Monday, January 26, 2015

Is truth opposed to compassion?

“If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” This statement has been used in varying forms for a century or so and has become a modern idiom. We can imagine the Scribes and Pharisees employing it to criticize Jesus for showing compassion to people who had a reputation as public sinners. The tension between standing for the truth and treating with compassion and understanding those in the wrong is not a new one.

There is no doubt that we human beings need to know, respect, and be guided by the truth as it is to be found throughout creation – truth about the way things are designed by the Creator – and the truth about ourselves as creatures among others who enjoy the distinction of being endowed with intellect, conscience, a capacity for compassion, and free will. It is only logical that we live in harmony with all truth, but the human condition shows plainly that from the beginning humanity wandered away from the truth as well as from God in an attempt to take to oneself the highest authority and the prerogative of absolute or final judgement and decision making.

The dilemma and struggle of human beings is that we seek to be self-sufficient when in fact we are contingent beings, dependent on a higher power that coincides with both our origin and our destiny. The consequences of alienating ourselves from the truth is nothing less than devastating. Much if not almost all human suffering is the direct or indirect result of living in defiance of the truth and of the nature of things, as well as of our own nature. Despite our pitiable condition, there is something in us that recoils at the thought of admitting that we fall short of the idealized image we have of ourselves, which is simply an expression of our desires for higher meaning and purpose for our lives.

And so it happens that there develops a disconnect between our life as it truly is – which is generally visible to others if not to ourselves – and our life as we want it to be. We can congratulate ourselves on having attained certain measures of order, discipline, health, success, and any other quality while at the same time denigrating those who manifest lesser measures of those same qualities. We can judge others and attribute to them motives and dispositions that would make them blameworthy and fit for punishment or deserving of the host of unhappy circumstances that may be theirs.

The alternative to such attitudes and treatment of others is to consider instead not so much the other’s circumstances, faults, failures, or sin, as rather their value as a person, their dignity in God’s eyes, and their potential for excellence and perfection. This is the approach Jesus of Nazareth took towards all others from the poorest to the richest, from those in authority to those of no status or consequence, and He formed his disciples to treat everyone equally, in the same way, in accord with instructions given by God in the Old Testament to Moses to judge without partiality of any kind.

It is true that in his teaching, Jesus was firmly in harmony with his Jewish Tradition and with the Jewish Scriptures. In fact, his enemies could never fault Him and when they wanted to put Him to death they needed to produce false witnesses to mount a fictitious and malicious case against Him. 

 It is also true that Jesus seemed to put aside concern for debating the truth when He was faced with a sinner, public or private. With real people before Him, Jesus shifted his focus away from defense of the Law to the value of the person and treated them in a way coherent with their dignity in God’s eyes. Jesus respected each person's responsibility to direct their own life and to allow God to form their conscience, and He evidently respected the time frame that is unique to each person.

He did not belabor the person’s faults even when these were blatantly apparent, but rather took into consideration the humiliation the person may have already suffered. He gave people the benefit of the doubt that they hoped to stop sinning and reform themselves and did not make any demands of them, nor do we have much evidence that Jesus followed sinners up to assure that they were holding up their end of the bargain after having been forgiven, with perhaps the exception of the man He healed whom He met again in the Temple and whom He warned not to sin again lest something worse befall him. So Jesus took seriously public declarations and teaching about the truth, but then He manifested God’s own respect for human freedom and patience with our behavior.

There are two primacies at work here: the primacy of the truth and the primacy of the freedom of conscience and free will. Truth and free will are not in opposition, nor do they trump each other in any way. Conscience and will are on a journey to enter into perfect coherence with truth, and that is the work of a lifetime. Human beings do not have the absolute power of divine will to once and for all make themselves perfect by a sheer act of will.

Instead, we must carry the cross of our weakened will and disturbed conscience, and come to grips with the reality that God clearly intends to allow our suffering and sin to drive us back into his loving arms. Divine Mercy is the only lasting solution to our agony.That God forgives does not give us license to do anything without regard for value or consequences, for that would be folly, and it would be self destructive and offensive to God, and therefore injurious to our relationship with our Creator. Each person must accept to carry their own cross, their own burden of responsibility for the freedom and dignity bestowed upon them by God, and no one can or should meddle with that freedom and responsibility.

