Tag Archives: justice

Lamentation

Yet I will remember the covenant I made with you when you were young;
I will set up an everlasting covenant with you,
that you may remember and be covered with confusion,
and that you may be utterly silenced for shame
when I pardon you for all you have done, says the Lord GOD.
—Ezekiel 16:60–63

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Matthias Grünewald, Lamentation of Christ (detail) / PD-US

This reading from Ezekiel reminds me of a recent video from Fr. Robert Barron, which is definitely worth a watch: Bishop Barron on Ezekiel and the Sex Abuse Crisis. Ezekiel wrote of the corruption within the holy city of Jerusalem and its cleansing through avengers from the North. Today, the “holy city” of the Church has fallen into corruption, and it too needs to be cleansed, to endure the painful siege of repentance. God will not abandon His covenant with us. But if we are to be cleansed, we must allow Him to show us the weight of our sin; we must be willing to feel our shame and sorrow.

It has been sobering to read reports of the horrific abuse that has occurred within the Church and the deep corruption that kept it hidden for years. As American Catholics, we are mourning over these unthinkable crimes and trying to figure out how we can possibly move forward through this mess.

The Gospel reading prior to this spoke of forgiveness, which may seem untimely at the moment. The Gospel asks us to forgive, but often we don’t understand the meaning of true forgiveness. Forgiveness does not mean making excuses for the person who wronged you or brushing it under the rug. That’s not forgiveness; it’s denial. True forgiveness must acknowledge the sin and yet refuse to feed it. A person who forgives renounces any claim toward revenge and resists the tendency to harbor resentment. It is a daily decision, and it is not an easy one. But it is the only way that we can stop the cycle of sin and open our hearts to mercy. A truly forgiving heart is not indifferent to injustice; it is all the more deeply hurt by it, since it refuses to dehumanize either the victim or the perpetrator. It sees the tragedy of an innocent life altered irrevocably; it sees those individuals who used their God-given will for evil. And it resolves to do better.

I am reminded of the story of St. Maria Goretti and her murderer/attempted rapist, Alessandro Serenelli. Now, this is not a typical story—we should not go around assuming that all murderers and rapists will be reformed by our prayers and can be later welcomed into our families. But it is in fact what happened in the case of Alessandro Serenelli, incredible though it may seem. Though Alessandro was bitterly unrepentant for the first few years after Maria’s death, he experienced a profound conversion of heart after experiencing a vision of Maria in which she forgave him. He was moved to weep for his sins for the first time, and he began the process of true repentance. Due to Maria’s miraculous intercession (again, possible only through the grace of God and not by human means), he was completely reformed and eventually became an adopted son of Maria’s mother.

While Alessandro clung to his pride and callously denied his guilt, the seeds of sin and evil continued to fester within him. Only when he realized the depth of his sin and entered into a living purgatory of shame and regret was his heart opened to receive God’s mercy. This step was crucial: acknowledgment of wrongdoing, grief over what has been tainted and destroyed, ownership of one’s sinfulness. Unless we confront the realities of our sins and face our deepest wounds, we will never be able to receive healing. And Alessandro’s revelation of guilt—and thus his pathway to forgiveness—was made possible because of Maria’s purity and steadfast prayer.

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Alvar Cawén, Pietà / PD-US

As faithful Catholics who are shocked, saddened, and heartbroken over the recent scandals within the heart of our Church, we are called to step up and be the solution, to challenge the Church to rise up to her sacred calling. Now is the time for prayer and fasting. We will expect from the Church a higher standard, and we will start by being saints. The purification of the Church will begin with the purification of our own souls, by a deep desire for holiness and purity throughout every aspect of our lives. Jesus and Mary weep alongside us at these crimes. I’ve been encouraged by the discussion among young, faithful Catholics of the many ways in which we can carry this out, and I’ve compiled a list of resources here.

I stay with the Church because her teachings proclaim the dignity of the human person, even as some of those who represent her have trampled upon human dignity through objectification and abuse. I pray that we allow the light of truth to overcome the darkness, so that everything hidden will be exposed to the light. The truth of our own dignity and worth—and indeed that of our children—must prevail against the shadows.

Originally published at Frassati Reflections.

Mercy, Justice and Grace in “Suits”

Suits is a popular TV show about slick lawyers who are rude, nasty and deceitful while bending, skirting, or straight-up breaking the law and playing interminable office politics, and it may be the last place one would expect lessons in mercy, justice and grace, but as St. Augustine says, where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.

[Warning: spoilers ahead]

Mike Ross is a bike messenger and drug dealer who was expelled from high school for giving his best friend Trevor the answers to a math test, which his friend sold to a girl who happened to be the dean’s daughter, leading to the dean’s dismissal. While evading the police, Mike stumbles in upon a job interview for law graduates, and is hired by Harvey Spector despite his lack of a law degree, after demonstrating his exceptional eidetic memory and knowledge of the law – Mike had also been making a living sitting the LSATS for other people. This incredible opportunity enables Mike to fulfill his dream of becoming a lawyer, which was derailed by the incident with Trevor as he had had to give up his acceptance to Harvard law.

To the associates and partners of the firm Pearson Hardman, their jobs are not just jobs, but become their entire purpose for living, their telos and identity. Jessica Pearson tells Harvey that when he joins the firm, he’s joining a family. The lawyers are married to their work, and this theme is played out over and over in hilarious and heartbreaking ways, as the language and norms of courtship are applied to their work relationships. Mike desists from destroying a dodgy opposing lawyer’s career, because that man pleads with him that being a lawyer is who he is, and all he has left after losing his family following the financially calamitous loss of a massive suit.

In more somber tones, Suits also shows how damaging it is to familial bonds when one becomes completely given over to one’s chosen career. Jessica’s husband divorces her, and Harvey’s mother repeatedly cheats on his father, who is often away as a traveling musician.

The show also explores how one’s childhood and family experiences can continue to play out throughout one’s life, especially when one is deeply wounded. Harvey seems to have everything go his way, and appears to be invincible and suave, fixing everything that goes wrong. But he is unable to sustain a romantic relationship, and although he and his secretary Donna have fancied each other for twelve years, he does not allow himself to truly love her and give himself to her. His inability to be vulnerable and trust others is traced back to his mother’s infidelity. We see how the sins of a parent can mar the child for life, damaging his future relationships.

As for Mike, he lost his parents in a car crash when he was twelve, and he is unable to forgive the lawyer who convinced his grandmother to accept a settlement. His anger bubbling from this ingrained sense of injustice is a key motivation in his practice of the law; he jumps at chances to defend the underdog. Yet, his anger and ambition also blinds him, and he handles 88 cases despite his lack of qualifications. That is something like an invalidly-ordained priest celebrating the sacraments – everything he touches is invalid. Despite good intentions, when the means are flawed, the consequences can be dire.

In Season 5, this lie blows up in Mike’s face when he is turned in for conspiracy to commit fraud, just after resigning following a soul-searching talk with his old school chaplain, Father Walker. We are on tenterhooks while he navigates the court case – will another incredible stroke of luck save him?

