The Personalist Project


...conformism consists primarily in an attitude of compliance or resignation, in a specific form of passivity that makes the man-person to be but the subject of what happens instead of being the actor or agent responsible for building his own attitudes and his own commitment in the community. Man then fails to accept his share in constructing the community and allows himself to be carries with and by the anonymous majority.

Karol Wojtyla, The Acting Person

Just a brief follow-up to my post of yesterday (which will need more than one):

I want to explain a little what I, Christian personalist that I am, mean by violence.

In the broadest sense, any act that tends toward de-throning another person's will in the zone of his due freedom is a form of violence. Violence is aggression (physical or psychological) against another person— his rights, his property, his integrity as a self.

If someone breaks into my house and takes what is mine, he commits violence against my property. If a man sees a woman and "gropes her with his eyes", mentally using her as a sex object, he commits violence against her dignity as a person. If a mother screams at her child, intimidating him into obedience, she commits violence against him. Lying and manipulating in order to get another to do my will are forms of violence against another person's freedom. If I gossip about a colleague to get in good with my boss, revealing what is private, I've done violence.

Neglect, whether physical or emotional, might also be considered violence, though the term abuse may be more apt for such cases.

Looking at it this way, it is easy to grasp why self-defense, even lethal self defense (whether on the personal or communal level), is not violence. There is nothing aggressive about protecting myself and what is mine from aggression. It's true on the psychological level too. To hurl insults is violent, while to give a hard snub to someone who is too forward and familiar isn't. Bullying is violence; fighting off a bully isn't.

The more I study John Paul II and ruminate over the meaning of the master/slave dynamic the clearer this all becomes to me. The antithesis of the master/slave dynamic is love. And, in a way, the first act of love is a "standing back", a declining to interfere and manipulate, a respect for boundaries, a self-restraint. Here is a key passage from Love and Responsibility [emphasis mine]:

The incommunicable, the inalienable, in a person is intrinsic to that person’s inner self, to the power of self determination, free will.  No one else can want for me.  No one can substitute his act of will for mine.  It does sometimes happen that someone very much wants me to want what he wants.  This is the moment when the impassable frontier between him and me, which is drawn by free will, becomes most obvious.  I may not want that which he wants me to want—and in this precisely I am incommunicabilis.  I am, and I must be, independent in my actions.  All human relationships are posited on this fact.  All true conceptions about education and culture begin from and return to this point.

And here is John Crosby:

The more one enters into the interiority and subjectivity of persons, the more one will have to acknowledge that the deepest acts and commitments of persons are very little amenable to the instruments of coercion.

In interpersonal relations, it's not enough that I mean well, or that I have an objective good (like my child's safety) as my end. The means matter. I can't use force to get my will. I have to respect the other's freedom.

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My Facebook feed is full of approving links to the video of that mom chasing her son out of the riots. She's being called "Mom of the Year" and "America's Favorite Mother."

My response to it was so radically different that I felt driven to say something. When I saw a woman hitting and chasing and screaming at her son I thought, "No wonder he wants to riot; he was raised in violence."

I don't blame the mother. She was probably raised in violence too. And I can only say I'm grateful there were no cameras rolling during certain moments of my parenting when I was overcome with anger and fear—because they wouldn't look much better than that, and I had far less excuse.

But I think it's urgent that we see and understand that that's what it was: It was a woman overcome with anger and fear reacting with rage and violence toward her child. She said it of herself, "I just lost it." It's completely understandable under the circumstances, but it's not okay. It's not something we should be holding up as a model of great parenting. On the contrary, it's a prime indicator of the terrible moral crisis we face as a society—an occasion for sorrow and penitence, and sober reflection on what has gone wrong and how it might be addressed. I refer to the culture of violence at the root of so much of the breakdown and dysfunction in and among us.

Violence begets violence. More, and worse: violence toward children begets all manner of evil. I'm not speaking on the level of politics and social science, but metaphysics and moral philosophy.

A human person is made for love and substantially constituted by her relations to others. We enter the world utterly vulnerable and in need. To the extent that, instead of love, we receive neglect and abuse at the hands of the adults in our lives, our development as personalities and moral beings is thwarted and distorted. The violence we suffer becomes the violence we inflict—on others and ourselves (in the form, for instance, of addiction, depression and compulsions).

