Reckless Love by Rev. Richard Hasselbach, Ph.D
Cornelia ten Boom inherited her father Casper’s passion for watchmaking: she was the first woman licensed as a watchmaker in the Netherlands and joined him working. Like her father she was also a pious Christian committed to living a faith filled life. They were active in their local Dutch Reformed Church. Caspar, Corrie, and Corrie’s sister Betsy lived a quiet life above their store in Haarlem.
On May 10, 1940 world events interrupted the ten Boom’s quiet life when Adolph Hitler’s troops invaded the Netherlands. Dutch troops put up a brief but valiant resistance but were no match fo Hitler’s armies. Six days after the invasion began the Dutch surrendered and their country was occupied by Nazi Germany.
Not long after the invasion a frightened woman arrived at the ten Boom’s shop: she was Jewish. She begged Caspar for help. “It is an honor,” he told her, “to help one of God’s Chosen people.” After her others came: Jews; the handicapped; and resistance fighters on the run. All found welcome and help with the ten Booms.
For four years Casper’s shop was a place of refuge and safety for those hunted by the Nazi’s. Then, in 1944, because of a tip, the Gestapo raided Casper’s shop, searched his home and arrested him, Corrie, and Betsy and some others. Casper died in custody 8 days later.
Betsy and Corrie were sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp where they were humiliated, brutalized, and dehumanized in unspeakable ways. Betsy died in the camp on December 16, 1944. Due to a clerical error, though, Corrie was released shortly after Betsy’s death and just before all the women at the camp were exterminated.
After the war she tried to realize a dream of helping the world to heal after the horrors of the war. She began to speak widely about God’s amazing, unconditional love: “when you repent it is as if he takes your sin and throws into the deepest sea.” She even went to Germany to bring the healing message of God’s love.
Corrie had just finished speaking in a church in Munich when she saw him, dressed in a grey overcoat with a brown fedora hat, walking toward her. She recognized him and could picture him in his grey SS uniform with the peaked had emblazons with skull and crossbones, carrying a whip. He was one of the guards at Ravensbruck who had been so cruel to her sister and her. Corrie’s blood went cold: she was face to face with her old enemy.
Perhaps at that moment Corrie remembered the words of Jesus recorded in Luke’s Gospel: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who abuse you.” These words are easy to say after so many years of reading them in the Gospel, but they are hard words to live by. Joseph Campbell calls this teaching of Jesus the “high point of ethical teaching” in all of world history. No ethical teacher has demanded as much.
We have trivialized the concept of hatred by accusing too many of hatefulness when no hatred was implied or intended. People who disagree with us are not hateful, they simply have a different point of view. Real h is virulent; it wills and does harm to its objects in personal and vindictive ways. In the face of this kind of malevolence Jesus commands his disciples: “love your enemy.”
The Greek word that Luke uses here for love is agape: it means selfless love that looks for no concession or return. Agapic love not an emotion: it is love choice to think and act in a compassionate and merciful way. We do not “feel” this kind of love, we choose it. When we love agapically we do not, and often can not, approve of what our enemy does or thinks, but we wish for and pray for his or her best interest; and we do nothing to harm or retaliate against them.
While Campbell calls this the high point of world ethical teaching, Jesus is not giving us an ethical maxim here. We must act this way because we are “children of the Most High,” who is “kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” When we love our enemies we are mirroring and giving witness to the love of God himself, and when we do that we make the Kingdom of the merciful and compassionate God visible and show the world the character of the God. In our love for “the ungrateful and the wicked” God’s promised future of mercy and love breaks into the world. The Kingdom comes!
Corrie ten Boom stood face to face with her enemy: the former guard and the former prisoner. He confided in her that he had been a guard at Ravensbruck (he had no recollection of her or of her sister being there as prisoners). Since the end of the war, he told her, he had become a Christian and he knew that God had forgiven him for all his cruelty and thrown his sins “in the deepest sea.” “I would like to hear it from you, madam, will you also forgive me?” He then extended his hand to her.
She prayed for strength and help, knowing that love is a choice. Slowly and hesitantly she took his hand in hers. Here’s how she describes what happened next:
An incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. ‘I forgive you, brother,’ I cried, ‘with all my heart.’ ... I have never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.’
When we love your enemies, Jesus tells us, our reward is great: we will be filled with God’s own joy, and, in this love, his Kingdom comes and his will is done on earth even as it is in heaven.