Mike ends up in prison after a self-sacrificial act to save his superiors’ skins, but though things look dire, his presence enables him to work for the freedom of his unjustly-jailed cellmate. It is terrifying to watch Mike deal with the resident murderous big bully, but Harvey continues to have his back, pulling all sorts of strings to get Mike out of jail.

Meanwhile, as Jessica faces the loss of her firm and all she has worked for, her romantic interest Jeff Malone reflects that sometimes God allows unpleasant things to happen, for a greater good. Indeed, this decimation of her firm allows Jessica to reevaluate her priorities in life, opening her mind to the possibility that there may be more to life than work.

Suits provides a nail-biting examination of moral issues and the motivations which drive people to cheat, lie and blackmail while trying to secure that nebulous thing called justice. It is a riveting show which deals honestly with questions of truth and the factors surrounding human relationships, bound by die-hard loyalty but also fractured by pain and fear. When viewed through the prism of divine providence working through the messy lives of humans, it demonstrates how good can eventually be drawn from the consequences of bad choices, although each character pays a price for their misdeeds.

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There is no such thing as a Christian doormat

There is a very insidious theological idea around, especially among conscientious Christians who dearly desire to love Jesus and follow His teachings, that somehow, Our Lord’s injunction in the Sermon of the Mount to “turn the other cheek” and His shameful death on the cross means that to be a true follower of Jesus, one has a duty to accept without resistance injustice being done to oneself.

That is heresy of the most pernicious kind.Jesus Falls beneath the Cross – Edward Arthur Fellowes Prynne, 1919 St Stephen’s House, University of Oxford

The reason for Our Lord accepting an unjust death on the cross is so as to be able to disable injustice permanently and to establish true justice. To reconcile man to God as the scriptures would say.

He did not accept death on the cross for injustice’ sake but for the sake of justice.

If that is the case, then these parables about turning the other cheek take on a very different light. One accepts the unjust blow of the aggressor and offers the other cheek not so that he can be a doormat, but because that in itself is a form of resistance to injustice.

It is a form of resistance, because others watching will disbelieve the aggressor’s claim to the moral high ground.

It is a form of resistance, because the aggressor, if his conscience has not been totally killed, will hopefully recoil in horror at what he has just done.

It is a form of resistance, because the victim has empowered himself and established the moral high ground, by a conscious act of the will, not to even retaliate by force in self-defense, not because that’s not his right, but because he seeks an eschatological hope, a permanent disablement of violence of any sort.

So I urge my fellow Christians, to remember this. “Doormatism” or “Christian masochism” is a heresy.

It is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

If you want to truly follow Christ, fighting against injustice (whether done to yourself or to others) by just means is your duty.

And the non-violent teachings of Jesus are simply another and very noble way to establish God’s reign on earth and in your own life.

An essential part of God’s reign is that enemies can be reconciled to each other. That can only happen when justice is first established.

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Image: Jesus Falls beneath the Cross – Edward Arthur Fellowes Prynne, 1919.
St. Stephen’s House, University of Oxford (via Signum-Crucis)

The Archived Life: On Scrapbooking, Catholic Liturgy, and Transitional Justice

By guest writer Melvyn Foo.

On all my holidays this year, my routine when I return to our accommodation is the same. I transfer the photos from my camera’s SD card to my laptop, I edit and select them, and then I upload them to Bonjournal1 and complete my travel log.

In the course of this most recent trip, I have come to call this routine ‘reaping the harvest’. By corollary, then, the day’s experiences are the seeds sown, the harvest of which are the memories that I immortalise in the web.

I have been asked repeatedly why I am so obsessive about archiving my life. I sometimes reply, “The unarchived life is not worth living.”

Remove the double negatives, rearrange, and you get something less tongue-in-cheek and more defensible: life is worth archiving.

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Scrapbooking is the epitome of archiving memories. You choose the happy snapshots, you write nice words, and you frame everything in a pretty page – exactly how you would like to remember those moments.

I am not good at scrapbooking. I took a course years ago, and since then, I have concluded that I have no natural talent for it. I take hours to do what the artsy girls can do in minutes (e.g. choosing paper). I work laboriously (e.g. take exact dimensions) to do what they do by sheer guesstimation. I use science (e.g. rule of thirds, triangulation) to do what they do by feel. (I have since learnt that you can’t really plan every detail out, so you just have to make decisions and improvise along the way. This works sometimes, and sometimes it doesn’t. After all, just like jazz, improvisation requires talent, which I lack.)

It does not help that I have color disorder.

Despite my difficulties, I am still drawn to scrapbooking. I have a drawer full of materials, I have a Paper Market membership card (which may have expired), and I scrapbook a cover page for each year’s journal (which comprises largely of blogposts that I compile and print out).

Why? Why is the past – not just knowing what actually happened but remembering what happened – so important?

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An answer may be found in an unlikeliest of places: Catholic liturgy.

In every Mass, Catholics take Jesus’ words literally to “do this,” – i.e. to eat His body and drink His blood – “in remembrance of [Him].”2 This is not just symbolic. The Church holds that the Mass re-presents Jesus’ sacrifice on Golgotha.3 Father Jude had thus alluded in a talk on how there is only one Mass and “one single sacrifice”4 – the one on Golgotha – that we remember and re-present in all our Masses.

This remembrance and re-presentation is called anamnesis, which comprises the heart of the Eucharist.5 The word, sharing a similar etymology with ‘amnesia’, means “a calling to mind, remembrance”.

This word is also used in philosophy and in medicine. In philosophy, it is a Platonic concept which conceives of learning as a rediscovery of knowledge within us from past incarnations. In medicine, it refers to a patient’s medical history which a physician needs to know in order to diagnose and care for that patient.

Regardless of context, the point is the same: when we recall the past, we affect our present and our future. This is the power and the importance of memory.

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Transitional justice is an emerging field which increasingly recognizes the critical importance of memory (alongside the four traditional elements of truth, justice, reparation, and guarantees of non-recurrence). This field studies the various processes by which a community recovers from large-scale human rights abuses. With the hindsight from Rwanda, Timor Leste, the former Yugoslavia, et al., it is now incontrovertible that criminal prosecutions alone, while necessary, are far from sufficient. More is required.

Memorialisation is one such process.

Professor Ariel Dulitzky thus wrote that “[c]ertain standards of the United Nations insist on the duty of remembering, educating about the past and rejecting negations of atrocities. They also highlight the role that archives play in the search of truth and justice, and they are also essential for recovering and building memory.”6

This is not just pure sentimentality. Professor Dulitzky quotes the UN Rapporteur on Truth, Justice, Reparation and Guarantees of Non-recurrence, who says that “[it] does not suffice to acknowledge the suffering and strength of the victims,” and concludes that “ultimately, the challenge for a policy of memory is not building memorials or installing sleepy statues, but creating more fair, egalitarian and democratic societies.”7

Again, the point here is: remembering the past determines the present and charts the course for the future.

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And yet, if all that is required is to recollect objective historical facts, it is surprising that judicial rulings are insufficient. After all, the trial is democracy’s most potent fact-finding procedure. Why is more – in the likes of film, theatre, museums, etc – required?