It's the law of the fall; the master/slave dynamic at work.

The solution proposed by the gospel—and the only one fully consistent with the nature and dignity of persons—is love. Jesus redeemed the world by absorbing its violence into his own flesh and offering himself as a sacrifice. Saints throughout history have imitated his example. Even we participate in the redemptive dynamic every time we "offer up" a suffering of our own, and when, instead of using power to get our way, we defer to others in love and service.

Martin Luther King, Jr., following Jesus and Gandhi, showed how the principle can translate to a practical program for overcoming social injustice in our day and age. He saw (student of Christian personalism that he was) that the only force greater than violence is love. His memoir, Stride Toward Freedom, recounts the story.

More precisely it is the chronicle of 50,000 Negroes who took to heart the principles of nonviolence, who learned to fight for their rights with the weapon of love, and who, in the process, acquired a new estimate of their own human worth.

But my main concern here is with the problem of child abuse, not social injustice. I'm not talking only about the most egregious cases. I'm talking about the habit in each and all of us of resorting to violence in raising our children. Unless we come to grips with that, we won't be able to renew our society.

All this needs more explaining than I have the leisure for at the moment. For now, I'll just just commend you all to Alice Miller, and promise to say more soon.

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Some months back Fr. Longenecker posted about things that are killing the family. It's a good list. But I thought it should be balanced by a similar one of things that are strengthening the family. I've been working on it in the background since.

The NCR will publish it soon, and I'll link when it does. (Here it is.) Some of the points will need further developing. All of them, I propose, spring from the same root, viz., a new appreciation of the "the inviolable dignity of the human person" in our age.

From one point of view, the family is falling apart, and society with it. From another—with the eyes of faith—we can see that it is being refounded on firmer footing, theologically, philosophically and experientially.

And what is that new foundation? Kierkegaard says it well:

To build up is to construct something from the ground up. In the simple illustration of a house, a building, everyone knows what is meant by ground and foundation. But spiritually understood, what are the ground and foundation of the life of the spirit which are to bear the building? In very fact it is love; love is the origin of everything, and spiritually understood love is the deepest ground of the life of the spirit.

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I’ve been mostly quiet about a certain local story, because it’s already been blown out of proportion plenty, everywhere from the Detroit Free Press to the U.K.'s Daily Mail. It doesn’t deserve even more traction.

But this horse is already all the way out of the barn and halfway across town. And as long as I’m right here in the Ann Arbor parish in question, I can at least share some of my impressions about how deceptive limelight can be.

A few weeks ago, our pastor, Fr. Edward Fride, arranged for the parish to co-sponsor a series of firearm safety classes that enable the student to earn a concealed pistol license. If you think that sounds a little unusual, you’re not alone. The classroom portion, but not the shooting part, took place in the parish center, and the focus was firmly on self-defense and the protection of the helpless. Still, the Bishop wasn't buying it. As soon as he objected, Fr. Ed canceled the classes and made an unequivocal statement expressing his willingness to obey, which read, in part:

The Lord Jesus has blessed us greatly in calling Bishop Earl Boyea to serve us as the fifth Bishop of Lansing. I have been and continue to be very grateful for his ministry….he has decided and publically stated that CPL classes are not appropriate on Church property. That is his call to make and we will obviously follow his policy on this and on all decisions he makes as he shepherds this Diocese. No parish is an island unto itself and no priest operates on his own. I am his priest and I will continue to serve him to the best of my ability.

The furor died down dramatically after that: the  “priest sets self against bishop on hot-button topic” template had gotten obsolete in a hurry.

It’s not that discussions of appropriate use of guns or the theological evaluation of using lethal force are unimportant. It was just that those topics were not getting addressed in any serious way.

Having known him for ten years, I can say with all confidence that Fr. Ed’s motivation was his striking and constant concern for the safety of all of us, especially our children. Some parishioners thought it imprudent; others thought it unbiblical, but I don’t think anybody questioned his motives.

Journalists and the combox “community,” on the other hand, got a little carried away.

At the one extreme, proof-texters were out in force, brandishing “Thou shalt not kill” and “Turn the other cheek,” oblivious to any possible distinctions between self-defense and cold-blooded murder.

