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Tag Archive: Forgiveness

Watchman for the House of Israel

Posted: Tuesday, September 9, 2008 (11:49 pm), by John W Gillis


There is a common thread of real, and very serious, responsibility for neighbor running across all three of this week’s readings.

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Ezek 33:7-9; Rom 13:8-10; Mt 18:15-20

It’s not that common for the second reading to dovetail this nicely with the first reading and the Gospel reading. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but perhaps it bears repeating (even in somewhat oversimplified form). . .

The lectionary cycle for Sunday readings consists of two independent threads of content: the primary thread being a sequential reading of one of the Gospels, and the secondary thread being a sequential reading of one of the New Testament letters – this second thread being what is proclaimed in the second reading. The first reading is not independent, but is chosen specifically to provide Biblical context (from the Old Testament, as a rule) for the Gospel reading. So the first reading and Gospel reading always dovetail, while the second reading is usually pretty tangential to the others. A tangent, however, always has some point of contact, and sometimes, like today, it seems to complete the circle remarkably.

As I get older, I find it harder and harder to reconcile modernity’s obsessive individualism with the worldview of the Bible. The Ezekiel reading is quite straightforward in assigning the prophet responsibility – not for the fate of his people, but for their knowledge of God’s Word. The watchman will have on his hands the blood of those whom he fails to warn of their danger. This could not have been a particularly comforting message to Ezekiel. Yes, they are responsible for themselves, but so is Ezekiel. It’s hard not to think of Jonah here, and his attempt to flee rather than proclaim God’s Word – which the Lord would have none of. It also recalls, at least obliquely, that marvelous cry of Jeremiah’s pathos from last Sunday’s first reading:

I say to myself, I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more.

But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones;

I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it. (Jer 20:9, NAB)

Looking strictly at the Gospel passage as it stands, it may not be immediately evident how the Ezekiel reading provides Old Testament context for understanding it – the Gospel message almost seems to be about church discipline, and the “proper” means of correcting the wayward. Yet the simple fact that the liturgy directs us to view the passage through the lens of the demands placed on Ezekiel calls for a closer look.

Seen within the context of the entirety of Matthew 18, it becomes a bit clearer how the Gospel passage relates to the Watchman passage. The chapter begins with the disciples asking Jesus who is the greatest in the kingdom, which Jesus answers by holding a humble child. But then Jesus warns of the terrors awaiting any who would cause such a child to sin, and then reasserts, in the parable of the lost sheep, how the Father desires not one of the little ones to be lost. This is the preceding context for our passage, and it could not be clearer that the Lord is reiterating the idea from our Ezekiel passage that the blood of sinners can be – and will be – judged to be on the hands of others.

Then our own passage speaks of how to deal with a brother who sins. Seen in the light of the preceding verses’ focus on the responsibility of some for the spiritual well-being of others – as well as on God’s salvific desire for all – the “process” of correcting the brother begins to look like an actual burden upon the Church, for the sake of reconciling the sinner. Where this differs from the instructions to Ezekiel is in the fact that Christ, as is typical, expands upon the requirements laid out in the Old Testament. No longer is it sufficient for the “watchman” to witness God’s Word to the sinner; he must now be persistent, imploring the help of others in the congregation – even the entire Church.

Implicit in this “correction” is the readiness to forgive – to be reconciled. For what else could it mean to “win over your brother” except to bring him to repentance, and how else could he be brought to repentance by “listening to you” except through an offer of forgiveness? A cynic might counter that he could possibly be shamed, exposed, or verbally beaten into repentance, but how would bringing along “one or two others,” after the fact, make them witnesses of some wrong done in the past? They could only serve as witnesses to your offer of reconciliation, and the repentance – or lack thereof – of the guilty party. The Lord is stressing here the power of Christian community to make Christ present to the world, especially Christ’s forgiveness.

That this is indeed what the Lord is pointing to is, I believe, made clear in next set of verses (closing out chapter 18), which show Peter asking how many times he must forgive his brother, and the Lord responding with the parable of the unforgiving servant – someone blessed with the gift of forgiveness who was severely punished when he did not use his opportunity to extend that gift to another in need of it.

