Saint John Chrysostom

As Archbishop of Constantinople in the fourth century, John Chrysostom had his share of enemies. One was Eutropius, an administrator under Emperor Arcadius who denied citizens the right of sanctuary in churches – until AD 399, when he himself landed up on the wrong side of the law and sought refuge at the altar. Rather than turn him in, Chrysostom ensured his safety and even convinced Arcadius to spare Eutropius’s life. Below, he explains why.

Wherefore art thou indignant with me? You say it is because he who continually made war upon the church has taken refuge within it. Yet surely we ought to glorify God, for permitting this man to be placed in such a great strait as to experience both the power and the loving-kindness of the church: her power in that he has suffered this great vicissitude in consequence of the attacks which he made upon her; her loving-kindness in that she whom he attacked now casts her shield in front of him and has received him under her wings, and placed him in all security not resenting any of her former injuries, but most lovingly opening her bosom to him. For this is more glorious than any kind of trophy, this is a brilliant victory, this puts both Gentiles and Jews to shame, this displays the bright aspect of the church: in that having received her enemy as a captive, she spares him, and when all have despised him in his desolation, she alone like an affectionate mother has concealed him under her cloak, opposing both the wrath of the king, and the rage of the people. …

Has he inflicted great wrongs and insults on you? I will not deny it. Yet this is the season not for judgment but for mercy; not for requiring an account, but for showing loving-kindness; not for investigating claims but for conceding them; not for verdicts and vengeance, but for mercy and favor. Let no one then be irritated or vexed, but let us rather beseech the merciful God to grant him a respite from death, and to rescue him from this impending destruction, so that he may put off his transgression, and let us unite to approach the merciful emperor, beseeching him for the sake of the church, for the sake of the altar, to concede the life of one man. … God says, “I will have mercy and not sacrifice,” and throughout the scriptures you find him always enquiring after this, and declaring it to be the means of release from sin.

Etty Hillesum

A Dutch Jew, Etty Hillesum is known for her diaries and letters describing the spiritual awakening she underwent in Westerbork, a Nazi transit camp. She was later murdered at Auschwitz.

Scattered through this vast space are a few stoves, which don’t even give enough heat for the old ladies crowded around them. How people are expected to live through the winter in these barracks has not yet been made clear. …

Leading lights from cultural and political circles in the big cities have also been stranded here on this barren heath five hundred by six hundred meters. With one mighty convulsion all their scenery has collapsed about them, and now they stand around a little hesitantly and awkwardly on this drafty, open stage called Westerbork.

These figures, wrenched from their context, still carry with them the restless atmosphere of a society more complicated than the one we have here. They walk along the thin barbed-wire fence. Their silhouettes move, life-sized and exposed, across the great stretch of sky. You cannot imagine it. Their armor of position, esteem, and property has collapsed, and now they stand in the last shreds of their humanity. They exist in an empty space, bounded by earth and sky, which they must fill with whatever they can find within them – there is nothing else.

One suddenly realizes that it is not enough to be an able politician or a talented artist. In the most extreme distress life demands quite other things. Yes, it is true, our ultimate human values are being put to the test. …

This is a very one-sided story. I could have told quite another, filled with hatred and bitterness and rebellion. But rebellion born only when distress begins to affect one personally is no real rebellion and can never bear fruit. And the absence of hatred in no way implies the absence of moral indignation.

I know that those who hate have good reason to do so. But why should we always have to choose the cheapest and easiest way? It has been brought home forcibly to me here how every atom of hatred added to the world makes it an even more inhospitable place. And I also believe – childishly perhaps, but stubbornly – that the earth will become more habitable again only through the love that the Jew Paul described to the citizens of Corinth in the thirteenth chapter of his first letter.

Martin Luther King Jr.

King’s well-known commitment to nonviolence as a political weapon grew out of his faith, but there was a good streak of pragmatism in his thinking as well. He knew that those who marched with him in the fight for civil rights would have to live for decades to come with the same people they were now confronting. Only by forgiving their oppressors could they end the “descending spiral of destruction.”

Far from being the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer, the command to love one’s enemy is an absolute necessity for our survival. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction. Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.