At the other, people applauded wholeheartedly, but for all the wrong reasons. One overwrought man complained that people kept on calling firearms “weapons,” arguing (if that’s the word) that they only became such once they’re used to shoot somebody.  No distinction between carrying a pistol and a cast-iron frying pan, since they could both, in theory, be lethal.

Gun control and gun rights are nowhere near the top of my list of things to worry about. It's not a question I'm well informed about, so I'm not about to pontificate on it.

What struck me was this: I didn't recognize the man people were describing as Fr. Ed. He didn't resemble him in the least. Here was a man’s whole life reduced to one incident which happened to whet the media's appetite. Here was a pastor who’d recently celebrated 25 years of priesthood. Whose parish has a 24-hour adoration chapel. With record numbers of seminarians and women in religious formation. Fr. Ed's a licensed pilot and a tae kwon do master of some kind. He's a scholar of Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. He's a Star Trek fan. You can hear his memorable conversion story here.

None of this means you have to agree with him about firearms classes. But if you're like me, it might make you wonder whether you really know anything at all about other public figures you've read about.

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This seems to be my day for rethinking Bible stories—the over-familiar ones, the ones that appear in every children’s Bible, sometimes watered down beyond recognition, so as not to alarm the kids. Last night I saw our local homeschool co-op's rousing musical rendition of the story of Moses, and earlier, Gabe, my six-year-old, read me a story about Jonah.

We were discussing how Jonah wasn’t fearful that Ninevites would scorn him or ignore him—on the contrary, he was worried that they would respond and repent and be forgiven.

One thing I've tried to instill in even my youngest kids is that we don’t just wish for bad guys to be defeated: we wish for them to turn into good guys. We don’t pray that God should simply remove them from power or give them their just desserts or hurl them into Hell. We pray for their conversion of heart. I want my children to see that as an even more desirable miracle than their sudden disappearance from the face of the earth.

My little ones are not especially docile, but they are definitely kindhearted. They embrace this message, and they regularly pray for certain politicians and others with whom we here at Chez Torres heartily disagree. For months Gabe was a faithful intercessor for one Barack O'Biden, and Juan Diego always remembers to pray for the terrorists.

So they have a hard time understanding why Jonah didn’t just want the Ninevites to repent and live happily ever after.

I sometimes find myself in the uncomfortable position of reluctantly explaining that, well, sometimes when you get older and you've seen people do awful things, you forget to wish their hearts would change and you just want them to get what's coming to them. I don’t know how I would react if someone tried to kill a child of mine, or if I lived in ISIS-controlled territory and somebody put my toddler in a cage and paraded him around before setting him on fire. I doubt a wish for my tormenter's conversion of heart would be the first thing to leap to mind.

So part of the problem is that little children who've had a stable and happy time of it aren't able to conceive of the evils human beings are capable of. The trick is to see how evil the evil is and still wish the evildoer well.

Abby Johnson, who founded And Then There Were None to help abortion workers leave the industry and find healing and practical help, runs into certain people who are not content to let bad guys become good guys.  As she relates in a Facebook post:

Recently, an anti-abortion group posted an article talking about a clinic worker who left her job at the abortion industry and is now prolife. There were some VERY hateful comments directed towards this courageous woman who chose to tell her story to help inform others. Many of the comments condemned her to hell, said that God would never forgive her since she was a "cold blooded murderer," and a few even said that she should die for her past sins. (And please don't say they "may have been prochoicers trying to make us look bad." If you haven't seen try vitriol in the prolife movement, then you need to wake up).

ALL life matters. I challenge you to be prolife not just for the innocent, but for the guilty, too....… The prolife movement says that abortion clinic workers dehumanize the baby, and that is true. But the prolife movement has dehumanized these workers, making us no better than them.

Here's what strikes me: "for the guilty, too." So many of us have it in the back of our minds that EITHER you take evil seriously OR you're merciful to evildoers. Or else we have two categories of evildoers firmly fixed in our heads: the people who are guilty of the kind of evils we ourselves find appealing (or trivial), and the kinds who commit evils of which we say "I could never do that." The first deserve mercy and the second don't. 

But mercy is by definition undeserved.

And God has no such compartments in His mind.

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