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Thomas Gertler SJ

How I look at the world

A Christian testimony


Preliminary remark

I have been ruminating upon the following text for a number years. Originally I was confronted with the question of how Jesus understood and overcame his own death. This topic was suggested to me in a seminar with Professor Heinz Schürmann. Illuminating for me were Jesus' words about loving one's enemy (Mt 6:43-48; Lk 6:27-36). These became the subject of an essay I had to write for the seminar. It opened up for me Jesus' view of God, of the world and of man; how he realized the meaning of life and the path to salvation. For many years this text has stayed with me. It was at the centre of Spiritual Exercises I conducted as well as of the lectures I give on the 'Introduction into Christian Theology'. I wrote it in the present form back in the 1980s when an East German ecumenical group to which I belonged was concerned with the question of how we can bear witness of our Christian faith under today's conditions.

In simple and direct language it bears witness to the centre of Christian faith. It hopes not only to engage the intellect, but also to affect the heart. Because it bears witness, it does not speak so much in the impersonal form ("one"), as in the subjective "I" and "we"


A Poem from Bertolt Brecht and Jesus' Word 'Love your Enemy'

Between the World Wars Bertolt Brecht wrote a poem which describes and interprets our reality in images that are quite brutal. It focuses above all at the reality of that time, but it attempts to be generally valid, and is also today still comprehensible.

About the Compliance of Nature{1}

Oh, the jug with the foaming milk comes also
Still to the toothless slavering mouth of the old man.
Oh, at the fleeing butcher's leg
Still is rubbing the dog craving for love.

Oh, to the man who abuses the child behind the village
elm trees with beautiful and shady leaves still incline.
And the blind, friendly dust recommends
your bloody traces, you murderers, to our forgetting.

So the wind also mixes the cries of sinking boats
with the whispering of the foliage inside the country
And that the syphilitic stranger might see the merry legs
it lifts politely the lapel of the farm-girl's poor garb.

And it covers the deep, voluptuous 'you' of a woman at night
The crying of the frightened four years old child in the corner of the room.
And into the hand which struck the child, the apple pushes itself
coaxingly from the harvest of the annually more sumptuously growing tree.

Oh, how the clear eye of the child shines when the father
Forces the head of the ox to the ground and the knife bounds up!
And how the bosoms of the women heave, on which once children hung,
When through the village the warlike march of the maneuver band is ringing.

Oh, our mothers are purchasable, our sons throw themselves away
Because looking out for an isle is the crew of the fragile barge!
To which it is enough in the world that the dying is fighting to experience yet
The daybreak still, and still the cock's third crowing.


Brecht complains that this world is unjust. It is compliant as a prostitute is compliant: surrendering without question. It has no concern with good or evil. The dog should have bitten the murderer; the elm tree should have thrown off its foliage in order to make the evil clear to everyone. Further: the wind should have amplified the cries for help and carried them great distances; the apple should have turned to stone when the criminal bit into it. But no, the apple tastes just as good to him as it does to me.

We are compliant because the world is at it is; we do not ask about good and evil. We sell ourselves, as the poem says. We are pleased with the act of violence. We laugh cynically when the dying man is told by a cock on the third crow that he is a traitor like St Peter and no longer wants to know Jesus at the moment of danger.

We are the way we are because nature is the way it is.

In the Bible there are words of Jesus that remind us of such sentiments, and yet are completely different. Jesus also notices that the sun shines on everyone, good or bad. Air is given to all human beings to breathe, regardless of who or how they are. The earth supports all manner of beings, as varied as they might be. But for Jesus these facts carry a different meaning than they do for Brecht. For Him they do signal meaninglessness, injustice and indifference; rather they express God's unfathomable love -- visible for everyone. But let us read first those words. In them we see a lot about Jesus: how he understands God, how he sees the world, how he sees himself, what he believes his disciples capable of, and how human beings find a way to freedom.


Mt 5,43-48

43 You have heard that one said:
You are to love your neighbour and to hate your enemy.

44 But I say you: Love your enemies
and pray for those who pursue you,

45 that you become children of your heavenly father;
because he lets shine his sun over bad and good people
and lets rain on just and unjust people.

46 If you love only those who love you,
which reward can you expect for that?
Do not also the publicans the same?

47 And if you are friendly to your brothers only,
which special deed have you done thereby?
Do not the heathens too do that?

48 Therefore you ought to be perfect,
as your father in heaven is perfect. {2}


Jesus sees the same facts as Brecht, but he interprets them differently. He sees that the sun shines on everyone, whether good or bad, and that blessed rain falls on the just and unjust. The same fact that makes Brecht despair in the possibility of justice or faithfulness is for Jesus a sign of the Father's inexhaustible love. This same fact makes Jesus good to the unjust and the wicked, and to bring them the love of God. Would it not be wonderful to be able to look at the world and meditate as Jesus did; to peer so deeply into reality that we see through to the core, to the goodness and kindness of God, to his patience and love?