So, having seen how the Gospel passage does, in fact, recapitulate the message of the Ezekiel reading – and even magnify it – we turn finally to the reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans.

“Love is the fulfillment of the law,” Paul tells us, because “love does no evil to the neighbor.” But as we have seen, for those who possess God’s Word (and His forgiveness) the law calls for us to share such gifts with those in need of them, and so doing “evil to the neighbor” must be seen not only as committing sins against them, but sinning against them by omission: failing to warn them of danger, and failing to offer them the freedom of forgiveness. Loving others – even as ourselves – requires putting in the effort to make God present to them in humility, even in the face of the ever-present temptation to pull a Jonah.

Human Rights and the Right to be Human

Posted: Thursday, May 15, 2008 (1:28 am), by John W Gillis


BlogCatalog.com is organizing a campaign today, May 15th, to encourage bloggers around the world to help raise awareness of human rights issues by blogging about them. I think it’s a terrific idea, and was more than happy to sign up to join the campaign.

Human rights is a concept that speaks to the need for each of us to acknowledge the common humanity we share with the rest of the race, and to recognize the duties that we all inherently and inalienably have toward each other in the light of the particular dignity we each possess as human beings. Simply put, we are all brothers and sisters with a responsibility to have each other’s backs.

This is a fine sounding concept, but historically, societies have had an awful lot of difficulty living up to such a vision, even those societies that would embrace it conceptually. Someone always ends up getting the short end of the stick- or worse. We witness the injustice that society’s true prophets have always railed against – and it can take diverse forms, from economic exploitation, to limiting access to society’s goods, to slavery, to some even truly grotesque perversions.

In thinking about what kind of post I would write for this campaign, I thought it would be appropriate to look, not in some far-flung gulag halfway around the world, but in my own backyard; at my own society. I decided that I should write about the most grotesque form of injustice and offense against human rights being practiced right in my own hometown.

As I see it, there are basically two ways of subjectively understanding one’s own participation in the commission of human rights violations. The first would be to know it to be criminal. In this scenario, the culprit is entirely cognizant of the unjust nature of the violation he is inflicting upon his victim(s). He knows that what he is doing is wrong, but he does it anyway, because he has a disordered desire of some sort or another that trumps the weak voice of conscience. This may be, and in all likelihood is, a recurring pattern, but the point is that the violator has a bad conscience: true criminality involves a bad conscience, a guilty conscience, the knowledge of wrongdoing (even if the criminal is indifferent about it).

The other understanding is one that I struggle to come up with a good name for. Our criminal justice system calls it insanity – which may be accurate, but if it is, then I fear the world might be full of mostly insane people. It is the stance that calls injustice by the name of righteousness. It’s the approach that permits people to do terrible things to other human beings with a perfectly clear conscience, or at least with a repressed conscience. It involves a denial of the unjust nature of the offense, which is almost always – and perhaps absolutely always – facilitated by dehumanizing the victims. The violator sees the victim as some lesser kind of creature, as something sub-human. This conscience-evading self-delusion is essentially voluntary insanity.

Voluntary insanity can only thrive in a culture of complicity, because most people cannot hang onto insanity for long in the face of reality. Without a network of co-denial supporting a mutual self-delusion, most people are forced into either a (self-acknowledged) criminal choice for evil, or acceptance of the moral good – however reluctantly accepted. The conscience eventually confronts the will, and either it fails or succeeds to compel a moral response. Either way, there is basically full acknowledgement of responsibility on the part of the individual as a moral agent. People just aren’t usually that stupid, except as part of a mob.

Without meaning to downplay the brutality of criminality, it seems to me that the great violations of human rights are generally of the second order – they are carried out in a culture (or sub-culture) of insanity – if that’s the right word, and I’m not sure it is. There is a dehumanizing of the subjected class, who are then seen as means to the ends of the perpetrators. We end up with second-class citizens, with slave classes, with social groups selected for extermination, with classes of human beings whose very humanity is denied. And at the very, very bottom of human degradation, you end up with abortion. If "Human Rights" means anything at all, it has to begin with the right to be human.

