I don’t see a lot of violence firsthand on a day to day basis, but what I do see, in exuberant amounts, is the effect of it. I am a mental health provider and specifically I work with children and youth; most of whom are trauma survivors. I know their past stories of darkness intimately and I daily see the effects and the residual damage that abuse and neglect has on them.
As you can imagine, talking to people about what I do for a living can be an interesting experience; occasionally enlightening. A few weeks ago, I was engaged in such a conversation as one man listened patiently to my answer after asking me what I type of work I did. He then spoke with sincere conviction saying “how can people be so sick as to harm a child?” This man, in particular, was no stranger to evil as he had seen his fair share of violence during his military service in Vietnam. Yet somehow that context for violence made more sense to him than my context for violence and through further conversation he reveled to me that he could never work with parents who were abusive as he would only ever be able to see them as deranged perpetrators.
I listened, and nodded a lot. I genuinely understood where he was coming from because I have been there. For a while I lived in the land of disgust and shock and general disdain towards perpetrators. It wasn’t until I started spending time in jails and really looking these people in the eye that my thoughts started to shift. And I have to say it’s a strange thing for sure, but somehow over the past years of working with victims and perpetrators my tolerance for violence and hate has decreased drastically, yet my conviction to love others has increased…substantially.
Somewhere over the years I began to see that the adults harming the children were themselves children who were harmed by adults. And I began to see the layers of what I thought separated me from the “evildoer” peel away one by one. I started seeing all people as various forms of broken but all in need of the same restoration.
There is a poem written by a man named Dietrich Bonhoeffer that he wrote while imprisoned by Nazi soldiers in WWII. He starts out describing the scene around him; one that is horrific and nauseatingly full of evil. He ends the poem with a deepening appreciation of God’s love explaining that he saw himself as no different than the Nazi soldier and merely by Divine grace was he behaving any differently.
I think about that poem a lot. It wasn’t easy or comfortable as I started seeing myself as no different than my fellow human (regardless of their behavior) but it has been, hands down, one of the most important and defining processes of my life. That is not to say that I still don’t struggle to empathize with the evildoer because I do, whether the evildoer is the parent who abused the child I work with, the gunman in a movie theater or the militants terrorizing central Asia, but more so than before, I see these people as broken and bruised, lied to, misguided and just as in need of redemption as I am. I also see thorough redemption possible for them just as it is possible for me.
Yet please hear me loud and clear when I say that I by no means think that in an effort to love our enemies we should tolerate evil behavior or hateful thoughts. As I mentioned before I have become ever more intolerant to hate, discrimination, evil and violence in all its forms. Even the smallest hints of racism, misogyny, religious prejudice and other strands of evil are utterly abrasive to me, as I feel already rubbed raw by the evil I witness every day.
Secondly, I by no means think that those abused should be tolerant of their abusers or that we should support a culture of forced forgiveness, cheap apologies and a weak justice system. Rachel Held Evans potently voices thoughts on abuse here that I wholeheartedly agree with.
What I am saying rather is that love and trust are not the same thing. Just as love and forgiveness are not the same thing. Christ didn’t tell us that the greatest command was to forgive others or that we should trust our enemies as we trust ourselves. But Christ did tell us that love was the greatest command and that we should love our enemies as we love ourselves.
Seeing myself and the evildoer as equally in need of and worthy of divine redemption was my pathway to being able to love others and certainly praying for them and for their complete restoration became not only bearable but something I found myself desperately doing when I encountered evil. It’s also a prayer I have found to be a vital portion to the larger scale prayer of “on earth as it is in heaven”. I don’t believe this Kingdom of Heaven is made up of new, behaviorally perfect people, but rather see it brim full of people who once did evil things who were then enveloped in complete restoration, unleashing them all to be fully human as we were all initially created to be.
“Human beings should understand how other humans feel no matter where they are, no matter what their language or culture is, no matter their age, and no matter the age in which they live. If you develop the art of seeing us more alike than we are unalike, then all stores are understandable.” –Maya Angelou