For me, one of the most beautiful aspects of Christianity is its unmatched power to inject into the worst of human malice, hatred and division an otherworldly antidote of reconciliation that makes possible a unity-in-difference — a peace — that otherwise is impossible for human beings. This extraordinary truth is captured eloquently in the second Eucharistic Prayer for Reconciliation:
For though the human race
is divided by dissension and discord,
yet we know that by testing us
you change our hearts
to prepare them for reconciliation.
Even more, by your Spirit you move human hearts
that enemies may speak to each other again,
adversaries may join hands,
and peoples seek to meet together.
By the working of your power
it comes about, O Lord,
that hatred is overcome by love,
revenge gives way to forgiveness,
and discord is changed to mutual respect.
Commenting on the revolutionary vision of charity Christ introduced into human consciousness, philosopher David Bentley Hart says, “In short, the rise of Christianity produced consequences so immense that it can almost be said to have begun the world anew: to have ‘invented’ the human.” The breakthrough of this radical novelty into the history of our brutal and violent world prompted the pagan convert Tertullian, nearly 150 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, to say of the Christian creed, credo quia absurdum “I believe because it is absurd.”
St. Paul tells the Ephesians, “[Christ] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (2:14). Indeed, by the Blood of his cross, Jesus delivered into humanity’s mortal wound the grace of mercy that transforms every chasm of conflict into a theater of reconciliation. In his teaching, Jesus dismantles the primal fallen human instinct to “love your neighbor and hate your enemy” (Matt. 5:43) by requiring his followers to “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27), as well as to forgive without measure even (and especially) those who are actively harming you (cf. Luke 23:34).
Of this crazed and outrageous vision, St. Paul aptly says, “the word of the cross is idiocy [mōria] to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).
Jesus tells parable after parable of bitter enemies being reconciled, and in real life brings into dangerously close proximity those who despise each other. He calls supremely happy [makarioi] the poor, meek and merciful peacemakers who are grateful to insert themselves into the darkest dregs of human malice, all the while being “exceeding glad” (Matt. 6:12) at the singular opportunity to offer public witness to the madness of God’s mercy in the face of hatred and insult. Which is why, as Tertullian also says, “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.”
Here we find the truest and most radical core of Christianity: that Jesus makes mercy the justice of God’s Kingdom. For Jesus, mercy is not supererogatory, beyond the call of duty. Rather, mercy is the basis and starting point of justice. The demands of mercy are absolute for any who wish to gain entry into the Kingdom of God, as Jesus makes eminently clear at the end of the Our Father:
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (Matt. 6:14-15).
All of this means that Christians should, as a matter of primary vocation, consistently stand out in stark and stunning relief during times marked by hostility, division and hatred. Not unusual in any age should be this early second century description of Christians:
Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they rejoice as though receiving the gift of life.
May the Church choose to receive the grace to be mercy toward a broken world.