As a Navy pilot during the war in Vietnam, I flew search and rescue helicopters. We were stationed aboard ships in the Tonkin Gulf and most of our rescue work involved picking up fighter and attack pilots who had been shot down. Although we were armed with a .30 caliber machine gun mounted in the cabin door, and we all carried small arms, these light weapons really provided very little protection. Anyway, our goal was to avoid detection. We just wanted to get in, pick up any survivors, and get out as quickly as possible. On the few occasions that one of our helicopter crews actually fired their weapons, I don’t think they ever hit anybody. I suppose they made us feel safer though.
The enemy, of course, were the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong communists. As my POW friends will attest, they were not nice people. And as my many Marine friends discovered when they liberated the ancient city of Hue, the communists had tortured and murdered over 7,000 men, women, and children during their month-long occupation. Yes, they were an easy enemy to hate.
But hating them troubled me because I had read the Sermon on the Mount and knew what Jesus had commanded of us. And so one day I paid a visit to the Catholic chaplain and asked him how we could reconcile the command to love our enemies with this conflict in which we were engaged. I’ll always remember that conversation.
It was a long conversation. I won’t go into our lengthy discussion on the just war doctrine. That’s a subject for another time. But I will tell you what he had to say about enemies and hatred and love and forgiveness.
He began by saying that if our enemies are those we hate, we have ceased being Christians. As disciples of Jesus Christ we are to hate no one. But if our enemies are those who hate us, then we will always have enemies.
After all, Jesus had many enemies, simply because He loved everyone, especially those despised by the world, and He spoke the truth even when it upset people, and did the Father’s will. Yes, Jesus had enemies, but He hated no one.
Our enemies decide how they will treat us. We decide only to love them or to hate them. Love and hate, you see, are not emotions. They’re decisions. Jesus calls us to make the decision to love regardless of the evil others do. And He calls to exclude no one from our love.
These are hard words for us, aren’t they? Hard indeed… until we come face to face with the Cross, and we hear His words, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” [Lk 23:34]. It’s there, on the Cross, that we encounter Divine Mercy: God’s perfect love, a love that demands forgiveness.
Forgiveness is the only thing we can do to those we are called to love. If we refuse to forgive, we are refusing to love.
Do you remember the movie, “Dead Man Walking”? Well, one person you won’t see in the movie is Debbie Morris, the one victim who miraculously survived kidnapping, rape and torture -- a horrific ordeal at the hands of Robert Willie. He was executed based largely on her testimony. But after a long healing process, she said, “Justice didn’t do a thing to heal me. Forgiveness did.”
Yes, it’s easy to hate and scream for justice, for man’s justice, but it never brings healing. It never brings the closure the world promises. Only forgiveness can do that. Only forgiveness can heal.
The world will never run out of objects for our hatred, especially today when enemies abound. If we hope to become the people Moses spoke of in our first reading, “a people sacred to the LORD” [Dt 26:19], we must live up to God’s expectations for us, we who were created in His image and likeness.
And so He calls each of us to view this life as a pilgrimage of love, one in which we seek out others, finding Jesus Christ in each person we meet, and letting them recognize Jesus in us.
Let God be the one who will judge His creations.
We need only love.