In 2001, my family and another family got into a bad accident in South Africa. Both families were traveling together in a single vehicle. The tyre burst, the vehicle ran off the road, hit into barbed wire, and flipped a couple of times. We later learnt that the other family’s dad had been thrown out of the vehicle, and the vehicle had crushed his lungs, killing him instantly.

Two years later, they sued my dad, who had been driving the vehicle at the time of the accident. The judgment arising from the suit is reported as Loh Luan Choo Betsy (alias Loh Baby) (administratrix of the estate of Lim Him Long) and others v Foo Wah Jek [2004] SGHC 230; [2005] 1 SLR(R) 64. It is 18 pages long, and it goes through the evidence in detail. It mentions so much.

And yet it mentions so little. It does not mention the red-stained t-shirt that my mum had used to soak up the blood that had welled out when she performed CPR on their dad, which I had included in an essay based on this accident that I wrote in Secondary 4. It also does not mention a detail that I always talk about when I shared about this accident, that is, how fine the sand was, and how it got into my fingernails when I knelt down and clutched at it, praying to the patron saint of hopeless cases St Jude to make this all a dream.

And it does not even ask that most pressing of questions – where was God in all this? The answer becomes more layered as the years pass.

Examining the different processes of truth-finding, history-telling, and formation of collective memory, Professor Chrisje Brants and Professor Katrien Klep conclude: “The legal truth, laid down in the rulings of an international criminal court is, by definition, not open-ended. The verdict of a court is definite and authoritative; in this context, closure, not continued debate about what it has established as the truth, is its one and only purpose – indeed, on this its legitimacy depends. But then, also by definition, its contribution to history-telling, collective memory, and justice for victims is limited indeed.”8

In this regard, the learned writers also point out that “[h]istory and memory change as time goes on, and are never ‘finished.’”9

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Remembering the past, then, is not just a scientific and once-and-for-all endeavor of ascertaining the 5Ws+1H. It is also an art of attributing meaning and finding a narrative in the events that have happened.

Beyond the context of transitional justice, there is a word for this art of dwelling on the past: klexos. And of this artform, the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows echoes: “Maybe we should think of memory itself as a work of art—and a work of art is never finished, only abandoned.”

There are therefore two key elements in klexos: accuracy and meaning.

To speak of accuracy in recording the past is trite. Dates, names, sequence of events – these matter. Research on the fallibility of eye-witness memory highlights the grave consequences when we remember wrongly.

But to think of memory merely as a recording device is misconceived. In Elizabeth Loftus’ TEDtalk on the reliability of memory, she confirms that when we remember, we are not so much playing back what our senses have recorded. Instead, we reconstruct the past.

Beyond the factual data set of what actually happened, we make sense out of our past experiences, we connect the dots, we construct and reconstruct narrative arcs. We infuse an objective timeline with subjective meaning.

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The forms that the archives of our lives can take have evolved with the rise of social media. At the most extreme, Snapchat and Stories inveigh against the very idea of permanence, since the pictures and videos (allegedly) vanish forever after some time. Instagram heralded the prioritization of pictures over words. Twitter limited any expression of thought to 140 characters.

Perhaps it is inaccurate to conceive of these social media initiatives as archival tools, since they seek more to share and to capture the moment rather than to reflect on the past. All through a screen, of course. As one article puts it, “For Generation Z, there is no struggle to make sense of things. There is only the impulse to share.”

But there seems to be a counter-movement arising. Amidst the FLFC-culture of our times, slow journalism is gaining ground. A New Yorker staff writer opined: “We binge on instant knowledge, but we are learning the hazards, and readers are warier than they used to be of nanosecond-interpretations of Supreme Court decisions.” In 2015, The Huffington Post launched Highline,10 a magazine dedicated to running only cover stories based on months of investigations. Even our local newpspaper Today now has a section called the ‘Big Read’,11 which publishes longer and more thoughtful pieces.

While speed, brevity, and the power to grab attention will still remain foremost news values, slow journalism recognizes that readers also hunger for insight, for immersion, and for analysis. And the Web is taking notice.

But prose is not the only or even the best medium to archive, to reflect on, or to just make sense of life.

As a blogger, I am naturally a proponent of longform journaling. But as my Gen Z friend (who studies linguistics) counter-proposes, “Just cuz there r fewer words doesn’t mean we think less.”

Indeed, many of the Gen Z Instagram accounts that I follow are often filled with musings – be it through photos or captions or something in-between like typography – about life. One 20-year-old I know even has a third account (two is common among Gen Z – one ‘main’ account as a curated public persona and one ‘spam’ account for closer friends to follow) dedicated to more introspective posts.

While sheer wit and conviction certainly drive much of the content that Generation Z produces, not everything is simply “big, colorful, and hysterical”. There is depth and maturity too.

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Be it blogging, scrapbooking, or instagramming, a question persists: are we being merely self-indulgent? Archiving the great events or the lives people that have shaped history is uncontroversial. But what of the grain of our own lives, so lost and so insignificant in the sands of time?

Vanity is undoubtedly a temptation, against which the easiest way of resisting is to keep our archives private.

But as Brené Brown says (and the Gen Z instagrammer above quotes), “Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.”

These words resound with those of us who share regularly: we are honest with ourselves, we share with others, not necessarily in that order. To the extent, therefore, that the sharing of our lives intertwine with our pursuit of authenticity, perhaps we should be willing to endure some pretentiousness as the price of knowing ourselves.

For myself, blogging is many things. It is a way to make myself available to others. When people ask me a question about my life, the lazy (though admittedly lesser) alternative to sharing with them in person is to send them a link. It is also a way to make myself available to myself. It is amazingly convenient to have a compendium of my life to refer to at any time, to frame a more articulate sharing, to recall a personal story for a session, or just to remember what I went through before.

Perhaps, most importantly, it is a way for me to make sense of my world. To echo Gaiman, “All too often I write to find out what I think about a subject, not because I already know.”12

When my dad and I got into another bad accident in August 2014, I wrote about how I had lost faith in miracles. In September, I wrote about how I had to content with finding God in the ordinary, if I could not find Him in the extraordinary. In July 2015, I wrote again, but this time about how the accident formed part of a period of desolation, which was in turn, part of a larger narrative arc of learning to trust God.

The archive of my life thus becomes a lens through which I see the world. And if we can see the world in our grain of sand, we can move from klexos to sonder, to the humility of realizing that every person’s grain of life is as rich and as varied as our own.

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Moving beyond the individual, the wisdom of transitional justice underscores that klexos is not only relevant to individual lives, but to communities as well.

Just three weeks ago, I was surfing through our community’s spiritual bucket list, and I realized that some of us have already checked items off the list. To some extent, 1Cor12’s narrative has been captured in Mere Community. BASIC will be celebrating their 10th anniversary soon, and their ten years of journeying together will be digitally engraved into the blogs and Instagram accounts of their members.

Other memories are worth preserving. Consider, for example, OWL’s formation, journey, and eventual dissolution. There are precious shards here that I would love to see pieced together into a panel of stained glass.

