The Personalist Project

Search for truth a moral obligation

There is no morality without freedom... Although each individual has a right to be respected in his own journey in search of the truth, there exists a prior moral obligation, and a grave one at that, to seek the truth and to adhere to it once it is known.

John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor

I just read one of those articles that throws off your whole writing schedule. I can't imagine addressing any other subject until I tell you about it.

The article in question is called Isis Boasted of These Christians’ Deaths. Here Are The Lives They Lived. I can't urge you strongly enough to read the whole thing (it's not long). The reporter traveled to Al Aour, home to 13 of the murdered Copts, and spoke to their families about them. In just a few words, their relatives painted a vivid picture of who these men were.

And there’s no stronger remedy against reducing people to mere symbols, or debating points, or generic sources of “inspiration” than getting to know them—even the slightest bit—as persons.

Especially when someone dies a horrifying martyr's death, it’s easy to skip straight over seeing him as a person to considering only his death and its meaning.

It’s funny that these relatives' accounts are so striking, because in the little details they mention there’s not much that’s unusual or spectacular. They loved their children. (“If I yelled at one of the kids he would get upset with me and would take the child and hug him,” says one widow.) They had strong faith. (One woman says her son's "faith gave him the courage to go to Libya in the face of danger.

'I have one God, he's the same here and there,' she remembers Yousef saying.") They were hard workers. (One family of five lived in a single room but the father worked so hard he managed to send his eldest daughter to college.)

And then there are the reports of the lone non-Christian from Chad who died as a martyr, sentencing himself with the words "Their God is my God."

Straight out of the Book of Ruth, succinct as the story of the Good Thief.

And about those videos we discussed last week, whether they should be avoided like the plague or faced head-on, or something in between. The relatives of one man had the opportunity to see the martyrdom of their own son and brother on video.

Theresa refused to watch the video showing her son beheaded. But her other son says he made himself watch it.

"I saw that he had strength in his last moments," the 27-year-old man said, insisting that there was a heavenly light shining on his brother's face, even after he was decapitated. "And that consoled me."

For these people, the decision wasn't a theoretical matter with pros and cons to contemplate. There was no room for theoretical anything. They made their choice, and I'm certainly not about to second-guess them either way. 

Pope Francis says we should give up indifference for Lent. When someone is beheaded for his faith, we’re in danger of becoming indifferent to him as a person: he becomes just one more newsfeed item--albeit the more somber kind--scrolling along in an endless parade of kittens and grandbabies and politicians. But what about all those people who don’t meet a violent and dramatic end but live out their lives laboring away in dangerous and uncomfortable places because their own countries can’t give them the means to feed their families?

Once as a student in Liechtenstein I needed to raise some money quickly for a trip, so found a job as a temp worker in a plastic factory. I’d get up before daybreak to catch the bus into Switzerland and then the train to the factory, where I’d work a twelve-hour shift, ride home, swallow some pain reliever, collapse, and do it again. I did this for all of ten days, and I was pretty impressed with myself, at first.

The work was strenuous and the hours were long, but that wasn't the shock. What got me was the way the bus stop at 5am was crowded with guest-workers already. It dawned on me that they were there every day, not just if they wanted to finance a whim. There were Poles, Serbs, Spaniards, Turks.  They gave every indication of being people going about their everyday business.

"Indifference" didn't begin to describe it. I had been entirely oblivious.

And this was paradise compared to plenty of places. This factory, being Swiss, was spotless and well-ventilated. The lunch we'd buy across the street was succulent and abundant. It's not like I was stuck in a Cambodian garment factory. It's not like I was laboring in a country overrun by terrorists.

Giving up indifference can seem like an abstract thing--until you get to know the people you've been targeting. Reading and these martyrs' families' own words is a start.

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This video is totally sweet and funny on one level, but disturbing on another, at least if you're like me:

I'm completely impressed that, little as she is, she has the moral stuff to resist making a promise she's not sure she's willing to keep—even with her father putting pressure on her. And I realize that he is being funny, not serious. But what the heck?! 

Don't do that, fathers! Don't take advantage of your child's trust and affection to manipulate her into making promises she won't and shouldn't keep. You're messing with her conscience. You're putting yourself between her and her developing sense of right and wrong. 

You really don't want to do that.

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Here we are at the end of February. So…how are your New Year’s resolutions coming along?

Your memory of that seven-week-old fit of willpower might be hazy, or you might recall your sanguine hopes just fine but you prefer not to. But if you’re Catholic, the question need not depress you, right? Because just as New Year’s fervor starts to fade beyond recovery, Ash Wednesday appears on the doorstep. Another chance to start over! Just like a second New Year's Day!

