In the winter of 1569, the Dutch Anabaptist Dirk Willems made a daring escape from the prison where he was being held by the Roman Catholic authorities because of his faith. According to the Martyrs Mirror, a compendium of accounts of the persecution and killing of Anabaptists by both Roman Catholic and magisterial Protestant authorities in early modern Europe, he fled across a frozen pond with a guard in hot pursuit. The guard was evidently heavier than Willems, for while the Anabaptist was able to traverse the pond without difficulty, the ice broke under the guard, and he plunged into the freezing waters. The guard cried out for help, and Willems turned back and helped the man back onto land. As a result, Willems was recaptured; even his saving the guard’s life did not win him a reprieve. He was burned at the stake on May 16, 1569, repeatedly crying out, “Oh my Lord, my God!”
What does it mean to love your enemies and to forgive those who wrong you? For the Christian, this question is inescapable. After all, these two related commands to love enemies and forgive wrongdoers are repeated frequently throughout the Gospels. Consider, for example, this famous portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:43–45). Later, on the way to Jerusalem to meet his death, Jesus teaches his disciples about forgiveness; when Peter asks him how often he should forgive someone sinning against him, offering that he might forgive a wrongdoer a full seven times, Jesus responds, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times” (Matt. 18:22). He goes on to tell a parable that never fails to convict me (Matt. 18:23–35): Once there was a servant who owed a massive debt to his master but could not pay it. The servant begged for pity and, moved to mercy, the master canceled his entire debt. Then the servant saw another servant who owed him a pittance but, despite his cries for mercy, threw him in prison when he could not pay. When the master heard of this, he threw the first servant into prison until he repaid his entire debt. “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart,” Jesus concludes (Matt. 18:35). This connection between our own forgiveness and our forgiving others their wrongs against us is so basic that Jesus includes it in the prayer that he taught us to pray: “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” And, of course, Jesus on the cross prays that those who crucified him might be forgiven (Luke 23:34), an example which the deacon Stephen follows while he is being stoned to death (Acts 7:60).
It is hard to deny that these critiques have some purchase. Take, for example, the revelations of abuse cover-ups in the Southern Baptist Convention, the way in which predatory pastors were protected by injunctions to forgiveness without any accountability. Prominent pastors continue to counsel women experiencing emotional and even physical abuse to see such abuse as their cross to bear, and to forgive their husbands without expecting a change of behavior. To borrow a term from the Episcopalian theologian Lauren Winner, we might discuss these troubling applications of Jesus’ command to forgive enemies in terms of characteristic damage: the way that, because of the Fall, even good practices given to us by God can go dangerously awry in ways related to the goodness at which these practices aim. But granted that the command to forgive or to love enemies can and does go wrong, and go wrong in ways that often add to the burdens of those most heavily burdened in our society, what are we to do?
One answer, increasingly popular among members of the secular and the religious left alike, is to either jettison this talk of enemy-love or redefine it nearly beyond recognition. Some popular feminist writing simply asserts that any expectation or norm of forgiveness is wrong, a tool to deny women their rightful rage against mistreatment. Similarly, public declarations of forgiveness by black people for wrongs committed against them, especially by white people, are often responded to with dismay. Certain sectors of the left reacted negatively to the forgiveness expressed by survivors of the Emmanuel AME Church shooting in 2015, and by the brother of Botham Jean, who was murdered by white police officer Amber Guyger in 2018. In both cases, the victims’ families described their offer of forgiveness as stemming from their Christian faith, but critics saw it as a capitulation to cultural scripts underwritten by white supremacy.
For Christians, of course, Jesus’ clear and unambiguous commands to forgive and love enemies make it rather difficult to argue against forgiveness altogether. But many justice-minded Christians find themselves redefining it, arguing that what practices of forgiveness or enemy-love are really about is the nonviolent struggle for liberation. One popular reading of the Sermon on the Mount’s injunctions to suffer wrongdoing without resistance or revenge asserts – with no backing I can find in the history of Christian exegesis, and no particular plausibility – that, appearances notwithstanding, Jesus’ teaching is really about the revolutionary practice of standing up for oneself and forcing one’s oppressor to see one’s humanity. And so forgiveness becomes a particular sort of self-assertion. Perhaps more popular is asserting that, even if forgiveness is a good idea in theory, it is inappropriate for the church to explicitly call people to love their enemies, especially across boundaries of racial or gender difference. On this argument, it simply isn’t for the church to enjoin forgiveness or enemy-love on others, especially others who are part of historically or presently oppressed groups. There may be a universal command to forgiveness, but the church has been so sullied by its past misuse of this command that any church teaching on it is seen as engaging in respectability politics or policing the actions of the marginalized.