Stained glass, after all, is a common sight in the Church.

In the final analysis, perhaps stained glass should be the ideal that all our archives aspire to. Because all our lives are broken and fragmented, and will remain so, regardless of how we curate or scrapbook our memories. It is only when we let Christ’s light shine through our past, into our present, and to guide our future, does beauty emerge.

Perhaps, then, it is not so much the unarchived, or even the unexamined life, but the un-examen-ed life, that is not worth living.

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1. Bonjournal is a minimalist travel logging app. It has a clean interface and limits the number of pictures per post to three. I have been using it since 2014, and will probably continue to do so.
2. Lk 22:19.
3. See CCC 1366.
4. CCC 1367.
5. See CCC 1106.
6. Ariel Dulitzky, “Memory, an essential element of transitional justice”, 20 April 2014. He was a member of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances in 2014.
7. Ibid.
8. Chrisje Brants and Katrien Klep, “Transitional Justice: History-Telling, Collective Memory, and the Victim-Witness”, International Journal of Conflict and Violence Vol. 7(1) 2013, pp.36-49.
9. Ibid.
10. See e.g. “Mothers of ISIS“, a paradigm-shifting angle on ISIS recruitment.
11. See e.g. this article covering the glut of lawyers, providing probably the most comprehensive and insightful analysis on the situation. 
12. Neil Gaiman, “Some Reflections on Myth (with Several Digressions onto Gardening, Comics and Fairy Tales”, in A View from the Cheap Seats.

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This article was originally blogged at Mel.

Melvyn Foo is a Singaporean ex-lawyer. He is supposed to be a young adult, but he is really a lot more young than adult. He committed to God while sitting alone before a small and unadorned tabernacle. Since then, everything has pretty much fallen into place. You can visit his blog at http://melvynfoo.wordpress.com/

The Economy of Mercy

If your brother sins, rebuke him;
and if he repents, forgive him.
And if he wrongs you seven times in one day
and returns to you seven times saying, ‘I am sorry,’
you should forgive him.

—Luke 17:3–4

Sr. Febronie served as subprioress during Therese’s early years in Carmel. She reproached Therese for teaching the novices that they could go straight to heaven after death, calling this presumption. “My sister, if you desire God’s justice, you will have God’s justice,” Therese answered her. “The soul receives exactly what she looks for from God”…

This conversation took place in 1891. The following January, Febronie was among those who died during the flu epidemic. She appeared to Therese in a dream a short time later. Therese saw Febronie was suffering. She looked as though she was confirming that Therese had been right. She was in purgatory, because she had expected to receive God’s justice rather than his mercy.

Here once more we see the importance of our participation in our sanctification. God even allows us to choose the method by which he will judge us! If we believe he will send us to purgatory because we have not been good enough, then he will. If we trust him to make up for our lack of perfection, he will do that instead.

—Connie Rossini, Trusting God with St. Therese

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St. Therese of Lisieux

God longs to extend His mercy to us. He doesn’t want to have to deal with us in terms of justice instead of mercy. He would rather forgive us than punish us, but sometimes justice is what we choose for ourselves. When we judge others harshly instead of forgiving readily, we adopt an economy of justice. When our motivation to perform good deeds stems from a desire to “earn” our holiness instead of out of love for our neighbor, we are are measuring in terms of justice instead of mercy. When we despair over our weaknesses and feel we can never be good enough, we reject the wideness of God’s mercy and cling to justice instead. When we compare ourselves to others, wonder why we have more or less or different gifts than anyone else, and wish we could even out the scales, we are choosing to operate under a prevailing sense of justice.

But fixating on justice alone will not get us to heaven. Jesus didn’t die on the Cross because it was just; He did it out of pure, boundless love for us, love that defied justice. Unless we cultivate a sense of mercy, then we are asking for harsh treatment. Jesus wants better for us. He wants us to trust Him so greatly and to be so sure of His great mercy that we don’t despair in our sinfulness but rather call on Him right away to cover our faults. There is no sin too great for His mercy. He wants to swoop in and rescue us, but sometimes we push Him away out of pride. Once we acknowledge that we can’t do it ourselves, that we would be crushed by an economy of justice, then we can begin to embrace His economy of mercy. And when we understand the incredible gift of God’s mercy, we will be able to demonstrate it to others, joyfully forgiving again and again and again.

Making A Murderer, Loving the Guilty

If you haven’t joined the ranks of the hundreds of thousands of people who’ve binge watched Making a Murderer on Netflix since December, then…well…I guess that leaves you still in the ranks of the hundreds of millions of people who haven’t, and that’s fine, so don’t worry about it. Regardless of if you’ve seen it or not, you most likely know that the documentary focuses on the question of Steve Avery’s innocence in the murder of a young woman named Teresa Halbach.

Spanning 10 episodes, the film paints a largely one-sided picture of an innocent man from underprivileged means who, after being wrongfully accused and convicted of a crime and serving 18 years in prison, is, upon release and exoneration, framed by the police and given a patently unfair trial. I admit that I was very drawn in by the series. I took great joy trying not to scream at the screen at 1am whilst I watched an episode on my phone under a pillow next to my sleeping wife. It was fun to be drawn in by a well-told story and also to get to cry “OUTRAGE” for ten hours. It sparked multiple conversations with friends–and one Apple Store worker–as to the nature of innocence and the broken justice system.

At one point, when asked if I liked it, I replied, “It made me want to quit everything in the world and become a lawyer so that I could devote the rest of my life to heroically and single-handedly correcting our broken judicial system.” So, yeah, I liked it. I found myself wanting to somehow get in touch with Steve (yep, the film makes you feel like you’re on a first-name basis with him) and let him know that there are people who care about his plight, isolated as he may feel in there.

However, at some point last week, I began to ask a myself the question lurking in the dark behind the series’ overt message of defending the innocent: what about the guilty ones? So much of the show’s power comes from the unfairness of it all. The tale of the man just trying to live his life combined with the critically wounded mechanism of justice create the perfect storm of righteous anger for us, and it is fine and good that it does so.

As Christians, though, we aren’t supposed to stop at defending the innocent; we’re supposed to press on into the realm of extreme and acknowledged guilt. God has a pretty clear history of approaching the traitors with compassion, welcome, and, honestly, even trust. Just think Judas. Or Peter. Or me.

It’s so simple and affirming to stop at the truth of “well, they got themselves into that situation…”, when we’re actually supposed to move past that into things like “…and so have I, a million times” or “…and I am the chief of sinners”.

If Steve Avery is innocent, then it would be odd for anyone not to be on his side. It doesn’t take Christianity or love to ally yourself with the wrongfully accused. It is the heart of Christianity, though, to leave the safety of innocence and take the pain and suffering of someone else’s guilt upon yourself. It is in the DNA of every Christian to place themselves at the crime scene, to incriminate themselves by our associations, and to glaringly remind the accusers and the accused that nothing can separate them from God’s love.