Well, no.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for chances to start over, and one of the things this convert loves most about the Church is Her matchless generosity with second, third, and umpteenth chances.

But despite appearances, New Year’s resolutions and Lenten penances are actually just about opposites. One is all about self-improvement, and the other is all about the futility of self-improvement—all about “without Me you can do nothing.”   As Jacques Philippe points out in The Way of Trust and Love,it’s easy get things very much backwards:

The desire for perfection is a good thing in itself, but it can be ambiguous.  What do we really want?  We would like to be experienced, irreproachable, never make any mistakes, never fall, possess unfailing good judgment and unimpeachable virtue.  Which is to say we would like to have no more need of forgiveness or mercy, no more need of God and his help.  If at bottom our dream of perfection is to be able to manage without God, we are no longer on the path of the Gospel.

New Year’s resolutions are a more familiar, more American-friendly, more can-do kind of thing. Lenten penance is like a stranger who looks just like somebody you know, but as you get closer you realize your mistake.

Your New Year’s resolution and your Lenten penance might even be identical. They might both lead to, say, losing weight, or achieving a more productive lifestyle. (Or not. There are all kinds of different approaches, with their respective “benefits and pitfalls,” as Simcha Fisher points out here.) But here’s the difference: a New Year’s resolution is successful if you persist in doing (or not doing) whatever it is you’ve decided to attack.

A penance is successful if it brings you closer to a Person. If you keep your resolution flawlessly but your flawlessness turns you in on yourself (“I thank Thee, Lord, that I am not like other Catholics…”), then you've failed. St. Paul explains, in his letter to the Corinthians, and he doesn’t mince words:

If Ihave the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have

love, I gain nothing.

This doesn't mean we ought to sneer at self-improvement techniques and fall into either despondent fatalism or complacent passivity. God gave us free will and “placed us in our own hands,” as we personalists like to say, for a reason. "Becoming who we are" is, you might say, the most ambitious self-improvement project anyone could ever embark on. And it won't happen without our taking the reins of our own freedom.

But there's more to it.

So before you declare your Lent a failure, make sure you know what counts as a success.

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Something about about the following anecdotes bothers me. They come from a well-known and highly-respected Catholic priest, in a post about the problem of self-righteousness—how we can't receive forgiveness if we don't acknowledge our need for it. I agree with him on that point. But the examples he chooses to illustrate it seem to me to illustrate something very different instead—something more like the way we easily substitute the reality of repentance and forgiveness with a formulaic program that protects us from actually having to engage in either. We eschew the real demands of Christianity in favor of much less-costly and easier-to-achieve "acts of will," while imagining ourselves to be behaving in an irreproachable way. Here are the anecdotes:

Some time ago I had a bust up with a colleague. He walked into my office and insulted me straight up. It was real ugly. He accused me of stuff of which I was innocent.

So I asked him to sit down. Although I was furious I said, “You have just insulted me very badly. You’ve said I am a bad priest and that I don’t care for my people. You’ve implied that I use parish money to fund my own lavish lifestyle. None of this is true. You have seriously offended me. You have hurt my feelings and wounded our relationship. Are you able to apologize?”

He said, “I have nothing to apologize for.”

“Let me correct you. You do indeed have something to apologize for. Even if you did not mean to offend, you did. You insulted and offended me openly. Are you able to apologize so that I can forgive you?”

“I have done nothing wrong.”

I asked a third time and was rebuffed.

This mirrored an incident I had with someone else a few years ago. I had insulted him. I did it inadvertently, but it was a serious offense. When he called me on it I said, “You’re right. I was wrong. I apologize. Please forgive me.”

He was silent.

I apologized twice more and he made no response. I finally said, “I’m having a problem here. I have offended you and I’m sorry. I apologized sincerely, but you have refused to offer forgiveness. Can this  be so?”

His reply was, “I do not feel that you have shown sufficient remorse.”

Hmmm.

I will go so far as to say I think both stories, as told, display the marks of the master/slave dynamic cleverly disguised as Christian rectitude.

Let me hasten to add that I am aware I could be wrong. Having suffered a lot in similar scenarios, I have become extremely sensitive to this dynamic—perhaps too sensitive. Very possibly the good priest here conveys things he didn't mean, and/or fails to convey vital nuances that were really present in the concrete interactions he describes, so that these anecdotes are no just accounts of what really took place. And possibly I'm reading things into them that aren't really there. 