It is a fact that faith changes the way we interpret the world. Those who believe as Jesus believed are able to experience and accept God's love and his 'Yes' to us in the most usual things in the shining sun, the falling rain, the air we breathe. Can I not, with equal justification, see goodness, patience, and affection in a world that Brecht viewed as corrupt and indifferent? The fact that the sun rises over the good and the bad, and that there is a blessed rain for the just and unjust, is susceptible to multiple interpretations. Brecht's poem is an interpretation which presupposes that the world has no meaning.


What about God's justice?

One might wonder: if it is true that God is good to the unjust and wicked, should I not then protest against that? If God does not punish the wicked, whom then does he punish? If even God does not know justice, who does? Should not the earth at least open up and devour perpetrators of flagrant injustice? Do we not precisely as believers have to take seriously Brecht's anger and disappointment? Are the things said by Jesus theologically defensible?

I think it is very important that we see the urgency of these questions. I must admit that I think and feel as Brecht does. I am disappointed by the world. And I would find it more just if evildoers were not suffered but exterminated.

But if that really happened, then what would my situation be? Would I still be permitted to continue walking upon this planet? Shouldn't the earth long since have devoured me? When I stop looking at all those other evildoers and instead look at myself then my view changes. And that is basically what is at stake here: to change my line of vision. Not to fixate on the wickedness of others, but to see the beam in my own eye, at long last to notice the need for salvation in my own life.

Actually Brecht's poem is exoneration and apology. In his heart Brecht sees himself as forgiven for being a traitor and evildoer. He is these things only because that's the way nature is. He passes destructive judgement onto the world because he sees himself neither as guilty as other human beings, nor as the compliant, indifferent world of nature. If he is guilty at all, then that is because the world is so constituted. That God can also be good to the wicked infuriates all who see themselves as just and good or in any case better and more just. This is just what Jesus experienced in His own life. The fact that He was good to evildoers made all those furious and hateful who saw themselves as good. It was the paradoxical experience of Jesus that his kindness toward the evil and the base made the "good" and "just" evil and base. Or should one say rather: it brought out the hidden wickedness and meanness of the good, while the evildoers and mean people were converted by Jesus's kindness and became good? More precisely: the message that God loves the wicked and unjust is good news only for those who know that they are unjust and wicked, and that it would be only just if the earth no longer supported them. For such people this is an occasion to be converted. Think of the story of the prodigal son and the merciful father (Lk 15). The prodigal son returned because he was reminded of the kindness of his father. The "good and well-behaved" son, who served the father faithfully and stayed home became angry because the father was pleased at the return of his lost brother: clasping him in his arms, and arranging a feast for him. His envy of the run away proved irrepressible, for he too would have liked to squander his father's money on sinful living. Such often is the anger of the righteous in our own day: "That one drives the big Mercedes, that one has an attractive house, and I who am honest I ..." It becomes obvious that our heart has the same wrong yardstick for happiness as the wicked, whom we find so contemptible.


God's Liberating Love

But why does God love in this way, why does He not differentiate between the good and bad? One reason is given by Paul who states that there are no good and just people (Rom 3, and Ps 14). Jesus too says: "Nobody is good except God, the one" (Mk 10.18). And without his mercy we are all lost. All of us are sinful. We are not good in ourselves, and any good that we do is a gift. Those who do the most good know this the best: they proclaim that if they are good that is because others have been good to them.

We all need this gratuitous love of God. In view of the history of each human life one might also say: All our love is only a reaction to experienced love. On our own we are unable to love and be good. These facts are embedded in the basic structures of this world. I exist only because two human beings loved each other, and then loved and accepted me. This act of love precedes my own existence. I know what love and kindness are only because my parents gave them to me. And for my parents it was the same with their parents. Woe to people who do not experience love in this way. They feel a hole. Sensing that something is missing they try to fill it: with food or drink or possessions; with sex, power, and violence. And until they have experienced a notion of love they will not know what they are missing.

God's love and our love differ. Our love is only an answer, only re-active, but God's love is active, flowing out of itself. It has no bottom and it has no cause. It is not justified by our kindness or goodness. Perhaps as children we were told that God would love us only if we are good, but that is wrong: God loves us because we are His creatures. Or more accurately: we exist because He loves us. God's love is bottomless because it is inexhaustible. It remains faithful to me, and I can always return to it. Just as the prodigal son did.

This bottomless love is the only love that can cause us human beings to pry open our armour of hatred and denial, of disappointment and despair. Only it can break the vicious circle of evil and end the "curse of the evil deed which will go on begetting new evil" (Schiller). Only it produces surplus, something more than mere justice. Only God takes the first step to reconciliation, no longer yelling for retaliation. That is always the case. If only human justice applies, then everything is drawn into a maelstrom of "eye for eye and tooth for tooth" and it is destroyed.

