1989 was a year when the nations of Eastern Europe one by one overthrew communist regimes, dependent on the Soviet Union, and recovered their countries for themselves. The downfall of communism started in Poland, although the best known sign of that process was the fall of the Berlin Wall. I remember the parliamentary election in Poland in 1989; the first free election since World War II and incidentally the first one in which I was allowed to vote. I can’t describe the feeling of triumph that everyone felt when the result was announced. The anti-communist opposition had won overwhelmingly. What’s more the process was virtually without bloodshed; the horrible exception was the Balkans, when the collapse of the former Yugoslavia led to a cruel war and genocide.
So, as I witnessed and participated in the changes of 1989 and the following years, I can’t look at the revolution in the Arab world without admiration and support for their desire for freedom. I understand that we might have many political and economic problems as a result of their revolutions. But we have to accept that, because our prosperity must not be built on their misery. The most striking factor in all these protests is the peaceful attitude of the people taking part. It’s even more striking in comparison with the brutality and the ruthlessness of the police. Despite the killings unarmed and peaceful people stood up to hostile authorities and won.
These events of recent weeks are an excellent comment on and illustration of today’s gospel. When we read this passage it sounds completely unrealistic. It sounds like an invitation to exploit and abuse our good will. But it’s not as unrealistic as it might sound.
‘You have learnt how it was said: Eye for eye and tooth for tooth; […] you must […] hate your enemy’. Jesus refers to the old law, supposedly written by Moses, and to the traditional teaching. Sometimes the Ten Commandments, especially those concerning other people, are called ‘the natural law’. We think of them as somehow written deep in the human heart. It is obvious even when it is not expressed in a formal way. We can agree that when people are attacked revenge is a ‘natural’ reaction. We certainly understand a person’s demand for justice when he or she is touched by another’s evil behaviour. We also understand the idea of justice as ‘eye for eye and tooth for tooth’. That’s ‘natural justice’.
As Christians we are called to rise above it. Our problem is that we tend to misunderstand and confuse two ideas: emotion and will. We have to understand that the ability to control our emotions is very limited – they are the way our mind reacts to things that happen. On the other hand we certainly are able to make decisions despite our emotions, using our free will. If we are utterly furious we can decide not to hurt anybody. What’s more everybody has the right to feel emotions – but the emotions must not be stronger than our good will.
So, Jesus doesn’t appeal to our emotions, but to our good will. This is not unrealistic appeal if we understand ‘love’ as doing good and avoiding evil. Jesus doesn’t call us to like everybody – because that’s hardly possible. Jesus wants us to love everybody – even those we don’t like.