Still, I'm going to try to show what comes across to me in these stories, with the aim of helping uncover a bad habit-of-approach among staunch Catholics today. (It's intimately linked to the general problem of closed-heartedness on "the religious right" that Pope Francis has been urgently pressing on our attention for two years now.) I'm going to do it by pretending that the "I" in the anecdotes is me. (This is easy to do, since I have myself so often thought and felt and spoken the way this priest does in them.)

First: The Christian mystery of repentance and forgiveness is all about vulnerability; it's about opening our hearts—exposing our selves—putting ourselves at the disposal of another human being who might hurt us. It's about transcending our ego and letting go of control—allowing the protective crust around our hearts be "pierced", for the sake of love and communion. It isn't achieved by a formula of words or a disembodied "act of will." It can't be had without pain. It's usually a work of time and grace.

Human beings (especially those on the "master" side of relationships in our fallen condition) don't like being vulnerable. We don't like humbling ourselves. We shrink from suffering. We dread letting go of control—over our emotions, our situations, and the people we're dealing with. We want to stay in charge.

So, a clear, practical program for dealing with "repentance and forgiveness issues" comes in very handy for us. We know our duty; we know the other person's duty. All that remains is to implement the program, which we do willingly (even though it's not always easy), because we're committed Christians, who understand that our sins won't be forgiven unless we forgive others' sins against us.

So I asked him to sit down. Although I was furious I said, “You have just insulted me very badly. You’ve said I am a bad [mother] and that I don’t care for my [children]. You’ve implied that I [spend recklessly on myself.] None of this is true. You have seriously offended me. You have hurt my feelings and wounded our relationship. Are you able to apologize?”

I imagine I've acquitted myself very well in this extremely unpleasant encounter: I haven't lost control. Instead of insulting him back or punching his lights out, I asked him to sit down, calmly pointed out his offenses, and invited him to engage with me in the repentance and forgiveness program called for in the Gospels. I've done all that can be expected of the offended party.

In reality, though, I've thrown up a protective shield around my heart and my ego; I have declined to be receptive toward him; I have even, in fact, tried to control him. To see it, notice, first, what I didn't do.

1) I didn't take any time to feel my real feelings and let them teach me what they can about myself and my accuser. 

2) I didn't take any time to absorb and consider his charges; I dismissed them out of hand. 

3) I made no effort at all to get to the bottom of his offensiveness—to find out why he thought what he thought and said what he said. Did he have reasons or was he lashing out over something else hidden? Could there be any truth in his accusations? Was there a misunderstanding that I might clear up? Or was there a wound in him crying out for attention? I never asked him any questions. I was too sure that he was out of line and I am innocent of his charges.

Now notice what I did do.

1) I hid my real feelings from him.

2) I corrected him.

3) I made myself his instructor and superior, telling him what to do.

4) I pretended that there was nothing further I could do to restore friendly relations between us unless and until he acted appropriately toward me first.

In short, I expressed no vulnerability; I displayed, on the contrary, a pronounced unwillingness to be vulnerable. I "mastered" myself, the situation, and him. The opportunity for genuine communion between us provided by this occasion was lost, not through his refusal to repent, but through my refusal to open myself to him.

I would have been being much more real, more human, more honest with him and myself, if I had burst into tears or lost my temper. Or, I could have said something like, "Those are horrible, ugly things you're accusing me of! I'm too upset right now to talk about it. Please leave, before I say or do things I'll regret."

Then I could have gone to the chapel and poured out my pain and indignation to God. I could have asked Him to search my heart and show me if there was any truth in what I had just heard; I could have asked Him to teach me how to deal with my gall (which was putting me in mind of what Jesus' must have had to endure); I could have renounced my urge to get even; I could have repented my defensive reaction and begged Him to purify me by His grace; I could have offered the agitation I was suffering for the consolation of the Sacred Heart, or for the good of my accuser, or both. And I could have cried bitter, cleansing tears.

Any and all of these things would have served to soften and open my heart, preparing it for the possibility of genuine reconciliation later, if the opportunity arose.

Meanwhile, my accuser, having leveled his accusations and having experienced my honest reaction—having seen that I am wounded and angry, and having heard that I deny his charges—now has a chance to reflect on what he's said and done. If he cares about me and our relationship, he will ask himself whether he's done well, whether he's been just. Maybe, once he's calmed down and re-centered himself, he'll realize that he hasn't been, and he'll come back to me with sincere contrition. He'll apologize because he's truly sorry, and he'll find me ready to listen and forgive. We'll be closer than we were before.

