The Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel.
– Gaudium et Spes
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection …Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse them.
– (Romans 12:9-10a; 14)
Although we lack the needed distance to understand what is most significant and important in our own times as events unfold in the present moment, it is both possible and necessary to endeavor to “[scrutinize] the signs of the time and [interpret] them in the light of the Gospel.”
One of those “signs of the times” that I’ve been pondering lately is the way in which openly expressing hatred of others is increasingly viewed across the political and social spectrum as legitimate and even praiseworthy. The person or group disagreed with is not simply wrong or mistaken or sinful, but is evil, hateful and deserving of contempt and opprobrium. Even worse, the angry and hatefilled denunciation of others is so often regarded by those doing the denouncing as morally justified and spiritually righteous.
But that is not the way of Jesus, nor is it the way of the Gospel.
In St. Matthew’s gospel, Jesus teaches: “You have heard it said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. (Mt 5:21-22)
It would be reassuring to dismiss these words of Jesus as hyperbole (along the lines of his statement that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. Matthew 19:23-26). But I think that Jesus is quite serious about the murderous nature of anger, and the hatred and contempt for the neighbor that it expresses.
He follows up his teaching on anger with a similar teaching on adultery, saying that while the Mosaic law prohibits the act of adultery, he says to his disciples, if you even look on the neighbor with lust, you have already committed adultery in your heart. Thus, by implication, the disciple who is angry with the neighbor has already murdered them in their heart. The apostle John says it outright: “All who hate a brother or a sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them.” (1 John 3:15-16)
Yet it is so easy for us in the present cultural, social and political climate to convince ourselves that we have the right, even the obligation, to heap angry and hateful abuse and contempt on the neighbor, individually or collectively, because of real or perceived injury, or because of dislike or disagreement or opposition to their ideas and beliefs.
But there is nothing in the teaching or example of Jesus that supports this. Rather, he teaches us, “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.” (Mt 5:43-44a) In St. Luke’s gospel he says, “I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”(Lk 6:27-28)
Jesus teaches us to love our enemies because it is the only way forward. Anger cannot overcome anger. Hatred cannot overcome hatred. We must ask ourselves, do we desire (in the depths of our hearts) the destruction of those who offend us, who make us angry, or do we desire for them (also in the depths of our hearts) their salvation and flourishing, which is what it means to bless even those who are our enemies.
As disciples of Jesus, we are never justified in hating another person or speaking of them contemptuously or abusing and humiliating them. The gospel, I believe, enjoins us to resist with all of our strength being swept up in this particular manifestation of the spirit of the age.
If we are unfortunate enough to find ourselves on the receiving end of anger and hatred, either personally or as members of a group and particularly as Christians, we should regard this as both a time of spiritual testing and spiritual growth. The temptation to respond in kind must be resisted, even, or especially, when how we are being treated is unfair and unjust. As Jesus teaches us, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Lk 6:32-33, 36)
But given our own weakness and frailty in this fallen world, it is important to remember that it is through God’s grace and not our own strength that we can persevere in forbearance and love. It is important to ask God in prayer for patience, which is to say, the virtue that enables us to suffer and to endure. This virtue, one of the “fruits of the Holy Spirit” (Galatians 5:22) is a great aid in both resisting the temptation to lash out in anger and to bear the anger of others.
May we, to paraphrase St. Paul, in this matter and in everything that contradicts the gospel, refuse to be conformed to this world but instead discern the will of God, what is good, what is acceptable and perfect, so that our minds and hearts and through us, our society and culture may be renewed and transformed.
– Deacon Charles Rohrbacher is the Office of Ministries Director for the Diocese of Juneau. Phone: 907-586-2227 x 23. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org