Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Human Hand of Christ

Pope Francis with President Obama at Andrews Airforce Base on Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Pope Francis, in an interview with America Magazine from September 30, 2013, made the following remarkable statement:

A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality.  I replied with another question: “Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?”  We must always consider the person.  Here we enter into the mystery of the human being.  In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation.  It is necessary to accompany them with mercy.  When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.  This is also the great benefit of confession as a sacrament: evaluating case by case and discerning what is the best thing to do for a person who seeks God and grace.  The confessional is not a torture chamber, but the place in which the Lord’s mercy motivates us to do better.

We must always consider the person.

How quick we are to respond to another person with what the media has become fond of labeling as ‘outrage’.  We cannot bear the slightest interference with our perceived personal dignity, nor can we endure anyone perceived as trespassing our delicate moral sensitivities.  Genuine concern over verbal and physical violence against persons for whatever reason has evolved into turning even a disagreement into ‘hate speech’ because I cannot abide the thought that someone somewhere might think that what I am choosing to do is wrong, morally or otherwise.  ‘We are only doing to them [the former Christian majority] what they have done to us’, I have heard it argued.  But vengeance has always been a poor policy choice, especially because it always displays its avengers as being no better than the ones with whom they perceive they are getting even or punishing.

The public square has always been a difficult place in which to have a genuine conversation.  But today the cup is so poisoned that listening is essentially extinct.  We are so concerned about defending our rights that we no longer care if in doing so we are trampling those of another.  After all, my rights are more important than yours.  We have reoccupied the childhood playground where the one who shouts loudest wins.  That’s why the Bishop of Rome’s words are so bracing:  ‘We must always consider the person.’  In the rush to establish and justify and defend agendas, agendas originally perhaps envisioned as a help to persons, we end of sacrificing people to the political and social and moral gods we have erected.  There is no salvation, no love, no peace or joy in what is happening in our public discourse, and in much of the private posturing that goes on as well.  When the ‘other’ ceases to be our enemy and becomes the one for whom we are concerned, then we are in a place where we can both hear and do the words of Jesus when he says things like, ‘Love your enemy, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.’ (Matthew 5:44)  John draws the contrast even more starkly: ‘If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar: for he who does not love his brother whom he as seen, how can he love God whom he was not seen?  And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also.’ (1 John 4:20-21)

I was having lunch with a PhD student yesterday, and I found myself on the receiving end of questions that led me to open up on a part of my life that I don’t normally discuss.  I found myself being honest about the pain that I had experienced and how disorienting it was to take risks of self-disclosure in what I had thought was a place of safety and be met instead by rejection and banishment.  She was particularly interested in why I had given up my former church and career and become Orthodox.  The reason being that, in contrast, it was here that I experienced love and mercy and grace at my point of need.  Then she used a striking phrase – she said that I had experienced the ‘human hand of Christ’, as people had reached out to me in mercy.  It turned out that she, too, had experienced great pain and had learned with sadness that places, such as the church or family, that should have been the safest of places, were in fact not.  It is a painful mystery to me: why those who claim to be Christians can choose to do this to one another (much less, to those outside the community of faith) and think it's ok to do so.

There is so much anger in so many people, and they think they are justified in taking this or that stand, using their words in destructive ways, getting ahold of the levers of power (civil, cultural or relational) and letting the other ‘have it’ as they are convinced the other deserves.  Anger blinds one to the other person as a person.  Each of these people that cross the barricades into our lives is actually an opportunity, either for me to justify myself and my anger and take vengeance; or to somehow be a part of the transformation of that relationship (and of the cosmos) by becoming the human hand of Christ.

And the consequences are nothing less than life or death.

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