If he doesn't care about me or about the truth of the matter, though; if he only wanted to hurt me or boost his ego or discharge his own inner tension, there can be no reconciliation between us, at least for the time being. Reconciliation takes two hearts that are genuinely open to each other.

But I can do my part regardless of whether he does his. It may take time (especially if he persists in his falsehoods and denial), but, with the help of grace, I can come to forgive him from my heart and sincerely desire his good. I can even come to believe that he has done me a genuine service, by helping me shed certain illusions and become more humble and self-aware, say. I can sincerely pity the condition he's in (perhaps through no fault of his own) and hope for his recovery—even pray and make sacrifices for his full restoration. I can treat him kindly when we meet, and hope he'll eventually come around. Either way—whether he opens his heart to me or not—my own heart is more open now for genuine love and communion with God and others.

If, on the other hand, we had followed the program I had laid out for us, wherein (without allowing any time, absorption or reflection) he says, "I apologize," and I say, "I forgive you," none of that would have happened. We might have accomplished the appearance of reconciliation, but It would have been a case of rending our garments, not our hearts. 

Now let's turn to the second scene.

I had insulted [a friend]. I did it inadvertently, but it was a serious offense. When he called me on it I said, “You’re right. I was wrong. I apologize. Please forgive me.”

He was silent.

I apologized twice more and he made no response. I finally said, “I’m having a problem here. I have offended you and I’m sorry. I apologized sincerely, but you have refused to offer forgiveness. Can this  be so?”

His reply was, “I do not feel that you have shown sufficient remorse.”

Once again I think I am doing the correct thing, the appropriate thing for a committed Christian.

But, in fact, I am failing to do the genuine, human thing—the "one thing necessary" in a situation like this. I am failing to open my heart to my friend, neglecting to attend to the wound I've caused. I've declined to put myself at his disposal as a human being who has done wrong and owes recompense. Implicitly, I'm instead demanding that he be at my disposal; that he get with my program. "I've done my part, now you do yours or I will be fully justified in judging you guilty of shocking sin." (I might even use you as an example in a column on the "unforgivable sin" of refusing to forgive.)

Notice that I never really considered the possibility that he is right—that I'm not showing him due remorse. I never asked what I might do to persuade him of my sincerity and my desire to repair the damage I've done. Instead, I've taken it for granted that, having said the correct words sincerely, I'm entitled to be forgiven. When he hesitates, I'm appalled. I immediately shift the moral attention in the conversation from me and my wrongdoing to him and his failure to forgive. 

Once again, I have "mastered" him and the situation. The missed chance for true communion is down to my lack of receptivity, not to his unforgiveness.

Imagine if instead, on his first refusal to accept my apology, I had paused, said a quick, silent prayer ("God come to my assistance!"), and consciously opened myself further to the distressed person in front of me—accepting to receive back some of the pain I had caused him. Suppose I softened my voice and said something like. "I must have hurt you more than I realized." Or, "Help me. Show me what I can do to make things right between us. I really care about you and I feel terrible about what I did."  

Such vulnerability might have won him over. Even if it hadn't, it still would have been right and good. It would have tenderized my heart. It would have served to make me more genuinely humble and contrite, more conscious of the damage I to do others through my thoughtlessness. If I had gone to God with my perplexity over the situation, maybe He would have inspired me with creative ideas for making amends. The stage would have been set the stage for our eventual reconciliation...

There's much more to say on this subject, but this is already long. Just three quick points in conclusion:

1) It takes time to get over an injury, especially a serious injury. The deepest and greatest achievements of the soul are usually slow growth events. That process, whether in ourselves or another, deserves respect and patience. It's inhumane, interfering, and impertinent to demand that someone arrive at a far-off destination without spending any time on a journey. 

2) The fact that someone else won't get with our program doesn't mean he isn't repenting or forgiving. It may mean that he senses that we're not really open to him, and he's unwilling to participate in a sham. He's holding out for the real thing. 

3) About vulnerability: I am not entirely sure about this, but I think there are times when it's called for and times when it isn't. We may have honestly done all we can to open ourselves in a given situation or relationship, and find that, for whatever reason, the other person's heart is not open to us or to the truth of the wrong standing between us. In such a case, there is nothing for us to do but commend him to God and "move on," hoping for a breakthrough "in the fullness of time." To be vulnerable in such a case would be to invite fresh offenses—like a battered wife who keeps going back—adding to our injuries and his guilt. [For more on what I mean by "moving on", see here.]  

What we can do, though, is be sad about the breach, and hope it will be healed one day. And we can keep practicing vulnerability with those who are open to us, steadily increasing our capacity for love and communion.

