I've heard many Christians, including priests, teach that "we have to stay in relationship" and that "nothing is more important than unity." In other words, they hold that it's not okay to cut ties. To me, this seems manifestly false—out of accord with Scripture, Church teaching, and ordinary moral experience.
At 17, I took a life-saving course and learned that a drowning person has to be approached from behind, because he will instinctively treat his rescuer as a buoy, clutching at him in such a way that unless the rescuer quickly and aggressively disengages and swims away, both will drown.
It's a good metaphor for certain relationships, isn't it? Unless we get out of them, we'll drown. Think of the case of a person who's been raised in a cult. "Staying in relationship" is the last thing she needs to do. Getting out and away is the beginning of her recovery. Same goes for any chronically abusive relationship.
Over the summer, Jules heard a great homily on the gospel passage about what to do if your brother wrongs you. The priest said, "Suppose someone tells a lie about us. He slanders us. We're wounded. What do we do with that injury?" He reminded the congregation that what we don't do is spread the news to all our friends. Rather, we go directly to the person himself and "tell him his fault." Doing so requires courage, humility and vulnerability. It means admitting to another that he succeeded in hurting us, and it means exposing ourselves to the possibilty of a new injury. But it also means giving him a chance to make amends without the issue having to go any further. In other words, it's an act of mercy.
If he refuses to admit his wrong, we are to bring witnesses. That is to say, gather evidence; work to establish the facts in such a way that his guilt becomes harder to deny—not because we're bent on rubbing it in his face, but because we want the wrong made right.
Too many Christians talk and act as if there is something petty and mean about wanting facts to be established—as if it's more generous and merciful to drop charges and leave the question of actual guilt or innocence unexplored and undetermined. In reality, though, the truth of what happened is the ground of reconciliation. There is no other. If reconciliation could be grounded on nothing other than the victim's overflowing mercy, there would be no such thing as hell, and no need for confession. God's mercy is ever-ready and boundless, but it doesn't avail us unless we acknowledge our need for it. The first reading at Mass on Monday makes the point very starkly [my emphasis]:
Realize how far you have fallen. Repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.
Our union with God depends not only on His forgiveness, but on our repentance. The same is true of human relationships. They can't be restored after a serious breach unless the truth of the wrong done is acknowledged and repented.
The homily went on. If he still refuses to admit his fault, the next step is to tell the whole Church.
Here many of us balk again. Victims and perpetrators alike seem to operate under a mass psychic impression that we're not allowed to make another person's wrongs known. "That's detraction." To deem it such, though, is to miss the key qualifier in the definition of the term. We commit the sin of detraction when we make another person's faults known "without objectively valid reason." Plainly, then, there are valid reasons for making another person's faults known. Among those reasons are concern for his soul and concern for other potential victims. Another may be concern for ourselves, our own reputation and wellbeing. If someone has injured us or slandered us, making the truth known may be an indispensable part of our rehabilitation.
No one who lies or commits slander has a right to a reputation for honesty. On the contrary. Both the victim and the wider community may well have a right to know he's not to be trusted. Oppressors, abusers and evil-doers of all kinds, having refused private opportunities to make amends, ought to be publicly called out for their wrongs, for their sake, for their victims' sake, and for the sake of the community as a whole. The damage from injustice spreads unless it's contained. And the first step to containing it is bringing it to light. We only need to think about the sex abuse scandals to see the point clearly. Keeping silent to "avoid scandal" only compounds the original evil.
The priest went on in his homily to discuss the step after that. If the wrong is made known to the Church, and the wrongdoer still refuses to repent, then he is to be cast out of the community. "Treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector." In other words, cut ties; remove him from your company.
Why? Because the Church is hard and self-righteous and unforgiving? No, but rather because 1) suffering the painful consequences of his wrong is his last, best chance for recognizing his need for grace, and 2) otherwise the wrong remains in the community and festers. Unaddressed wrong destroys communion. One of the ways it destroys it is by rendering the relationships within it superficial and unreal. There are more and more things that can't be said or discussed. Increasingly, we are psychically pressured to "focus on the positive" and side-step problems. Soon, we can't tell the difference between reality and unreality, between true friendship and pleasant relations. We get more out of touch with ourselves and each other. We are starved for lack of the kind of belonging that alone can sustain a rich personal existence.
But chronic abuse and unrepented wrong are not the only valid reasons for dissolving relations.
St. Francis famously began his ministry by stripping himself in front of his father, symbolically returning everything that was his, and declaring that from now on, God alone was his father. This is a cutting of ties if ever there was one—a very public renunciation of family bonds.
How is this justifiable in a Christian? Wasn't it a flagrant violation of the 4th commandment? Wasn't he showing outrageous disrespect and ingratitude toward the one who had given him life and raised him?
His father may well have thought so, but I don't. If so significant a gesture at the beginning of his public ministry had been basely motivated, I think it highly improbable that he would have gone down in history as one of the greatest saints of all time. Don't you?
So how are we to make sense of it? Here's my theory:
Up until the time of his imprisonment, illnesses, and religious awakening, Francis had been following a life plan that his father approved—one that enhanced the reputation and public stature of the family. But then Francis began to embarrass his father, who was suddenly faced with a dramatic either/or moment: Serve and support your son's mission, or set yourself against it. He chose B.
He put his own ego ahead of his son's good (and the good God was doing for the Church through him).
That's why Francis had to cut ties with his father. Instead of humbling himself in front of the work of grace unfolding in Francis's life and soul, his father resented and opposed it. He tried to intimidate and manipulate and punish Francis into conforming to his ideas and aims and values.
It's sad, isn't it? If Francis' father could have overcome his preoccupation with himself and opened his eyes to what was really going on with his son, he, too, might have gone down in history as a saint. Instead he's a prime example of bad fathering.
The story puts me in mind again of the gospel passage about "shaking the dust from your sandals," which has come up before, here and here. Each of us has a unique personal mission. We are charged with cultivating the "interior terrain" we have received as a gift from God. And then, when we're ready, when it's ready, when grace prompts, we're to offer it to others, as a gift in return. If they spurn it, we're to gather it back to ourselves, and offer it to others instead—others who will recognize it and receive it and let it bear fruit.