, many things. Little by little we became friends. They want to learn foreign languages, French, English… My guards become my students! The atmosphere of the prison is greatly changed; the quality of our relationships is greatly improved. Even up to the police chiefs. When they saw the sincerity of my relationship with the guards, they not only asked me to continue helping them study foreign languages, but they also sent new students to study with me…
(from “Five Loaves and Two Fish” by Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận)
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