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The other day I shared a message urging people not to watch the ISIS video of the beheading of the Christian Copts—so as not to play into the hands of the terrorists—but instead to share the martyrs’ names and pray for them and their families.

As I expected, nobody objected to the names and the praying, but my friend Lisa’s response took me aback. Lisa is one of the most generous and thoughtful people I know. She has a lot of credibility with me. Here’s what she said:

While I personally don't have the courage nor the heart to watch this I can't help but remember the Germans of WWII who refused to look and refused to see. I believe the Holocaust happened, on the scale it did, in part, because the people looked away. I believe there is a resurgence of Nazism because people have forgotten what we should never forget. Although it is heartbreaking and soul sickening we must never forget that evil is real as we love the Christ who looked over the city and wept and had compassion on them because "the people were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd."

She added:

My heart and mind go back to those old WWII liberation of the concentration camps films where the liberators force the German people to tour the camps for the 1st time. …One of the most striking things about these films is how the Germans initially approach the camps laughing and talking "just as if they were on a picnic", the narrator intones. But that all changes when they are forced to see what they have looked away from in their own backyards. You see, when only the military had to be involved and aware of their doings, nothing changed. But when the German people could not look away any longer, were forced to open their eyes, they came face to face with what their blissful ignorance had purchased.

 

So now I wonder whether those videos should be dismissed as “death porn.” ISIS differs from the Nazis in some respects, of course, but in others, not at all. I’m still thinking it out, but here are some aspects I’m considering:

  • We might turn away out of squeamishness, yes—a selfish insistence on remaining in blissful ignorance. Who wants to be faced with such things? But then again, we might turn away out of respect for the martyrs. We might choose not to spread the images so as to avoid using the persons in them as a tool for obtaining a certain military or political response. Even if it’s a desirable response, is it right to use their images as a means to it?
  • Some would say, yes, sharing the images does precisely that: it honors them. Similarly painful questions have been confronted by pro-life people who object to graphic photos of aborted babies, or to indiscriminate dissemination of them.
  • I certainly don’t accuse anyone I know of this, but it is possible to share such images to generate clicks and publicity for oneself. This is horrible to think about, but maybe one could blind oneself to the horror by focusing on what a good cause it serves.

  • There could be a place for these videos and images, but maybe it’s not on my Facebook feed. I have some very young “friends,” for one thing, but even if I didn’t, each of my 479 “friends” could share the images with others who are total strangers to me. Different viewers will react in different ways, and especially in the case of complete strangers, how can I possibly judge whether I’m doing good or harm?
  • One reason that sharing images of horrible evil could seem not only justified but praiseworthy: most of the media are bent on avoiding certain truths like the plague. The administration refuses to call the victims “Christians” or “Jews.” They opt for vague phrases like “Egyptian citizens” (though the monsters who killed them more candidly said “the people of the Cross”). The President speaks of a “random bunch of folks”—“folks” who happened to be at a Jewish delicatessen. If the Chief Executive and the communications media won’t communicate, somebody has to—and probably soon, before the “gatekeepers” of the internet descend in earnest to prevent it.

  • Another question to ask: will seeing these images, and especially watching these videos, impel us to prayer and action, or just harden us? Or maybe both? I remember an army recruiter remarking that in pre-video-game days, the military had to overcome a certain natural resistance in new soldiers to pulling a trigger and killing a human being. But they've found that resistance has disappeared. Kids accustomed to virtual killing found that real killing didn't faze them. Of course I don’t mean that all soldiers, or all gamers, are heartless. But this was an empirically verified difference one man had noticed.
  • I think I may be more hardened now than the first time a bodiless head appeared, unasked for, on my news feed. “Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” says T. S. Elliot. I know I can’t. Let’s make sure we really are praying for the victims, and for the perpetrators, if we can bring ourselves to, rather than being content with having the right convictions and watching in fascinated horror.

  • On the other hand, blissful ignorance is a dangerously appealing state--especially for us Americans who have grown up soft in unprecedented comfort and prosperity,

immersed in a culture of therapeutic relativism. Even if we believe in absolute good and evil, there’s no growing up unscathed in a culture that denies the truth in a million ways with a million mouthpieces. And the therapeutic aspect teaches us that there’s no such thing as evil, just diagnosable disorders. Besides, you owe it to yourself to feel good. Watching unpleasant and horrific realities don’t make you feel good. Ergo…

So, I still won't watch or spread the images arbitrarily. But my conclusion is not very rousing or very certain. It comes down to “There’s a lot more to this than I thought.”

Maybe we can all agree to pray, though. Here are their names as recorded by the meme that started this train of though:

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