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Father Richard Kunst: Yes, Jesus really means we should pray for our enemies

I am an absolute certifiable news junkie, and I always have been. I do not watch a lot of TV, but when I do it is almost always the news, and from various outlets.

On rare occasions, a particular news story will really have an impact on me. With no warning at all, sometimes a news story will really stick with me and even affect me emotionally. This has happened recently with the Otto Warmbier story, the young college student.

Father Richard Kunst
Father Richard Kunst

You may recall that Warmbier was on a group trip to North Korea when he was arrested at the airport after having tampered with or stolen (it is not fully known) a pro-North Korean poster from the hotel where he was staying.

The image of Warmbier wearing his white blazer, begging and crying for help and forgiveness, is hard to get out of our collective mind. The young college student was put on trial for an hour and then sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in one of North Korea’s prisons. Then the excitement came in mid-June that the college student was being released by his North Korean captors, only for us to hear the very next day that he was in a coma due to the brutal treatment he received in prison, and that he had been in the state of coma for nearly the entire time he was being held.

Finally, on June 19, it took my breath away when it was reported that Otto had died from his brain injuries.

Otto Warmbier’s father had been an effective spokesman during this whole ordeal, often wearing the same white blazer his son wore while on trial. The elder Warmbier showed himself to be poised and articulate.

But now here is the point I want to make with this all-around terrible story: Suppose Otto’s father, after the death of his son, asked to have a candlelight service organized, not for his son, but for his son’s captors. Suppose Mr. Warmbier asked the public to gather at such a service to pray for the health and well-being of his captors and prison guards. Would anyone go to that service?

The likely response would be to think that the elder Warmbier had lost his sense of right thinking in the midst of his great grief, but such is the expectation of Jesus Christ! Many people think that Jesus was simply a loving and accepting person, and that it is the church that made up all the challenging and even “oppressive” rules and regulations.

Anyone who thinks that to be the case has never read the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus makes it clear that there is a big difference between “Minnesota Nice” and being a faithful Christian.

The very day after news broke of Warmbier’s death, Tuesday of the 11th week of Ordinary Time, the Gospel of the day had Jesus saying, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” It is important to note that Jesus did not say to pray for the conversion of those who hate and persecute you, he simply told us to pray for them. The implication is to pray for their happiness and well-being.

What would seem to be an unimaginable thing for the Warmbier family to do in organizing a candlelight vigil for the prison guards is not unimaginable, it’s Christian. It is what Jesus teaches and even expects.

How might this apply to us? We may not personally be persecuted, but we all have people who do not like us, and we all have people in our lives that we do not particularly like either. Jesus tells us to pray for those people. And not for their conversion — we might be the ones who are in need of conversion. Jesus wants us to pray for these people’s well-being.

“Jesus said to his disciples: You have heard that it was said, you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Heavenly Father” (Matthew 5:43).

Let us keep Otto Warmbier and his family in our prayers, but let us also keep the prison guards who tortured him in our prayers too. It may be tough to do that, but it is Christian to do that.

Father Richard Kunst is pastor of St. John the Evangelist in Duluth and St. Joseph in Gnesen. Reach him at [email protected]