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Bless Your Persecutors

Johann Christoph Arnold

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This article is excerpted from Johann Christoph Arnold’s book Why Forgive?  (2010).

After more than thirty years working with lepers in India, Gladys Staines, a nurse, and her husband Graham, a missionary, had seen plenty of death and dying. But nothing could have prepared her for the night in January 1999 when her husband and their two sons, Philip (10) and Timothy (6) failed to return home from a religious retreat – or for the day after, when news came that their bodies had been found in the family jeep, burned beyond recognition. Nor were the friends who stood with her that harrowing morning prepared for her response. According to a report in The New York Times:

Mrs. Staines shook with grief and, for a time, moved very slowly, as if struggling to part her way through the air. She seemed to be impaled in the middle of a thought, which finally, with quavering voice, she shared. “Whoever did this, we will forgive them,” she said.

That sentiment – that example of her living faith – has been widely praised in India, a nation often rent with religion-based violence, most frequently between Hindu and Muslim. D. P. Wadhwa, a Supreme Court judge heading an inquiry into the deaths, and their link to a wider outbreak of anti-Christian attacks, commended Mrs. Staines. “By her conduct, she has put to shame, if they have any shame, not only the perpetrators of the crime but all those who directly or indirectly may have sympathy for them,” he said.

Mrs. Staines… has decided to carry on her husband’s work, running a home for leprosy patients here in Baripada, a dusty, traffic-clogged city in the eastern state of Orissa. And she will continue to tell people the “good news,” as she confidently calls it, that … God is fair and just, and that divine purposes exist in all that goes on, even if those purposes are at times elusive.

“Whoever did this, we will forgive them.”

Indeed, she has yet to fathom why God has taken her sons and husband. Questions leap into her mind – a tumble of thoughts – but she tries to set them aside rather than pursue answers. “I ask myself, do I dwell on the type of death they had? Were they killed first or burned alive? Am I angry? Am I not? I don’t know. I cope by not allowing myself to do much thinking. At times I am overcome with sadness. They’re not here. I can’t play with my boys. Day by day, I start with the Bible, reading prayers. Previously, I could talk to my husband before going to bed. Now I talk to God, pour out my heart to Him, and He gives me the strength and wisdom to go on.”

Of those who murdered her husband and boys, she went on, “I can forgive their deeds, but I cannot forgive their sins. Only Jesus can forgive their sins. And they will have to ask.”

After the funeral, which was attended by thousands, Mrs. Staines and her 13-year-old daughter, Esther, the family’s two survivors, faced the throng that had accompanied them to the cemetery and sang a favorite hymn. “Because He lives, I can face tomorrow,” the words went. “Because He lives, all fear is gone.”

Though unfathomable to many, Gladys Staines’s understanding of forgiveness is not unheard of. It has been embraced by countless persecuted minorities throughout history, from the earliest Christian believers, to the Anabaptists of the radical Reformation, to our century’s followers of Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. It is probably best explained in this passage from King’s book Strength to Love:

Probably no admonition of Jesus has been more difficult to follow than the command to love our enemies. Some people have sincerely felt that its actual practice is not possible. It is easy, they say, to love those who love you, but how can one love those who openly and insidiously seek to defeat you…?

Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, the command to love one’s enemy is an absolute necessity for our survival. Love even for our enemies is the key to the solution of the problems of our world. Jesus is not an impractical idealist; he is the practical realist…

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. We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate; we get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity. By its very nature, hate destroys and tears down; by its very nature, love creates and builds up. Love transforms with redemptive power.

King’s commitment to love 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 he and other African-Americans involved in the civil rights movement would have to live for decades to come with the same people they were now confronting. If they let their treatment embitter them, it would soon lead to violence, which would only lead to new cycles of repression and embitterment. Rather than breaking down the walls of racial hatred, it would build them higher. Only by forgiving their oppressors, King said, could African-Americans end the “descending spiral of destruction.” Only forgiveness could bring about lasting change:

We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. Whoever is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. It is impossible even to begin the act of loving one’s enemies without the prior acceptance of the necessity, over and over again, of forgiving those who inflict evil and injury upon us.

It is also necessary to realize that the forgiving act must always be initiated by the person who has been wronged, the victim of some great hurt, the recipient of some tortuous injustice, the absorber of some terrible act of oppression. The wrongdoer may request forgiveness. They may come to themselves, and like the prodigal son, move up some dusty road, their heart palpitating with the desire for forgiveness. But only the injured neighbor, the loving father back home, can really pour out the warm waters of forgiveness.

Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship. Forgiveness is a catalyst creating the atmosphere necessary for a fresh start and a new beginning…

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 our 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.

Graham and Gladys Staines and 3 children
Contributed By Johann Christoph Arnold Johann Christoph Arnold

A noted speaker and writer on marriage, parenting, education, and end-of-life issues, Arnold was a senior pastor of the Bruderhof, a movement of Christian communities.

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