“Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”
This must have been a startling teaching for the original audience of the Sermon on the Mount. For first-century Jews, “your enemies” and “those who persecute you” were most obviously the despised Roman oppressors. But Jesus challenged his disciples to love and to pray for the very people who occupy their land, tax them heavily and treat them harshly and unjustly.
His teaching, however, is no more shocking than the example of love for enemy recounted by Dr. Carolyn Woo, president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services. She recalls the story of Amy Biehl, a young American and anti-apartheid activist who was serving the people of South Africa. In 1993, just days before Amy was scheduled to return to the United States for graduate school, militants murdered her just outside Cape Town.
Her parents, Dr. Woo, says, “turned their unspeakable sorrow into service grounded in a deep understanding of the oppression that bred the hatred responsible for their daughter’s death.” Linda and Peter Biehl created a foundation to improve the lives of South Africans through education, job training, art, music, and sports. The most shocking – or perhaps the most grace-filled – moment came when two of the young men responsible for Amy’s death stepped forward to continue her work and spread her legacy.
The kind of radical love and forgiveness displayed by the Biehls is precisely what Jesus calls us all to embrace. When we respond to persecution by loving and forgiving our enemies, we take on the characteristics of the Father himself “who makes his sun rise on the bad and good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.”
Deacon Manuel Valencia is on the staff at Mater Dolorosa Passionist Retreat Center, Sierra Madre, California.