Perhaps one of the clearest examples of how this rejection of forgiveness and love of enemies looks in practice can be found on social media. “Cancel culture” is a term too diffuse and imprecise in meaning to be very useful, but it is hard to ignore that progressive-leaning internet circles, Christian or no, tend to be dominated by an attitude of mutual suspicion and uncharitableness. Vicious character attacks are justified as “calling out oppression”; never forgetting a slight (indeed, keeping records via screenshots of tweets or Instagram posts judged problematic) is “holding people accountable”; forgiveness and reconciliation, if they are possible at all, occur only through humiliating rituals of self-abasement. This is something that people on the left are often nervous to talk publicly about lest they let down the team and give ammunition to conservatives (and open themselves up to character assassination from their erstwhile comrades as punishment). But anyone who has spent a significant amount of time on left-wing social media will know exactly what I mean. While it is undoubtedly true that norms encouraging forgiveness and love of enemies were unevenly applied in the past and continue to be so today, in ways that add to the burden of already burdened people, a world that rejects these norms entirely is an ugly one indeed.
In an increasingly graceless culture, the public witness of Christians as the sort of people who forgive and love even those who have wronged them could be attractive indeed.
I hasten to add that the rejection of commitments to enemy-love and forgiveness is not only a feature of the contemporary left. As a former union organizer and a mainline Protestant minister, this is the culture that I know best. And frankly, it is the feminist, womanist, and black theology criticisms of the practice of loving your enemies and forgiving those who wrong you that I find most trenchant, even if ultimately unsatisfactory.
Particularly among hyper-online conservatives, a fascination with thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Carl Schmitt have led to a politics that similarly has nothing good to say about forgiveness or loving enemies. Politics – and not infrequently ethics too – are reduced to what Schmitt called the “friend-enemy distinction,” in which the goal of one’s efforts is not seeking the common good but rewarding friends and punishing (ideally, destroying) enemies. The expectation of forgiveness, especially for so-called victim classes, is seen as evidence of a twisted, life-denying slave morality created by the weak to restrain and control the strong. Sometimes this veers explicitly into the language of racial grievance. Thus, for example, in an inversion of the concern of black radicals mentioned above, among some corners of the right, white Americans who publicly forgive wrongdoers who are black have surrendered to contemporary progressivism’s supposed construction of black people as blameless victims. In light of the history of race and racism in the United States, this idea is both hateful and absurd.
The broader point is that on the right as well as the left in the United States, there is a widespread discomfort with the place of fading Christian norms of forgiveness and love of enemies in our public and private life. For many, Dirk Willems looks less like a heroic example of Christian virtue than a fool or a patsy.
And yet – to put it bluntly – if Dirk Willems is a fool, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the martyrs through the ages all the way back to Jesus Christ himself were fools too. I don’t think that we can lay claim to Christianity if we reject some of Jesus’ clearest and most unambiguous commands to us. Forgiveness and love of enemies are central enough to our faith that in the prayer that Jesus himself gave us, the prayer that as an Anglican priest bound to the daily office I recite at least five times a day, our own forgiveness is linked to our forgiveness of those who wrong us. To follow Jesus here might be a deep trial – many patristic commentators on the Sermon on the Mount dwell on just how little we like loving our enemies – and it might indeed be a trial that is unevenly distributed among people. But it is what we are called to do, and how could we fail to obey our good and gracious Savior?
What’s more, it seems to me that we have more reasons than just our Lord’s example to move us – although that should be more than enough! In an increasingly graceless culture, the public witness of Christians as the sort of people who forgive and love even those who have wronged them could be attractive indeed; speaking from personal experience, communities that refuse to extend grace or forgiveness are incredibly unpleasant to belong to. So how can we hold to Jesus’ clear command to forgive and love our enemies while also standing for justice?
Concerns that christian ethics of forgiveness and love of enemies function as a means of further injuring the oppressed would have come as no surprise to Howard Thurman. Early in his magisterial Jesus and the Disinherited (1949), he writes:
I belong to a generation that finds very little that is meaningful or intelligent in the teachings of the Church concerning Jesus Christ. … The desperate opposition to Christianity rests in the fact that it seems, in the last analysis, to be a betrayal of the Negro into the hands of his enemies by focusing his attention upon heaven, forgiveness, love, and the like.
Yet Thurman wishes to defend the value of the Christianity of Jesus – if not that of the slave-master – for those “with their backs against the wall,” offering a reading of Jesus’ teachings as a “technique of survival for the oppressed.”
One might expect Thurman to do so by minimizing or ignoring the commands to forgive and to love enemies that bring Christianity into disrepute as useless, if not positively injurious, for those concerned with justice and the remedy of social ills. But Thurman does no such thing. Rather, he addresses hatred as one of the three great ethical temptations of the disinherited, alongside fear and deception, and argues that Jesus’ rejection of hatred and command to love enemies and forgive is, perhaps counterintuitively, particularly necessary for those “with their backs against the wall.”
