Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Forgiving the Unforgiveable


I’ve been robbed at gunpoint twice in my life. In both cases, the perpetrators were black men. Some months after the second episode, I learned that one (white) friend had told another, “Well if he doesn’t hate black people now, he never will.”

I never will.

One of the things I’ve learned in my life is that I own my reactions. I don’t have to yell back when I’m yelled at; I don’t have to insult when I’ve been insulted; I don’t have to be hurtful when I’ve been hurt. My control isn’t complete; my temper still occasionally gets the best of me … but not nearly as often as when I was ten years old. The “serenity prayer” helps.

I don’t believe in a “victim discount”. Anger doesn’t justify an unjust dislike of a whole class of people. Being hurt by Person A doesn’t make an automatic distrust of Person B rational simply because the two share some accidental commonality. My having been a victim doesn’t excuse me from exercising my share of the seven virtues to the best of my ability … or praying to God for assistance when that “best” falls short.

I bring this up not to boast—“See what a wonderful person I am!”—because I’m still very much a “work in progress”. Rather, I’m trying to explain why I get impatient with some of the public actions and words of SNAP and their counterparts.

Consider the Liturgy of Repentance that took place at St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral in Dublin on Sunday: While Cdl. Séan O’Malley of Boston, Dublin Abp. Diarmuid Martin and a packed congregation including many of the victims of Ireland’s predator-priest scandal endured an emotionally grueling ninety minutes, a handful of other victims protested outside, deriding the Mass as “another stunt” by church leadership.

Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. As far as I know, nobody’s devised a Geiger counter to detect the level of sincerity radiated by a person or event. They wanted a public acknowledgment of corporate error and sin; Cdl. O’Malley and Abp. Martin gave it to them, in the most authentic Catholic manner.

Oh, I suppose they could have walked from Maynooth to the Pro-Cathedral, barefoot and hair-shirted, before the liturgy and climbed Croagh Patrick on their knees afterward. But either one of those—to me, at least—would be truly over the top.

The Liturgy of Repentance isn’t the end of the matter. The Visitation knows that; the priests and laity of Ireland know that; the Vatican knows that—we all know that. So on what grounds can the protesters claim the Mass was a stunt?

I can’t feel their pain. They hurt; I get that. They were sexually abused. That’s a sin that cries out to heaven for vengeance (CCC 1867; cf. Gen 18:20, 19:43); I get that.

What I don’t get is how that pain justifies the lack of charity. What I don’t get is how that pain justifies rash judgment. What I don’t get is how that pain justifies injustice.

Anger isn’t just a sin; as a capital sin, it lies at the root of other sins. Anger is an emotion that, if held on to, twists the soul and destroys it. Anger is meant to be released, not to be wallowed in like a pig in the muck, not to be fed like a fire.

In the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to forgive our sins according to the extent that we forgive others. “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Mt 6:14-15). We aren’t the best judges of our own souls, as St. Paul warns us (1 Cor 4:3-5), so it’s no matter of, “Well, yeah, I kinda hurt you, but what you did to me was far worse!”

You shall not bear hatred for your brother in your heart. Though you may have to reprove your fellow man, do not incur sin because of him. Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your fellow countrymen. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev 19:17-18).

“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, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same” (Mt 5:43-47)?

As I said before, the three theological virtues are most needed when there seem to be the least rational grounds for them. The more we’re hurt by others, the less we want to forgive them, the more we need to forgive them.

The ones who need our prayers and forgiveness the most are those whose sins cry out to the heavens for vengeance. Especially if they’re priests.

We need to forgive them, to break the hold of anger in our hearts.

1 comment:

  1. Since the murder of my brother 27 years ago, I've found that forgiveness doesn't necessarily entail liking the person or inviting them over for dinner and to meet your daughter (I couldn't anyway, the perpetrators have never been identified). Forgiveness means letting go of the anger and resentment to the greatest extent possible. At times that might entail a lot of backsliding, repeating the whole process till ready to scream and then doing it all over again.

    But going crazy from stewing in a perpetual rage is a lot less appealing. Just my opinion.

    Forgiveness can be a lifelong process. But God doesn't look for perfection, just progress.

    Another good post. Keep 'em coming!

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