Embraced by mercy

The Southern Poverty Law Center published its 2019 Spring Intelligence Report last week, including its annual hate group count. For the fourth consecutive year the numbers have gone up. There were 1,020 hate groups in the U.S. in 2018, the highest number ever counted by the organization, with much of the growth coming from an increase in white supremacist groups like the National Socialists of America and various branches on the Klan tree.[1]

Jesus says, “Do good to those who hate you,” and I try to imagine what that sounds like in the ears of those who find themselves the target of this growth in organized hate – black and brown people, gay or queer folk, transgender persons.

Do good to those who hate you.

Lord, that’s a tough one to swallow.

Pope Francis called bishops from around the world to a meeting in Rome last week to discuss clerical sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church.

The yearning for a response from Pope Francis yielded on Friday a first step to holding bishops accountable for abuse in their dioceses. … But survivors and law enforcement officials say they doubt that the church’s response so far matches the magnitude of the crisis sweeping the United States.

“Now all they are going to do is set guidelines again?” Mark Belenchia, 63, an abuse survivor and activist in Jackson, Miss., asked on Friday.[2]

Jesus says, “Pray for those who abuse you,” and I try to imagine what that sounds like in the ears of the victims of clergy sexual abuse who are waiting for accountability, for some acknowledgement of complicity from the hierarchy, for real reform and transformation, and not just in the Roman Catholic Church. And I think about those of you who have suffered abuse by family members, partners, spouses, supervisors – and I wonder what hearing these words does to you.

Pray for those who abuse you.

Bless those who curse you.

Do good to those who hate you.

The sayings are so short, so dangerously memorable. I say dangerously, because these pithy sayings easily take on a life of their own, floating around, destructively settling into minds without the necessary ballast of Jesus’ proclamation of good news to the poor, release to the captives, and freedom to the oppressed — because he was sent to proclaim freedom, not religiously whitewashed oppression.

Brush your teeth.

Listen to your mother.

Love your enemies.

The three sound deceptively similar, but the third one doesn’t pretend to be folk wisdom. The third one is Jesus throwing a monkey wrench into the gears of our ethical thinking.

Love your enemies.

The only one who can legitimately say that is somebody who’s done that. Somebody who loved the least-likely-to-be-loved and who revealed the unfathomable depth of God’s mercy in his life and in his death by execution.

The apostle Paul wrote, “Christ died for the ungodly… While we still were sinners Christ died for us… While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God.”[3] Love your enemies is not some pithy adage, short, memorable, made to bounce around as a meme on twitter or instagram. Love your enemies is the life of Jesus in three words. It is the revelation of the heart of God.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor killed by the Nazi machine for his resistance in the name of Christ, wrote,

How then does love conquer? By asking not how the enemy treats her but only how Jesus treated her. The love for our enemies takes us along the way of the cross and into fellowship with the Crucified. The more we are driven along this road, the more certain is the victory of love over the enemy’s hatred. For then it is not the disciple’s own love, but the love of Jesus Christ alone, who for the sake of his enemies went to the cross and prayed for them as he hung there. In the face of the cross the disciples realized that they too were his enemies, and that he had overcome them by his love.[4]

That is what opens the disciples’ eyes. That is what enables them to recognize a sibling in an enemy. They know that they owe their very life to one, who though  they were enemies, embraced them, accepted them, forgave them, did not expel them from fellowship with him.

Even my enemy is the recipient of God’s love and stands with me beneath the cross of Christ, both of us together in the embrace of the love that will not let us go.

Love your enemies.

Pray for those who abuse you.

Bless those who curse you.

Do good to those who hate you.

Thsee words were not spoken for easy repetition, to be passed on as well-intentioned advice in moments when we run out of things to say. The only place to hear and ponder them is in the embrace of God’s love, and it is only there that we can even begin to think about living them.

We have to thank Victor Hugo for the story I’m about to tell you.[5]

Jean Valjean, after having served a sentence of 19 years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s child, was taken in by a local bishop, Monseigneur Bienvenue. The old bishop knew God to be a God of love and hospitality.

The next morning at sunrise Monseigneur Bienvenu was strolling in his garden. Madame Magloire ran up to him in utter consternation.