There are many reasons abortion is the greatest social evil and violation of human rights in our day, and even a nominally educated hack like me could go on and on in explicating them, but I just want to make what I think is the very obvious point that abortion is such a great human rights crisis in our age precisely because it is so often not recognized as a human rights violation at all.

Now, that fact usually strikes pro-lifers as entirely bizarre. But that is because pro-lifers recognize that children – human beings – are intentionally killed when abortions are performed. If a pro-lifer were to be materially complicit in an abortion, it would be a criminal act (not, of course, according to current criminal law in the US, which happens to be insane, but according to the subjective distinctions I made above between criminality vs. insanity).

But like any great violation of human rights, the abortion machine is driven primarily by insanity, not by a rational criminality. It is utterly dependent for its perpetuation upon widespread complicity in the self-delusional denial of the simple truth that mothers really do go into abortion clinics to have their children killed (and of course that, in most cases, fathers are either materially complicit, or couldn’t care less – and in other cases are coercively responsible for the killing).

They may come to their senses later – many do, in great grief – but the vast majority of people involved in abortions – either directly or through political support – are engaged in the age-old practice of dehumanizing their victims in order to avoid confronting the reality of the evil they are committing. They are insane, if that’s the right word. Despite the rather obvious reality that each one of them was at one time a fetus, they deny with all their might that a fetus is in the same way one of them, one of us; that a human fetus is a human being.

I’m sure there’s a better word for this than insanity, and I wish I could put my finger on it. Hannah Arendt famously called it banality, but she, whatever her intentions, ended up exploring evil more at its roots – exposing how ordinary people can make horrific moral choices without batting an eyelash – whereas I’m simply trying to show how such a mechanism works in our current historical and social context. Nonetheless, Eichmann in Jerusalem just might be the best background reading available for understanding the moral underpinnings of the modern abortion debacle. I should probably mention that Arendt would likely protest my use of the word insanity in this context. I understand that; it is voluntary,I maintain, though that may not convince her of the word’s usefulness here.

I think this insanity factor is not often grasped by pro-lifers. Hence, they tend to project criminal intent (in my usage of the term) where it doesn’t really exist. They find it unfathomable that people involved in abortion don’t know perfectly well what they are doing. That is understandable, and at a certain level they are right (I do not propose that what I call voluntary insanity mitigates moral culpability), but I think they fail to perceive the power of human self-deception. I recall an adage that goes something like: Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by incompetence. Here’s a case in point I came across very recently.

Out at UCLA, there is a quarterly called The Advocate published by a small group of student pro-life activists that has put considerable effort into exposing the ugly face of the abortion industry. In particular, they have collected some very damaging information on Planned Parenthood locations in various parts of the country.

They are alleging racism on the part of Planned Parenthood, based on undercover operations that repeatedly demonstrated that the organization was more than willing to take donations from individuals who were expressly requesting their contributions be used to kill black babies, because, they complained, there are too many black babies in the world. There are transcripts and actual audio tapes of phone calls available as links from the site – but they are very creepy; not for the faint of heart.

As much as I admire the spunk of these young defenders of the defenseless, I think they are overstating the case against Planned Parenthood – damning audio tapes notwithstanding. What these kids are not grasping is the insanity factor. Those folks at PP are not accepting donations because they are specifically targeted to kill black children (that would be criminal), they just couldn’t care less, because they don’t acknowledge what is going on in their clinics (that is insanity). These workers might be made temporarily uncomfortable by the wacky telephone caller, but they really just want to collect more money to do what they consider their good work, and it doesn’t dawn on them to honestly consider the morality of how they are going about accomplishing the "social improvements" that give their professional lives meaning. Freedom is a powerful elixir, even when it’s sham facade for violence – just ask the French, who remain the standard bearers of the need to discriminate between liberty and lunacy. The bottom line is that these workers have too much at stake in keeping the moral blinders on, and focusing on the dreadful "benefits." Voluntary insanity.

This, then, is the true face of human rights violators. For every sadistic monster who fills our imaginations with righteous indignation, there is a platoon of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmanns: unremarkable folk living respectable work-a-day lives while wallowing in moral infantilism, oblivious of the evil they perpetrate in the name of social convention- a study in banality and cluelessness. Evil is most insidious when it dons the mantle of righteousness.