Yesterday, we celebrated Paul’s encounter with Christ, and subsequent conversion, on the road to Damascus. We know him so well as “The Apostle” Paul that we can very quickly and easily forget that he began as an extremely violent and guilty man. According to the Book of Acts, Paul “…began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.” (Acts 8:3) Paul met Christ when he was guilty. God loved him and reached out to him when he was in his sin. We should strive to do the same in our lives.

This is the Year of Mercy, when we are being exhorted daily to offer God’s startling grace and compassion to the world in an overt and intentional way. Taking Matthew 25 as our springboard, we’re encouraged to “feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, and bury the dead.”

Please note that nowhere in the passage does it specify to do these things to those who are in their situation through no fault of their own. The hungry and thirsty are worthy of food and drink no matter why they’re hungry or thirsty. The naked deserve clothing whether they’re guilty or pure. And on and on.

As Christians in this year of mercy, we’re asked never to rest on our laurels, but instead, to offer up each crevice and compartment of our lives and hearts to the mission of relaying God’s love to the most broken, the hardest hit, and those with the greatest guilt.

The degree and intensity to which we respond should mirror the degree and intensity of the wrongdoing.  If someone tosses a mild slam against you, a mildly loving response would make sense. The response to something more heinous, say a double murder, could look something like Agnes Furey’s:

Even if we are not the ones directly impacted by someone’s fall into sin and guilt, we bear within us the capability to respond with invasive love. Like Mr. Cavins:

I encourage you, starting today–starting right now!– to actively locate the guilty ones in your corner of the world and, instead of reminding them of the guilt they are already assured of, lavish attention, love, service, and sacrifice on them. As Micah 6:8 commands us, “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God”.

Fight to preserve the innocent, but fight just as hard to restore the guilty.

As Christ does for you.

Works of Mercy Part I: Acts of Love and Service

One of the pillars of Lent is almsgiving (and by extension, almsdeeds). On the surface, almsgiving and almsdeeds mean only to give away money or goods to those in need. However, almsdeeds go beyond this: they are the works of mercy. I will be posting about the works of mercy each week during Lent, pairing one spiritual work of mercy with one corporal work of mercy and then offering my thoughts on the pair. I will begin these reflections with an introductory essay about the nature of mercy.

Preliminary Remarks: On Justice, Mercy, and Salvation

Justice means to give to another that which is his due. It is not always comforting to us, in that it sometimes requires some sacrifice on our part: it may cost us something sometimes, but the cost is something which we owe to another.

Mercy goes beyond this. It is sorrow over another’s distress and an attempt to alleviate or relieve that distress. It is a fruit of charity, and can be related to sympathy, which is the sorrow for another’s sorrow which makes the other’s sorrow one’s own. Whereas justice sometimes comes with a cost, and while that cost is owed to the other, mercy always comes at a price, albeit a price which does not need to be paid in the sense of being owed from one person to another. We always run the risk of joining the other in his suffering, or even of taking that suffering from him by taking it on ourselves, in which way we follow the example of our Lord.

It should be noted, on the other hand, that sometimes an act of mercy is also an act of justice. Thus, for example, all people have the right to life and to the basic necessities of food and water and clothing. However, to provide these things for another is an act of mercy on the part of the provider which does justice to the recipient. It might be added that what counts as mercy towards man is at the same time justice to God: “Make mercy your sacrifice…” Indeed, our very creation is bot an act of mercy and an act of justice–we need not exist, so God is merciful to create us at all; but since He has made such things as intellect and will parts of our nature as human beings, there is an act of justice involved in creating each individual human person with these aspects [1].

Further, showing mercy to others is what in the end results in our obtaining mercy for ourselves: “Blessed are the merciful, for mercy shall be theirs” (Matthew 5:7). Indeed, this is what we will be judged on, as Christ warns us in his parable of the sheeps and the goats (also called His Discourse on the Judgment of the Nations):

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. e will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’ Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’ Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’ And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-46)

We see in this passages several explicit works of mercy which pertain primarily to our bodily needs, and (reading more deeply) some explicit works which pertain more to the needs of the soul or spirit.

Two Types of Mercy

Most of the Corporal Works of Mercy are a bit more obvious (see the parable of the sheep and the goats). Image source.
Most of the Corporal Works of Mercy are a bit more obvious (see the parable of the sheep and the goats). Image source.

There is mercy towards the body, and mercy towards the soul. The former are more obviously merciful, and often relates to our survival in this life. The latter are less obvious, and less obviously important for our survival, but in the long run are the more important because they pertain to good living in this life and to our survival in the next life. There are seven acts of mercy which pertain to the body (The Corporal Works of Mercy) and seven which pertain to the soul (The Spiritual Works of Mercy).

It is worth quoting the Baltimore Catechism here, which tells that that “We must take more care of our soul than of our body, because in losing our soul we lose God and everlasting happiness…To save our souls we must worship God by faith, hope, and charity; that is, we must believe in Him, hope in Him, and love Him with all our heart” (BC2 Q8-9). Charity towards God includes charity towards our neighbors; this charity takes the form of the works of mercy.

There are seven each of the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy:

The Corporal Works of Mercy:

  • To feed the hungry;
  • To give drink to the thirsty;
  • To clothe the naked;
  • To harbour the harbourless;
  • To visit the sick;
  • To ransom the captive;
  • To bury the dead.

The Spiritual Works of Mercy:

  • To instruct the ignorant;
  • To counsel the doubtful;
  • To admonish sinners;
  • To bear wrongs patiently;
  • To forgive offences willingly;
  • To comfort the afflicted;
  • To pray for the living and the dead.

While Christ specifically names the corporal works of mercy (minus burial of the dead) during his Judgment of the Nations account, the spiritual works of mercy are generally more important still. Saint Thomas Aquinas tells us that:

“There are two ways of comparing these almsdeeds. First, simply; and in this respect, spiritual almsdeeds hold the first place, for three reasons. First, because the offering is more excellent, since it is a spiritual gift, which surpasses a corporal gift, according to Proverbs 4:2: ‘I will give you a good gift, forsake not My Law.’ Secondly, on account of the object succored, because the spirit is more excellent than the body, wherefore, even as a man in looking after himself, ought to look to his soul more than to his body, so ought he in looking after his neighbor, whom he ought to love as himself. Thirdly, as regards the acts themselves by which our neighbor is succored, because spiritual acts are more excellent than corporal acts, which are, in a fashion, servile.

Secondly, we may compare them with regard to some particular case, when some corporal alms excels some spiritual alms: for instance, a man in hunger is to be fed rather than instructed, and as the Philosopher observes (Topic. iii, 2), for a needy man ‘money is better than philosophy,’ although the latter is better simply” (Summa Theologica II-II.32.2).

As it turns out, the Spiritual Works of Mercy are metaphorically implied in the enumeration of the Corporal Works of Mercy.

In the next seven posts in this series, I will discuss each of the works briefly in turn. It turns out that each of the Corporal Works of Mercy pairs somewhat naturally (and metaphorically) with one of the Spiritual Works of Mercy. I will therefore go in order of the Corporal Works of Mercy, and then discuss the paired Spiritual Work of Mercy, which means that I will have to re-order the Spiritual Works of Mercy slightly.

