Ron Rolheiser, OMI
are challenged to be loving in the face of opposition and hatred
How do you stay positive,
preach hope and remain loving and big-hearted in the face of opposition,
misunderstanding, hostility and hatred?
This is what Jesus did and
that particular quality of his life and teaching constitutes perhaps
the greatest personal and moral challenge to all of us who try to follow
him. How do you remain loving in the face of hatred? How do you remain
empathic in the face of misunderstanding? How do you continue to be
warm and gracious in the face of hostility? How do you love your enemies
when they want to kill you?
Virtually every instinct inside us works against us here. Our natural
instincts are mostly self-protective, paranoid even, antithetical to
self-abnegation and forgiveness. Our innate sense of justice demands
an eye for an eye, a giving back in kind, hatred for hatred, distrust
for distrust, murder for murder. And this isn’t just true for
the big things, our struggle to remain loving in the face of death threats.
We struggle to remain loving even in the face of irritation.
How do we handle opposition, misunderstanding, hostility and hatred?
Sometimes our response is paralysis. We get so intimidated by opposition,
misunderstanding and hatred that we retreat and go underground. We retain
our ideals but no longer practice them in the presence of those who
oppose us. We continue to speak love and understanding, but not to our
enemies (whom we don’t exactly hate, but whom we now stay away
Sometimes our response is the exact opposite, namely, in the face of
opposition we develop a skin so thick that we don’t need to care
about what others think of us: let them think whatever they want! They
can like it or lump it! The problem with a thick skin is that our capacity
to go on saying the right words and doing the right actions is partially
based upon a certain blindness and insensitivity. In our mind, we don’t
have a problem. Others do.
This insensitivity sometimes takes a more subtle form, condescension.
This happens when we believe that we are big-hearted enough to love
those who oppose and hate us, even as our empathy and love are predicated
on a certain elitism, namely, on the feeling that we are so morally
and religiously superior to those who hate us that we can love them
in their ignorance. Poor, ignorant people! If only they knew better!
This is not love but a superiority complex masquerading as empathy and
concern. That’s not how Jesus treated those who hated him.
How did he treat them? In the face of hatred and being put to death
by his enemies, Jesus wasn’t intimidated, nor did he become thick-skinned
or condescending. What did he do? He rooted himself more deeply in his
own deepest identity and, inside of that, found the power to continue
to be warmed-hearted, loving and forgiving in the face of hatred and
murder. How so?
As Jesus was being executed he prayed: “Forgive them, they don’t
know what they are doing.” Karl Rahner, commenting on this, astutely
points out that, in fact, his executioners did know what they were doing!
They knew they were crucifying an innocent man. So why does Jesus say
they were acting in ignorance?
Their ignorance, as Karl Rahner points out, lay at a deeper level. They
were ignorant of how much they were loved, whereas Jesus was not. When
the Gospels describe Jesus’ inner state at the Last Supper, they
say: “Jesus, knowing that he had come from God and that he was
going back to God and that therefore all things were possible for him,
got up from the table and took off his outer robe . . .”
Jesus was capable of continuing to love and forgive in the face of hatred
and murder because, at the very heart of his self-awareness, lay an
awareness of who he was, God’s son, and how much he was loved.
He wasn’t thick-skinned or elitist, just in touch with who he
was and how much he was loved. From that source he drew his energy and
his power to forgive.
We too have access to that same powerful spring of energy. Like Jesus,
we too are God’s children and are loved that deeply. Like Jesus,
we too can be that forgiving.
Very few things, I believe, are more needed today, in both society and
the church, than this capacity for understanding and forgiveness. To
continue to offer others genuine love and understanding in the face
of opposition and hatred constitutes the ultimate social, political,
ecclesial, moral, religious and human challenge. Sometimes church people
try to single out one particular moral issue as the litmus test as to
whether or not someone is a true follower of Jesus. If there is to be
litmus test, let it be this one:
Can you continue to love those who misunderstand you, who oppose you,
who are hostile to you, who hate you, and who threaten you — without
being paralyzed, calloused or condescending?
Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is president
of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX. He can be contacted
through his website: www.ronrolheiser.com