In a conflicted land, what is love? What is justice?
I write this spiritual reflection as a follower of Jesus Christ who works happily and meaningfully with peace-building colleagues. They come from various religious, spiritual, or philosophical backgrounds—Christians, Lumad, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Non-Religious—here in the Philippines and in Asia.
These beautiful people and faithful friends often ask me about love and justice in the context of an armed-conflicted land. I share with these people various experiences where violence, historical injustice, land-grabbing, abuse against women, neglect of children, and betrayal even between friends and family members happen in their day-to-day realities. I also share with these beautiful and faithful friends various experiences where budding peace, a taste of justice, redeemed land-ownership, respect for women, care of children, and harmonious relationships between family members and friends actually happen. In these shared experiences, we often have informal, heart-to-heart, inter-faith dialogues or conversations.
In these notes I attempt to think through two of the Christian values—love and justice—I often share with them. (I have reflection notes of what I’ve heard from my friends, but I’m asking them to read my drafts first for accuracy.)
Finally, I write this spiritual reflection as a student of biblical theology and social ethics, wrestling with these issues as I seek to put my faith into practice.
LOVING MY ENEMIES. Is it possible? Loving our enemies definitely does not start from emotion. That’s why I do not have any feeling of attachment or affection to those who regard me as their enemies. My love to them is definitely volitional, an act of the will, in obedience to the example of Jesus Christ. The New Testament word for God’s unconditional love is agape. It actually encompasses all faculties of our humanity—intellect, emotion, will. It is through agape-love that people can identify those who claim to follow Jesus of Nazareth: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35). Agape-love is the highest among Christianity’s most important virtues: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).
The Person whom I look up to as the foundation of the universe became a human baby and later died on the cross. This is how Jesus taught us about love. This is radical-agape. For me, this is the meaning of Christmas Day and the Resurrection Day.
How do I apply agape-love to my enemy? I have to open my intellect, my mind, to the fact that they are humans who are loved by God unconditionally, and that Jesus commanded me to love others as Jesus loved me. That love means giving my life to the person that God commands me to love. Jesus demonstrated that love through healing the sick, embracing the so-called outsiders and the marginalized segments of his society, boldly preaching the kingdom of God that critiqued unjust world-systems operated by local and imperial powers of his time, liberating people from all manifestations of oppression, and giving his life for others even to death on the cross.
Personally, this is a very painful realization. The warrior in me wants to hunt down my enemies and make them pay, and I want to have the skills and the capacity to defeat those enemies. That’s when I have to deal with my emotion. I must admit to God that I cannot love my enemies because I have no agape-resources in me to agape-love them. Then, I need to make a volitional act to allow God to make me a channel of that unconditional love, because I have no love in me on my own. I have to submit myself to God so that my empty being can become a tube through which God’s love can flow. Imagine that! God can actually love people, even enemies, through me, and despite me!
It is within the framework of love that true forgiveness happens. Forgiveness is as basic as our breathing. Energized by God’s Spirit, we inhale the love of God; and also energized by God’s Spirit, we exhale our hatred and other negative energies from our psycho-spiritual system. Using the energies available to us through the power of the energy of God’s Spirit, a follower of Jesus can absorb the violence committed against him or her so that the life of a Christian may be used as a servant to stop the cycle of violence within us and around us. A loving Christian will seek the forgiveness of peoples and communities who were treated unjustly by those who claim to be Christians—who misused the name of Christ to advance their greed for wealth and power.
Jesus commanded his followers to carry our cross: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). Loving my enemies through self-emptying is my understanding of carrying my cross daily. The cross is not just a symbol of suffering. (I have to be careful about this cross symbol, for this suffering symbol was misused by the powerful religious institutions as an opiate to sustain their oppressive actions against the people who are suffering.) The cross is really about dying to my selfishness. And I have to die everyday because my sense of injustice wants to wage war. “But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness” (James 3:17-18). Love and peace always go hand in hand. This is one of the spiritually-energizing convictions that sustains me and my team in advancing Active Non-Violence in the midst of a violent mission field–whether it’s in our peace-building office in Davao City; in the armed-conflicted areas of Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao; in the corporate board rooms of Manila’s financial districts; in the political power rooms of religious institutions; in the project offices of local and international non-government organizations; and, in the executive, legislative, and judiciary branches of our government.
What would happen to our enemies if God would use our empty being to be God’s channel of love? Perhaps our enemy can become our friend? That’s one of the many surprises in a Christian’s journey towards Christ-likeness.
REJECTING REVENGE AS A FORM OF JUSTICE. When I choose not to take revenge as a matter of obedience to Christ, I declare, by faith, that God will avenge for me. That’s what the Hebrew Scripture calls salah—literally ‘to sprinkle,’ ‘to pour out.’ This is the Ancient Hebrew imagery and verb ‘to forgive.’ Whatever we have that motivates us to take ‘a tooth for a tooth,’ or ‘an eye for an eye,’ I sprinkle and pour it out before God. Then God becomes my avenger. It is actually flushing out the toxic mix of hatred, vengeance, murderous thoughts, and violent imaginations from my psycho-spiritual system.