“Monseigneur, Monseigneur!” she exclaimed, “does your Grace know where the basket of silver is?”

“Yes,” replied the Bishop.

“Jesus the Lord be blessed!” she resumed; “I did not know what had become of it.”

The Bishop had just picked up the basket in a flower-bed.

“Here it is.”

“Well!” said she. “Nothing in it! And the silver?”

“Ah, so it is the silver which troubles you? I don’t know where it is.”

“Great, good God! It is stolen! That man who was here last night has stolen it.”

In a twinkling, with all the vivacity of an alert old woman, Madame Magloire had rushed to the oratory, entered the alcove, and returned to the Bishop.

“Monseigneur, the man is gone! The silver has been stolen!”

The Bishop remained silent for a moment; then he raised his grave eyes, and said gently to Madame Magloire:—

“And, in the first place, was that silver ours?” She was speechless. Another silence ensued; then the Bishop went on:—

“Madame Magloire, I have for a long time detained that silver wrongfully. It belonged to the poor. Who was that man? A poor man, evidently.”

“Alas! Jesus!” returned Madame Magloire. “It is not for my sake, nor for Mademoiselle’s. It makes no difference to us. But it is for the sake of Monseigneur. What is Monseigneur to eat with now?”

The Bishop gazed at her with an air of amazement.

“Ah, come! Are there no such things as pewter forks and spoons?”

Madame Magloire shrugged her shoulders.

“Pewter has an odor.”

“Iron forks and spoons, then.”

“Iron has a taste.”

“Very well,” said the Bishop; “wooden ones then.”

A few moments later he was having breakfast at the very table at which Jean Valjean had sat on the previous evening. As he ate his breakfast, Monseigneur Bienvenue remarked gayly to his sister, who said nothing, and to Madame Magloire, who was grumbling under her breath, that one really does not need either fork or spoon, even of wood, in order to dip a bit of bread in a cup of milk.

“A pretty idea, truly,” said Madame Magloire to herself, as she went and came, “to take in a man like that! And to lodge him close to one’s self! And how fortunate that he did nothing but steal! Ah, mon Dieu! it makes one shudder to think of it!”

There came a knock at the door.

“Come in,” said the Bishop.

The door opened. … Three men were holding a fourth man by the collar. The three men were police; the other was Jean Valjean.

“Ah! here you are!” the Bishop exclaimed, looking at Jean Valjean. “I am glad to see you. Well, but how is this? I gave you the candlesticks too, which are of silver like the rest, and for which you can certainly get two hundred francs. Why did you not carry them away with your forks and spoons?”

Jean Valjean opened his eyes wide, and stared at the venerable Bishop with an expression which no human tongue can render any account of.

“Monseigneur,” said the lieutenant, “so what this man said is true, then? We came across him. He was walking like a man who is running away. He had this silver—”

“And he told you,” interposed the Bishop with a smile, “that it had been given to him by a kind old fellow of a priest with whom he had passed the night? I see how the matter stands. And you have brought him back here? It is a mistake.”

“In that case,” replied the lieutenant, “we can let him go?”

“Certainly,” replied the Bishop.

“My friend,” he said to Valjean, “before you go, here are your candlesticks. Take them.”

He stepped to the fireplace, took the two silver candlesticks from the mantel, and brought them to Jean Valjean.

“Now go in peace.”

That’s not the whole story, far from it, but I thought I’d end it here, with the bishop’s good wish and blessing for the thief. A lifetime in the company of Jesus, a lifetime of listening, wondering, and trusting had taught the old man the power of mercy. He didn’t even have to remind himself of Jesus’ teaching, “If anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.”

The indiscriminate mercy of God had become second nature for the bishop. He simply lived in it, inhabited it with gratitude, and let it transform his thoughts and speech and actions.

Jesus doesn’t call us to moral heroics. He calls us to live fully in the boundless mercy of God.


[1] https://www.splcenter.org/

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/22/us/catholic-sex-abuse-pope.html

[3] Romans 5:6-10

[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Macmillan, 1963), 166-167.

[5] Les Misérables, chapter 12, with some edits from http://www.online-literature.com/victor_hugo/les_miserables/26/

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