In 2017, ISIS detonated bombs at two Coptic churches in Egypt during their Palm Sunday services that killed at least 45 worshippers.
The first explosion, which killed 27 people and injured 78, took place in the Mar Girgis church located in the city of Tanta, about 90 km from Cairo. The second explosion took place three hours later at St Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church, killing 18 and wounding 35.
Days after the incident, a journalist spoke to the widow of Mr Naseem Faheem, the Christian guard who was killed at St Mark’s Church. “I’m not angry at the one who did this”, she said, with her children by her side. “I’m telling him, ‘May God forgive you, and we also forgive you. Believe me, we forgive you.’ ”
Mr Amir Adeed, arguably the most prominent talk show host in Egypt, was stunned when he heard what the widow said. “How great is this forgiveness you have!” Amir exclaimed, his voice cracking. “If it were my father, I could never say this. But this is their faith and religious conviction.”
Naseem’s humble widow embodies and so profoundly exemplifies that radical self-forgetting love that the Bible calls agape.
There are a number of passages in Scripture with the injunction for Christians to love their neighbours, including their enemies:
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” (Luke 6:27-28, NIV)
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” (Romans 12:14)
“Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing…” (1 Peter 3:9, NIV)
Agape is a difficult love. It calls us to do something that clearly goes against our inclinations. By calling us to love our enemies, the very people who hate us and who have either done us harm or wish to do so, agape stretches human love beyond its limits.
The American Catholic social activist Dorothy Day, who has poured out her life to serve the poor and disenfranchised, confronts the impossible possibility of such love with undisguised honesty.
“All men are brothers,” she wrote, “but how to love your brother or sister when they are sunk in ugliness, foulness, and degradation, so that all the senses are affronted? How to love when the adversary shows a face to you of implacable hatred, or just cold loathing?”
The command to love our enemies is a call to love in the way God loves. In Paul’s epistle to the Romans, he tells us that while we were sinners (i.e., God’s enemies – see Romans 5:10), God showed His love through the sacrificial death of Christ (Romans 5:8). On the cross of Calvary, Jesus prayed that God the Father would forgive the people who tortured and crucified Him (Luke 23:34).
Thus, in loving an adversary who emanates only “implacable hated” or “cold loathing”, we reflect in our lives the very ‘agapic’ love of God.
Approached from another angle, in loving others in this way, we become more human, for to be human is to be the bearer of the image and likeness of God.
Following the approach exemplified by Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Dorothy suggests that we could begin to love in this way by seeing Jesus in the other. “Jesus is disguised and masked in the midst of men, hidden among the poor, among the sick, among the prisoners, among strangers,” she wrote, no doubt with Matthew 25:35 in mind.
But decades of selfless service to the poor and marginalised have disabused Dorothy of all puerile idealism. ‘Agapic’ love is never easy, and very often she feels that her “love is too small”.
But Dorothy recognises that the Bible commands such love, and obedience requires nothing less than a strenuous act of will. In her book, On Pilgrimage, she put this again in manifest honesty: “If you will to love someone, you soon do… It depends on how hard you try.”
For Dorothy – as it should be for all Christians – loving our neighbour is not an option for those who have themselves received the forgiveness and love of God. It is a responsibility.