That love of God is not violent of itself. It respects others' freedom. It does not disarm by force but by love, by unexpected kindness. It is new and creative, not normal or usual. Forgiveness is that which is unexpected. What is to be expected are revenge and retaliation. For proof we need only look to the Near East. Forgiveness is not yielding or weak, but creates new possibilities. Hidden within God's bottomless love is creative power, making possible new relations, new social intercourse. This love is not God's weakness but his strength. It says the truth about us and makes us free. Without mercy and forgiveness all that remains at the end as Brecht might claim is the cockcrow, revealing us as cowardly traitors and not the loving expression of Jesus, which makes us weep and reverse course as Peter did (Lk 22:60-62). That then is the meaning of God's bottomless love: to give up hatred, and to believe in love.


Learn to Love like God

That is how Jesus saw God. That is his theology. And he sees this law of gratuitous love -- which loves before being loved as inherent in the structures of this world. This world carries and nurtures me; it tastes good, even when I am bad. That is his "world view". Should that not be reason enough for me to be good?

Jesus sees God's love of enemies at work in this world, a love that gives itself without exception and without condition to everyone. He acts this way as well: He is also kind to those who are not good and just and He ministers to those for whom it is most difficult to believe in God's kindness the poor, the sick, those who are pushed to the margins of society, the despised. In Christ's day (and often today) that last group included children and women. Jesus lives God's love of enemies, and that was especially true on the cross. There His love becomes most like His father's love: it pours out endlessly and it redeems.

Whoever is reached by this love can begin loving like God. That is the incredible meaning of the command to love one's enemy. Jesus trusts his disciples to love like God; He trusts us to act like God, in the same way that He is the image of the Father's love.

We all know that those who love are happy. Happiness on earth indeed, heaven on earth is not simply to be loved, but to love, to say yes and to say thank you, and not only as lovers or as happy parents. According to Jesus we only really love when we love our enemies, when our love is caused not by beauty or kindness, but rather by mercy and forgiveness and becomes love that brings new love into the world.

God sets us on this way, and it is the way to heaven, the way to him and the way to each other. This is what Christians call salvation, and it could be nothing else. It is the way that we become free of selfishness, and it is the way that we infect others, even if the infection can be lethal. But how else can the world be saved, if not by people who can love like Jesus? What else might heaven be than a place where we are aglow with that love not singed but set ablaze, so that everything is consumed.


What about punishment for evil?

Which view of the world is the correct one, that of Brecht or that of Jesus? It might seem that an answer to this question is the individual decision of each person, a purely academic exercise, without further consequences. We all decide for ourselves which of these two views is more believable.

That is not the case. What the consequences are for those who follow Jesus's world view has been already shown. It is comforting and enchanting on the one hand, because it frees us from despair about ourselves and the world and brings us love. But it is also demands the consequences that love had for Jesus: sacrifice of one's life for a broken world. Hence Brecht's interpretation of the world might seem the simpler one. Through emphasis on all the bad experiences we have with the world, it permits withdrawal.

But let us not be deceived: For those who accept Brecht's view the world darkens. Contrary to what one might think, his view is not realistic, but rather one-eyed. The more we see the world as Brecht does, the blinder we become. And that is not all: my decision for that negative view strengthens the negative reality, not so much through my perceptions as through my actions. I do not merely see evil, I do it. Brecht sees this as well, but he cannot extricate himself. Not God punishes evil, rather, evil punishes itself. Whoever deceives not only denies others the truth, but comes to distrust himself ever more and ever more deeply. And because he deceives he is certain that others are deceiving him. In the end there is no truth. This is a sickness of dictatorships. They trust no one and become increasingly blind to the truth about themselves. Such a view of the world will always be thwarted at the end by the world and its truth. Consequently there is justice. And it catches up with the evildoers: not because God punishes them, but because they do it to themselves. Evil avenges itself. Whoever acts inhumanly destroys his own humanity and become dead to himself, even if outwardly he seems rich and healthy. And in the exact same way good is its own reward. Those who do good become better human beings. Those who submit to truth will see the truth ever more clearly, and the truth will set them free. This law is contained in the nature of things. But I only see this if I choose to: and build my live on this law, acting accordingly.

How indeed do I look at the world?


{1} From: Bertolt Brechts Hauspostille, in: Die Gedichte von Bertolt Brecht in einem Band, Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 7. Edit. 1993, 194f.

{2} St Luke's parallel text reads: Lk 6:35: But you are to love your enemies, and to do good, and are to borrow, even where you can expect nothing for it. Then your reward will be large, and you will be called sons of the Highest, because he too is kind to the wicked and ungrateful. 36 Be merciful as it is also your father.


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