This rejection follows upon a careful and not unsympathetic analysis of the way that hatred functions for the disinherited. According to Thurman, simplistic moralizing preaching against hatred fails to understand the psychological role that hatred plays, especially for the disinherited. He suggests that the hatred of one’s oppressors often functions as a response to “the estimate that their environment places upon them,” namely, that the oppressed somehow deserve their lot. Hatred becomes “a sense of significance which you fling defiantly into the teeth of their estimate of you.” In this sense, hatred can serve a vital role in self-realization in the midst of the psychological torment of oppression. Furthermore, it allows the oppressed to use any and all means against their oppressors without “moral disintegration,” demarcating a sphere in which “it is open season all the time” – in relation to the hated oppressors – while preserving a sphere in which normal moral rules apply. So, for the oppressed, Thurman thinks, hatred functions to preserve a sense of self and moral integrity.
To be sure, this does not mean that discernment need not be exercised in how we love our enemies, that we do not need to decide which hazards need to be embraced and which are better avoided. Forgiveness need not always entail reconciliation; there are people whom – even if we will their good and do not hold their wrongs against them – we may be unable to be in relationship with until Jesus returns to make all things right.
John Calvin offers some advice as to what love of enemies looks like in practice (whether or not he always put this advice into practice is another matter). In Calvin’s commentary on the synoptic Gospels, he distinguishes between two forms of forgiveness while addressing Matthew 18. The first form is that, regardless of whether the person repents, the Christian must “lay … aside the desire of revenge … not cease to love him, but even repay kindness in place of injury.” That is, in response to wrongdoing, the Christian must always forgive in the sense of loving the wrongdoer and treating him well. If the wrongdoer repents, then the Christian is to “receive a brother into favor, so as to think favorably respecting him, and to be convinced that the remembrance of his offense is blotted out in the sight of God.”
Those motivated by hatred burn out or fall apart. To endure, one must be grounded in a love that seeks to free both oppressed and oppressor.
But here, Calvin adds, “Christ does not deprive believers of the exercise of judgment”; while Christians must indeed always offer the first form of forgiveness and offer the second form of forgiveness freely in response to genuine repentance, we are not obliged to “yield a foolish readiness of belief to every slight expression.” Indeed, in some cases, when someone has wronged us, “we may grant pardon when he asks it, and yet may do so in such a manner as to watch over his conduct for the future, that our forbearance and meekness, which proceed from the Spirit of Christ, may not become the subject of his ridicule.” Forgiveness requires exposing ourselves to hazard, requires erring on the side of mercy and forbearance – but it need not require the accepting of insincere apologies or putting up with a pattern of abuse followed by apology followed by additional abuse. Calvin’s schema admits the complications of extending forgiveness while nonetheless calling us to “imitate the goodness of our heavenly Father, who meets sinners at a distance to invite them to salvation.”
Thus, without denying the possibility of the characteristic damage associated with forgiveness and love of enemies, we can still embrace it as our Lord’s clear command, as an opportunity to emulate our God in extending extravagant grace. We can keep Dirk Willems as an example to emulate.
What’s more, we need not fear that our capacity to forgive rests only on our own power, but can take heart that God empowers us to do what he commands. In The Hiding Place, Corrie ten Boom describes drawing on this divine power when she was confronted with a former SS guard she remembered from Ravensbruck, who was overjoyed to hear his sins had been forgiven. She, who had just been preaching about forgiveness, could not find it in her heart now to forgive, and so she prayed for help.
As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me.
And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on [God’s]. When he tells us to love our enemies, he gives, along with the command, the love itself.
To compare the sins she had to forgive and the ones many of us are called to forgive might seem frankly ridiculous, but her initial reaction is surely relatable even to those of us who have endured much lesser wrongs than concentration camps. And so we need to ask: Can the love for her enemy that she received be ours as well?
Back in my union-organizing days, I began to worry that my work with the union was malforming me, that suffering mistreatment myself and seeing the mistreatment of others was turning me into an angry, bitter, sour person. I confided this concern to my organizer. Her own relationship with the church and with Christianity was not simple, but her response to me was a sermon in the vein of Howard Thurman: the only way to truly last in the struggle for justice is to be motivated by love, she said, love not just for one’s fellow workers but for the bosses as well. Those motivated by hatred burn out or fall apart. To endure, one must be grounded in a love that seeks to free both oppressed and oppressor from a relation that distorts and damages both.
We Christians have a perfect example of this love: while we were his enemies, with no claim upon his love or goodwill, Jesus Christ died for us, that he might make us his own, transforming us from enemies to friends (Rom. 5:10). God gives us both this example and the grace to (imperfectly but really) follow it in our own lives, pouring his love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit so that we can love and serve even our enemies (Rom. 5:5). May we who dare to name ourselves Christ’s friends (John 15:15), washed in his blood and filled with the Holy Spirit, follow him in a life full of costly love toward our enemies, loving and forgiving boldly as he loved and forgave us.