Continue to Part II

 

—Footnotes—

[1] For that matter, Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection are collectively a work of mercy towards mankind, and at the same time are acts which satisfy the ometimes harsh demands of justice.

Mercy Is Not Always Comfortable

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7).

In my previous column, I discussed justice and noted that it is not necessarily comforting. Taken in isolation, it could be further argued that justice is necessarily not comforting in the end. Scripture certainly conveys this point, for example, through the various “wrathful” Psalms, in which justice may look comforting to the unjustly afflicted, but certainly not to the afflictor. Yet to some extent we are all afflictors as well as afflicted, that is, we are all to some extent unjust people “Do not call your servant to judgment for no one is just in your sight” (Psalm 143:2).

Christ's mercy--and one of its results.
Christ’s mercy–and one of its results.

God will be our just Judge, but He does not look to justice alone when rendering judgement and sentence. The Lord is kind and merciful (Psalm 103:8, 110:4), and that mercy moderates a severe justice which would allow us to end in sorrow. Mercy is compassion for the sufferings and sorrows of others, and the attempt to alleviate these things, but it comes with some cost. Justice is not comforting, nor is mercy comfortable.

We see the cost of mercy most clearly in its greatest instance, which was the mercy of God. It was mercy born of love, for which God the Son became incarnate as a man, lived among us for a time, then suffered the passion and at last died. Death is the lot of all men, both a physical death and (more sorrowfully) a spiritual one. Justice alone would allow us to suffer the one and then the other, in that sin is the rejection of God and thus of life.

Here I must pause, lest there be confusion. Mercy is not opposed to justice, but in fact complements it. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, for example, tells us that “Giving alms to the poor is a witness to fraternal charity: it is also a work of justice pleasing to God” (CCC 2462). Here is an act of both mercy and justice. It is merciful, because it seeks to alleviate suffering by giving something which is our by right to somebody who cannot claim it by right; yet at the same time, it is justice, in the sense that (for example) even the poor man has the right to life, and thus to life-sustaining food.

The Good Samaritan demonstrates a few works of mercy--and that's without digging deeply into the parable! Image mirror.
The Good Samaritan demonstrates a few works of mercy–and that’s without digging deeply into the parable! Image mirror.

In the greater sense still it is just in that it is the recognition of his dignity as a man—easily and unjustly neglected in his lowly state as a poor man. He may not have claim to my money, or to my food and drink and clothing, and I owe him nothing, yet at the same time he has the right to eat and drink and be dressed [1]. Or, to look at this through the light of another Catechism passage,

The duty of Christians to take part in the life of the Church impels them to act as witnesses of the Gospel and of the obligations that flow from it. This witness is a transmission of the faith in words and deeds. Witness is an act of justice that establishes the truth or makes it known. “All Christians by the example of their lives and the witness of their word, wherever they live, have an obligation to manifest the new man which they have put on in Baptism and to reveal the power of the Holy Spirit by whom they were strengthened at Confirmation. ” (CCC 2472)

In other words, what is rendered as an act of mercy towards our fellow man is at the same time an act of justice towards God, our Creator. This is true whether we are talking about corporal works of mercy (e.g. giving alms to the poor in the form of food, drink, clothes, shelter, or money to purchase those things) or of spiritual works of mercy (e.g. “witness,” which might be said to include counseling the doubtful, instructing the ignorant, comforting the afflicted, or admonishing sinners).

Most of the Corporal Works of Mercy are a bit more obvious (see the parable of the sheep and the goats). Image source.
Most of the Corporal Works of Mercy are a bit more obvious (see the parable of the sheep and the goats). Image source.

There can in any case be justice without mercy [2], but it would at times be a harsh, severe justice. It is the eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth justice of the Old Testament, the justice which incurs God’s wrath and our our righteous anger when it is flaunted. But whereas love stands on justice, builds on it even, it cannot be merely just. God’s love for us is just, but it is not merely just, because God is not merely just; thus, love is not merely just.

Mercy then is what compliments justice. Mercy recognizes that sometimes merely giving to another what is his by right—and only what is his by right—may also be to leave him to suffer, or (in some cases) to cause him to suffer or to suffer further. Or to look at it another way: sometimes to demand what is ours by right—that is, to demand justice from another to us—might cause that other to suffer. If I loan a man money (regardless of interest), and then demand repayment at the agreed upon time, I may be acting justly in the strictest sense; yet if repaying that loan means that he and his family will starve, then he is suffering to satisfy justice, even if he should in principle have planned and saved for this day.

Mercy might mean in this case forgiving the debt, or (at the very least) delaying it until he can repay it. But notice that this mercy comes with some cost. Perhaps I am not myself very well-off financially. Then by forgiving the debt, or even delaying it, I may have to miss a few meals myself; or perhaps I simply go without something else: a luxury of some sort, whether it’s a new (to me) car to replace my old beater, or air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter, or I must make do with a smaller apartment, or with fewer books. Perhaps I have to work a few years longer, because this debt covered (or helped to cover) my retirement fund.

It is, of course, equally possible that someone else might step in and offer to pay the debt himself. It no longer costs me anything, but now that third-party is out the cost of the debt. The cost of mercy is transferred to him instead.

Sympathy implies suffering--both for the original sufferer, and for the sympathetic friend. Image source.
Sympathy implies suffering–both for the original sufferer, and for the sympathetic friend. Image source.

In the end, justice may cost us something at times, but it is something which belongs to another by right. Mercy costs us something else, whether it is something which is our by right (as when we give money to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, or clothe the naked) or something less tangible (as when we risk ridicule or worse by admonishing a sinner, even privately). But for men, mercy requires first that cost which is sorrow and pity, and only then whatever the cost may be to alleviate the cause of the sorrow or pity. This is because mercy is born of pity for the sufferings of another; it “is heartfelt sympathy for another’s distress, impelling us to succor him if we can” (ST.II-II.Q30.A1).

Sympathy for another means identifying the other’s sorrow as one’s own and thus sharing in that suffering. Mercy in turn see the other’s misery as one’s own [3], and thus seeks to alleviate that misery, in particular at its source. This, then, is the first cost of mercy, over and above whatever other costs it may incur; it was the cost to Christ, before the other costs of passion and death, which (in addition to being obedient to the Father’s Will) would move Him (in His human will) to embrace his cross. For if Christ as God did not feel sorrow, Christ as true man certainly did.

Mercy therefore begins with sorrow and ends with sacrifice in the hopes of alleviating suffering. If it be true mercy, it also satisfies the claims of justice in some way: and just as justice is not always comforting, neither is mercy always comfortable. Nevertheless, mercy is the first (and arguably, the least) requirement of love (charity), and our showing mercy in this life is the condition for receiving mercy in the next. This divine mercy came at great cost to Christ—whether we receive or reject it—and so we should be little surprised when our own attempts at mercy come with some cost in this life as well.