The one major exception to this is the case of public wrong or scandal or of the abuse or harm of others, especially minors, the handicapped, or other persons in conditions of vulnerability. We as a whole community are responsible, and those in authority all the more responsible, to intervene in cases of sin where one is injuring others, scandalizing the innocent, or abusing those unable to come to their own defense. A quick stop must be immediately put to violence and abuse of any kind that exploits the vulnerable and innocent among us, especially children and those in a position to expect respect from those having authority over them at their service. Relations involving fiduciary trust, such as the trust given to clergy, medical professionals, teachers, coaches, parents, and others who because of their role must acknowledge that those putting trust in them are put in a vulnerable stance by virtue of that trust, that fiduciary trust, the trust of one accepting to serve another.

At all times, like Jesus, we have responsibility to care for others, to do our part in upholding the truth, accept to journey with one another, to give and to receive formation and mentoring, and to do it all with an attitude of charity and compassion, which, as the Apostles taught, truly considers others to be better than oneself. I am the sinner that I know the best; so it stands to reason that I am the worst sinner that I know. As for other sinners, I don’t really know what is inside them and what manner of struggles or efforts are theirs; so only God is competent to judge.

For this reason no one is entitled to “jump on another” on the basis of observable behavior, with the exception of cases of abuse or exploitation of vulnerable persons as mentioned above. For all other cases not involving the obligation of public intervention for the protection of the vulnerable, Jesus gave us a protocol in Matthew 18:15-20 for fraternal correction. 
We are to speak to the other privately first so that we can try to reach some understanding in complete mutual respect. If the person refuses to listen, we can return with a few witnesses and try again to reach some understanding about the apparent fault. If they still refuse to listen, then we can approach them with and through the community leadership, and try again to achieve reconciliation for the good of all. If the parties still refuses to listen, Jesus says, we are to treat them as Gentiles or tax collectors. This doesn’t mean to treat them like dirt, but rather, to treat them like potential seekers that are temporarily lost.
The Jewish Temple had a Court of the Gentiles so that Gentile seekers could come in and chat with devout Jews and find their way to God. This is why Jesus cleansed the Temple, to restore the Court of the Gentiles to its original purpose in God’s plan. Tax collectors too were simply lost children of Israel, as shown by Jesus’ treatment of Zacchaeus when this man gave a little sign of interest in Jesus.

Pope Francis calls us to adopt and practice the same attitudes as Jesus and consider strangers and sinners simply as children of God who are temporarily lost, who are potential seekers of God. This is why he constantly calls us to go to the “peripheries” of life, where such people live, and make ourselves a neighbor to them and open ourselves to friendship with them. In telling the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the question Jesus put to the lawyer who was trying to entrap Him was, “Which of these men made himself a neighbor to the man beaten by thieves?”

When our interlocutors agree that our discussion is a debate about the truth, then we can give ourselves wholeheartedly to vigorous debate and highlight all that we can muster from creation to the Sacred Scriptures to persuade those who in our view may be in ignorance of certain elements of the truth. However, when the people we meet or are chatting with have no intention or desire of debating the truth but are merely struggling with the truth in the circumstances of their life, they are not at that point in need of debate or eloquent defenses of the truth, but like the people Jesus met, they are in need of someone willing to make himself or herself a good neighbor, a friend, someone who can put aside obsession with ideal truths and activate human compassion for the truth embedded in a suffering fellow human being.

People all have an innate capacity to discern the light shining from the Holy Trinity, and a willingness to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit. When the troubles of life and the confusion caused by sin, suffering, and human frailty impede a person’s progress in seeking God, the Holy Trinity are counting on our compassion to touch people in pain and trouble.

Our willingness to accept them as they are and to love them as they are – as God constantly does for us – is the instrumentation that God needs to continue doing his work in souls. The Holy Trinity are constantly at work, 24 / 7, and we are merely workers of the last hour. When we touch other people’s lives, we are merely arriving at the last moment after God has already been working in their lives for years, decades….
For this reason in approaching others we need to tread lightly, with great humility and consideration, and the faith that holds and respects that the primary work in other souls is being done by God. If God has needed forty years to bring a certain truth to my attention, who am I to attempt to shove such a truth down another person’s throat NOW, just because I decide they should adhere to it now?

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