Do I forgive the person who has not, or would not, ask for an apology?
For the sake of the healing of my being, within the framework of agape-love, I say: “Yes, I will forgive at once.” I must inhale the unconditional love of God and let it fill my being. Then, I must exhale, or pour out, the toxic elements of hatred and malicious intentions from my psycho-spiritual system. This inhale-exhale process of forgiving is a volitional act, an act of agape-love. This is the offended person’s psycho-spiritual healing process, especially when the offending person would not even consider asking for an apology. My healing, then, is not dependent on the apology of the person who offended me. My healing is dependent on the love of God embracing my whole being: “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).
For the sake of the healing of the one who offended me, and still within the framework of agape-love, I say: “Yes, I will start the process of forgiveness.” Jesus taught his followers a sort of a truth and reconciliation process: “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matthew 18:15-17). This is my understanding of forgiveness as a process. It’s based on truth and justice. It’s oriented towards reconciliation.
Forgiveness, then, is both a one-time decision and a long-term process.
No, I do not have to trust a person just because that person apologized. That would be so hypocritical, especially when the person was forced to apologize by some legislative act supported by an armed force. Justice must be served—whether it’s personal injustice committed against me, or a series of historical injustices committed against our people.
The desire for justice, however, is not equivalent to the desire for revenge.
The ancient Hebrews understood justice as mishpat. Its root is shapat–to judge, to deliver, to rule. Shapat refers to the actions of a third party who sits over two parties at odds with one another. Mishpat is the noun form of shapat which means judgment, rights. Mishpat is a picture of one who is receiving the action of someone who is sitting as a judge, hearing a case, and rendering a proper verdict. When the judge has declared its verdict based on due process, with established facts, with witnesses, in a public setting (transparency), the verdict becomes one’s right. For the guilty ones, it’s their right to be punished. For the innocent victims, it’s their right to be vindicated and rewarded. These biblical concepts guide me and my team as we wrestle through the complexities of peace building in an unjust system. How can peace be built in a society where the judiciary branch of the government contradicts the principles of mishpat? How can the oppressed minority trust the oppressing majority when the law itself justifies the oppressive system? How can the poor people claim their rights in the so-called Justice Halls when the law and the system are designed to perpetuate the control of the rich and the powerful to further advance their greed for wealth and power?
Despite these questions on justice that are difficult to answer, these biblical concepts give us hope as we pray for the peace negotiations between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) to be mediated effectively by Malaysia. These biblical concepts also give us hope as we pray that the peace negotiations between the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) and the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) would effectively be mediated by Norway. Above all these top-level peace negotiations, the real building of mishpat-justice and shalom-peace must happen among us, the people—in our families, in our schools, in our respective religious communities, in our barangay neighborhoods, in our municipalities, and in our cities.
Yet mishpat is not the end. There is something more.
As a follower of Jesus, I understand that God integrates chesed—that is, not applying punishment even though we deserve it—into this mishpat system.
And it gets better! In the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth, charis—that is, undeserved favor—has also been integrated, in flesh and blood, into the mishpat system.
Chesed and charis are translated in English as ‘mercy’ and ‘grace.’ (Grace and mercy are the two most important spiritual virtues in Islam and the first recitation in the Qur’an says: “Bismillah ir Rahman ir Rahim.” In the Name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful. The first verse in the Qur’an is always a great starting point of dialogue between Christians and Muslims.)
In Christianity, this is how we can embrace the reality that God is a gracious and merciful God. A true Christian is a person who has experienced, and continues to experience, God’s grace and mercy in Christ. God’s grace and mercy are received conditionally—through the act of repentance. Repentance is turning away from our unjust ways of treating ourselves (through various addictive and self-destructive behaviors) and from our unjust ways of treating others (through oppressive behaviors and systems). But God pursues everyone, with passion and perseverance, and gently invites everyone to repent and submit to God. Hence, I must not reject anyone who is willing to change from unjust ways to just ways of living. For the oppressor who repents, this means relinquishing her or his power and wealth for the just stewardship of the people, and to reintegrating herself or himself into the community as an equal member. Knowing that God is gracious and merciful, we can advocate Restorative Justice with passion and sustaining energy.
Revenge means acting as judge and executor to another party with whom you are in conflict. This is the system of taking an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. This is the cycle of violence that can go on for generations. Whether it is called rido or paghi-higanti, revenge will only escalate violence and increase the suffering of the people. This is why I want to clearly distinguish my actions: Am I motivated by justice or by revenge?
From a Christian perspective, love and justice are two values that must go hand-in-hand in genuine peace-building. Love provides a purifyng, self-emptying, other-orienting processes as one seeks justice. Justice provides workable structures through which a person or a people can practice love.
I’m holding love with my right hand. I’m holding justice with my left hand. I need both of my hands to build peace among conflicting parties within our families, within our religious bodies, within our tribes, within our organizations, within our government, within our people.
These understanding of love and justice are my spiritual energizers that sustain me as one of the many peace-building workers in this beautiful land.