 

 

—-Footnotes—-

[1] I would add that in a society in which public nudity is illegal, each member of society would logically require clothing. Similarly, in a society in which (as in Chesterton’s time) anti-vagrancy laws exist, some shelter would logically need to be supplied to the homeless. It is not just to fine or imprison a homeless man for not being at home.

[2] On the other hand, Saint Thomas Aquinas notes that

“the work of divine justice always presupposes the work of mercy; and is founded thereupon. For nothing is due to creatures, except for something pre-existing in them, or foreknown. Again, if this is due to a creature, it must be due on account of something that precedes. And since we cannot go on to infinity, we must come to something that depends only on the goodness of the divine will–which is the ultimate end. We may say, for instance, that to possess hands is due to man on account of his rational soul; and his rational soul is due to him that he may be man; and his being man is on account of the divine goodness.” (ST.I.Q21.A4)

So an exception is made for divine justice, since everything we have is already a gift from God, a sort of mercy which supplies our lack of that thing. My will is free because God supplies me a free will, which He does as an act of justice on account of my being human, but of mercy on account of that He did not need to make human beings have wills to begin with. Freedom of the will was something which nature lacked, something lacking in the physical world, which God supplied in creating man.

[3] To again quote St Thomas Aquinas,

“Since pity is grief for another’s distress, as stated above (Article 1), from the very fact that a person takes pity on anyone, it follows that another’s distress grieves him. And since sorrow or grief is about one’s own ills, one grieves or sorrows for another’s distress, in so far as one looks upon another’s distress as one’s own” (ST.II-II.Q30.A2)

As such, St. Thomas calls this pity—indeed, mercy itself—a sort of defect in us (as pertaining to feeling sorrow), though not in God. Mercy itself is a virtue, of course, and in God it comes not through the passion of pity, but rather through His goodness.

Justice Is Not Always Comforting

To state a tautology, we all deserve justice. Moreover, most people will, I think claim to desire justice if asked. And, since God is not only supreme but also supremely just, we will all ultimately get justice, if not in this life then certainly in the next. On the surface this last sounds good, but it is not really a comforting thought.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines justice as

“the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor. Justice toward God is called the ‘virtue of religion.’ Justice toward men disposes one to respect the rights of each and to establish in human relationships the harmony that promotes equity with regard to persons and to the common good. The just man, often mentioned in the Sacred Scriptures, is distinguished by habitual right thinking and the uprightness of his conduct toward his neighbor” (CCC 1807).

This definition might explain why “religion” is not a bad word and why all right-thinking Christians ought to embrace rather than shun it. But it bears a bit of explanation as to what “getting justice” or “doing justice” means. Justice might be served, I suppose, by fulfilling the ends to which it is ordered: namely, rendering what is due to each of God, neighbor, and, for good measure, Ceaser (who often tries to play to part of both God and neighbors).

Justice is something which God wills for us, and which He will ultimately see done for us, since this is in accordance with His nature. Being just is something which we must do for each other, because it is something which each man owes to his neighbors, to himself, and especially to God.

What is justice towards God? He tells us this Himself:

“Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone! Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today. Drill them into your children. Speak of them at home and abroad, whether you are busy or at rest. Bind them at your wrist as a sign and let them be as a pendant on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9).

This commandment to ” love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength” is repeated by Christ and called the greatest commandment, after which is given the second greatest commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:29-31). These two commandments are the fulfillment of the whole law, and we cannot really fulfill the one without fulfilling the others (see 1 John 4:20): so these two are justice perfected by charity [1]. In love, the Law is fulfilled.

Who among us can claim to love perfectly? No one, unless we count the Lord Himself. We all ultimately fall short of justice, though justice is what we owe to others and to God. What is justice to one who is not just? I suspect that the “wrathful” Psalms give us but a taste. To quote only one (Psalm 7:4-7, 15-17):

LORD my God, if I have done this,
if there is guilt on my hands,
If I have maltreated someone treating me equitably—
or even despoiled my oppressor without cause—
Then let my enemy pursue and overtake my soul,
trample my life to the ground,
and lay my honor in the dust.

Rise up, LORD, in your anger;
be aroused against the outrages of my oppressors.
Stir up the justice, my God, you have commanded….

Consider how one conceives iniquity;
is pregnant with mischief,
and gives birth to deception.
He digs a hole and bores it deep,
but he falls into the pit he has made.
His malice turns back upon his head;
his violence falls on his own skull.
I will thank the LORD in accordance with his justice;
I will sing the name of the LORD Most High.

In essence, this Psalm says that the unjust one will be pursued by the enemy (Satan) who will overtake his soul; and that injustice is turned back on us. This is true not only of the injustices we commit, but of the justices which we omit (see Matthew 25:31-46).

We all fall well short of perfect charity, and further we fall short of justice, if not towards our neighbors, then at least towards God (Who has a limitless claim on us). “Do not call your servant to judgment for no one is just in your sight” (Psalm 143:2).

Fortunately, justice is not the end of the story. God is not only just, but also is merciful (Psalm 103:6, 8), if we will accept that mercy and reflect it to others: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7). For us, mercy is one of the fruits of charity (CCC 1829) and is the virtue by which we are moved by compassion for—and where possible, seek to alleviate—the suffering of others. So, too, does God’s mercy alleviate our suffering, be it eternal or (sometimes) temporal.

However, because true mercy does not abrogate justice, it can be granted only at a cost or risk to oneself.

 

—-Footnotes—-

[1] It should be noted here that there is an interplay between the cardinal virtue of justice and the theological virtue of charity. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that “charity leads us to help our neighbor in his need out of our own stores, while justice teaches us to give to another what belongs to him.” Saint Thomas Aquinas notes that “the proper act of justice is nothing else than to render to each one his own” (STII-IIQ58A11). However, he also notes buy way of objection and reply that whereas “justice is love serving God alone” (St Augustine), yet “love of God includes love of our neighbor…so too the service of God includes rendering to each one his due” (STII-IIQ58A1).

Are You Willing to Forgive?

prodigal-sonAs human beings we are an emotionally fragile bunch. That however is not a bad thing. Indeed, it is our emotional state that most readily separates us from the animal kingdom. We perceive love, joy, surprise, anger, sadness and fear, and we can deliver those positive or negative emotions to others in the way we act. These negative emotions when given or received, hurt, and can hurt very deeply. The old school yard response to bullies runs, ’sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me’. It may be a cute rhyme but it’s not true. What affects us most deeply is not the physical insults that come our way but those which offend us on a personal level. To have a trusted friend betray us hurts. To have a sibling insult another sibling hurts. These hurts are very real and they do not easily dissipate.

Society has some plan as to how to deal with physical insults. Courts and prisons are full of people who have caused physical hurt to another in some way. This is not the same with emotional hurt. Sometimes we will be initially unaware that our words and actions (or our response to those words) have offended another. Even those who are most careful may still at some point offend another person. There is no shortage of friendships and families that have broken down because deliberate or indeliberate offence has occurred. These delicate situations are not easy to resolve because all parties may, to some extent, have hurt another by their actions, choices or words. Recall the parable of the Prodigal son who offended his father by taking his inheritance to indulge in a wasted life. In time he returned truly sorry for his actions and his father forgave him but the one person who could not forgive was the older brother who had remained at home always faithful. In the end, by his anger, the older brother became as guilty as the younger.