And so to our most bitter opponents we say, “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”

Daniel Bonnell, Blue Doves, mixed media on paper, 2023. Used by permission.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh made headlines in the 1960s alongside Thomas Merton and Martin Luther King Jr. by speaking out against the war that was destroying his country and its people.

During the Vietnam War, there was a lot of suffering and people found themselves in a situation where they had become enemies of each other. In such a situation, you have to find a way to survive and to help others survive. We had to show people the way to act properly, because if you don’t have peace within yourself, it is very difficult to work for peace. Our thinking was: the other person is not our enemy; our enemies are misunderstanding, discrimination, violence, hatred, and anger.

If you are filled with anger, you create more suffering for yourself than for the other person. When you are inhabited by the energy of anger, you want to punish, you want to destroy. That is why those who are wise do not want to say anything or do anything while the anger is still in them. So you try to bring peace into yourself first. When you are calm, when you are lucid, you will see that the other person is a victim of confusion, of hate, of violence transmitted by society, by parents, by friends, by the environment. When you are able to see that, your anger is no longer there.

Forgiveness will not be possible until compassion is born in our heart. Even if you want to forgive, you cannot forgive. In order to be compassionate, you have to understand why the other person has done that to you and your people. You have to see that they are victims of their own confusion, their own worldview, their own grieving, their own discrimination, their own lack of understanding and compassion.

Suppose you are angry at your father. Many people are angry at their father, and yet if they don’t do anything to change it when they grow up, they will repeat exactly what their father did to them. … When you are capable of visualizing your father as a five-year-old boy – fragile, tender, full of wounds – you begin to understand and feel compassion.

An act of compassion always brings about transformation. If not right now, it will happen in the future. The important thing is you don’t react with anger. You react with compassion, and sooner or later you see the transformation in the other person.

Christian de Chergé

Prior of a Cistercian monastery in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria, Christian de Chergé was known for his service to his poor Muslim neighbors. But that was not enough to spare him from being kidnapped and slain, along with six fellow monks, by Islamic terrorists in 1996. De Chergé had anticipated such a fate and written a letter to his future assassin, to be opened after his death.

If it should happen one day – and it could be today – that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to engulf Algeria, I would like my community, my church, and my family to remember that my life was given to God and to this country. I ask them to accept the fact that the one Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure. I would ask them to pray for me: for how could I be found worthy of such an offering? I ask them to associate this death with so many other equally violent ones which are forgotten through indifference or anonymity. …

I should like, when the time comes, to have a moment of spiritual clarity which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down.

I could not desire such a death. It seems important to state this. I do not see how I could rejoice if the people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder. … Obviously, my death will appear to confirm those who judge me naive or idealistic: “Let him tell us now what he thinks of his ideals!” But these persons should know that finally my most avid curiosity will be set free. This is what I shall be able to do, God willing: immerse my gaze in that of the Father to contemplate with him his children of Islam just as he sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, the fruit of his Passion, filled with the gift of the Spirit whose secret joy is always to establish communion and restore the likeness, playing with the differences.

For this life lost, totally mine and totally theirs, I thank God, who seems to have willed it. … And also you, my last-minute friend, who will not have known what you were doing: Yes, I want this thank you and this goodbye to be a “God bless” for you, too, because in God’s face I see yours. May we meet again as happy thieves in paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both.

Sources: Saint Chrysostom, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 1, Volume 9, Philip Schaff, ed., trans. W. R. W. Stephens (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1889).

Etty Hillesum, Letters from Westerbork (London: Jonathan Cape, 1987) 35–36 (diary entry for Saturday, December 26, 1942). Translation copyright © 1986 by Penguin Random House LLC. Used by permission of Pantheon Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

Martin Luther King Jr., Strength to Love (Boston: Beacon Press, 2019). Reprinted by arrangement with The Heirs to the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr., c/o Writers House as agent for the proprietor New York, NY. Copyright © 1963 by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Renewed © 1991 by Coretta Scott King.

Thich Nhat Hanh interview with Martin Doblmeier of Journey Films for a documentary broadcast on public television in 2007. Reprinted with permission from Sojourners.

Christian de Chergé, “Testament of Christian de Chergé.” Translation by Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance.