Love your enemies!
Recently I have been reflecting on my work in a prison when I was a missionary in Ethiopia. The prison was a ‘lively place’, filled with people moving back and forth for different activities. Examining it closer, it is apparent to me that a particular look was shared among certain prisoners who were serving long sentences. They walked with hunched shoulders, a vacant expression and indeed an aura of sadness that appeared to be draped over them like an invisible cloak. These were the prisoners who struggled daily with the unbearable weight of guilt and shame. I encountered one such broken young man who was serving a life sentence for having killed another man in a fight.
In the prison where I worked there was a painting programme which allowed male and female prisoners the opportunity to express themselves through art. This young prisoner signed up for the art classes on offer. It was a great joy to see him grow in confidence as an artist. His art gave rise to a creative side of his personality. It allowed him to tell the story of who he was.
For many prisoners there emerges a need to seek forgiveness from the family of the person they have killed. This reconciliation process is facilitated by elders who arrange for people to come together with the intention of seeking and offering forgiveness. So it was that in the prison this young prisoner fell at the feet of the family members of the man he had killed. He cried for the life that he had taken. The family members cried for the loss of their loved one. Seeing the tears of the prisoner they cried for him. It was a moment of grace when the tears flowed freely.
Something extraordinary emerges in the reconciliation process. The prisoner is given the chance to apologise and express remorse. The family members are allowed to let go of the heavy burden of hatred and rage. Everyone is given permission to discover a part of their heart that allows forgiveness to blossom.
In the days following the reconciliation mentioned above, I saw clearly that the prisoner was a new man. Still a prisoner but a massive weight had been lifted off him. He could hold his head up high knowing that he was at peace with others who had offered him the precious gift of healing and forgiveness.
When Jesus talks about “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” he presents that image as a path to mutual destruction. Instead, he presents another vision, a vision that calls people to love their enemies, to have eyes that can see the wounded heart of another and offer the precious gifts of forgiveness and reconciliation.
We live in a world filled with both extraordinary beauty and unimaginable suffering. We pray for all people who are hurt and wounded that they find peace and healing for their wounds.