The reason rifts do not get resolved is because too many of us feel justified in our positions of hurt or anger at another. People can spend a lifetime explaining the precise way in which they have suffered offence, and this may well be true, but at that point there are only two options. One can remain convinced of the need for the other person to reform and thus remain hurt and angry forever, or make a conscious decision to forgive. Now as soon as people hear about forgiveness they get specific ideas of what that means, for example, ‘I am happy to forgive as long as…’, or, ‘we can only move forward when…’. This is not genuine healing forgiveness. Forgiveness in the truest sense is a highly radical proposition, one not known well by a neo pagan society. Forgiveness involves an unconditional all embracing love of the other regardless of what offence, hurt or anxiety has been given us. This type of forgiveness involves taking our gaze from the other onto our own lives to examine where we may have given offence. It is rare that one person is completely innocent while the other is completely guilty.

True forgiveness brings about a love that is patient, kind and rich in mercy. Even if we are truly the innocent one, forgiveness will be quick to turn the other cheek. Those who follow the Christian faith will recognise the ancient petition in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’. Here it seems clear that personal forgiveness from God is completely dependent on our willingness to unreservedly forgive others, and be happy about that forgiveness. We must not remain thinking that our forgiveness makes us a better person than the one who we have forgiven. If we remain as the righteous older brother in the story of the prodigal son, we cannot say we have forgiven. If we do not acknowledge that our actions may have offended another, we cannot say we have forgiven. What we are too often looking for is a judge and jury, we want to have our story heard and be told who is guilty and innocent. This sort of mentality will never find peace because mercy is always greater than justice. The person who spends his life looking for justice will always be hurt and never have the opportunity to be truly happy. So go on, reach out in true forgiveness and see your life transformed.

The Heroes and the Hated, No Us and Them

Sitting here at 2:00 am, watching live footage of the scene in Boston, my mind is a rapid-fire collage of tragedy and bravery. Scenes of the marathon are fresh-pressed, certainly, but thrown in the mix are frames of everything from 9/11 to Hiroshima, from Mcveigh and Kaczynski to Cain and Abel, from Eden to Sandy Hook. Humanity’s story is ever one of Holocausts and heroism, and this tense back-and-forth of wills is, in essence, our fundamental state of existence here on earth.

John Paul II spoke of “historical man”, that is, mankind after the fall but in the light of Redemption, and we see this fleshed out not only in every newsfed tragedy or in every epic novel throughout time, but in every page of Sacred Scripture, as well. As often as a news source reports on “The Suspect” and Scripture give us Paul’s lament of “what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do”(Rom 7:15), in response, a Facebook pass-around gives us shots of people running towards a crisis and Scripture shows Christ saying, “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). Humanity seems to be constantly in play between the fires set by sin and the moths who choose to help put them out.

However, here’s the thing: There truly is no such thing as us and them. They did not start the flames and we did not run to put them out.

In reality, each of us is a moth, in transit through life, carrying our own, personally cherished book of matches. While it is true that, at the core, both Hitler and I have been guilty of fanning the flames of sin, it is also true that both Hitler and I were made in the image and likeness of God. “All we, like sheep, have gone astray”, but no amount of straying can change the fold we came from and can always return to. In one way or another, every Achilles has a heel, but every heel was made to walk on water.

As depraved and gruesome as Kermit Gosnell has been, I don’t for a second want him to experience the same earthly fate as the women and children he killed. As guilty as the bombers in Boston may be, I don’t desire the “poetic justice” that a newscaster just referred to, that one of the bombers should die as a result of an explosion. I’m not saying we should ignore terrorism; I’m saying we should pray for the terrorists just as fervently as we fight for justice. I don’t advocate dismissing the Gosnells of the world; I propose that while we seek to bring about restitution for committed sins, we also earnestly pray that the waters of Baptism will one day quench their furnace of original sin. While we grieve the death of the innocent and hope for their life eternal, let us also pray for the souls of the unjust, that one day, all of Heaven might rejoice as they, too, enter beatitude.

In this time of comboxing and 3-second screen shots, it is easy to caricaturize both heroes and hated, polarizing humanity into actually non-existent camps. We have all had moments of grandeur, where we flurry to the aid of someone set on fire; but we must not forget that we have also, ALL of us, bourn within ourselves the curse of Adam, the fall of mankind. May we who know the Truth of the matter loudly proclaim His good news to this world of moths with matches: that we are good, that we have done wrong, and that a Savior even now intercedes for each one of us, the “worst” included.

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My brain is not in the least interested in our symposium topic this week.  The address for “mercy” + “forgiveness” + “killing” NOT “animals” was not found.

Like any good writer, I hunted around for input, hoping to get some ideas about either mercy or killing.  According to my mom friends, every mother’s life “is killing them” about 90% of the time.  Husbands without emotion receptors of any kind; children with some kind of olfactory disability that renders them unable to tell that they smell really terrible; family that decides now is a perfect time to go off the deep end and become unnecessarily confusing/helpful/unhelpful/communicative/uncommunicative.  These three things I fear, and a fourth makes me quiver with fear.  So not much material there that’s uplifting or helpful on “killing.”  I killed a bug yesterday, but that wasn’t a big deal since it redounds to the dignity of bugs to be smooshed.

Also according to my mom friends, there is a lot about being a mother that’s tied up with mercy.  One said, “I definitely understand God’s relationship to us as Father more than I did before I was a parent.  You know, the whole, “making rules that seem stupid to us but are for are own good,” that type of thing.  When my kids are in trouble and I’m punishing them, I’m always looking for a way out of it.  It’s no fun punishing them so I like to move on to the forgiveness part as quickly as I can…I think God’s always waiting for the teeny tiniest little request for help and mercy and He’ll be right there ready to shower us with it.”  So she’s obviously a good mom and has meaningful things to say on mercy. Another said, ” Being merciful somehow goes hand in hand with a good cabernet.”  (I have lovely friends.)  And that’s an uplifting idea if I’ve ever heard one.

For me, being merciful as a mother is about being just, about only punishing when necessary yet never leaving deserved punishment unadministered.  Mercy is not about letting your toddler get away with everything, so that he’ll have chronic temporary happiness.  Instead, I know (from experience and from advice) that mercy is about teaching your toddler that getting your own way all the time will make you miserable, exhausted, and quite possibly injured.  It is for this reason, my son, I do not allow you to climb the bookshelf.  Again.  And again.  On the other hand, sometimes I have to let him eat cookies for breakfast, since I just did.

So.  Happy Mother’s Day, and congratulations to all mothers on living a life that it turns out is largely about mercy, and also partially about feeling like roadkill. 

On Killing: Everybody’s tired.  Nobody feels really well.  Everybody feels like they’re no good at least some of the time.  Now please get up and go to work anyway.

On Mercy:  Charity believes all things.  The good you see in people may not be the whole truth about them, but it is true.  So start there, and make a fuss over it until it turns into something more.