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Monday, March 4, 2013

The mystery of sin (2) - Achilles’ heel, Kryptonite, and starry-eyed interns

The Lord is kind and merciful,O bless the Lord, my soul.

In the scrutinies, celebrated on the third, fourth, and fifth Sundays of Lent, “the elect are instructed gradually about the mystery of sin, from which the whole world and every person longs to be delivered and thus saved from its present and future consequences.” (RCIA #143) Now, it seems to me that one aspect of the mystery of evil can be paraphrased from St Paul: why do I do what I don't want to do, and why don't I do what I want to? This is something worth considering. But when five billion people have that same problem, whole structures of sin develop. Structures and strategies of sin coalesce that perpetuate evil, reproduce it, and manage its evolution. Once that business has been set in motion, how does humanity stop that? Now, there's a mystery that make my impatience and concupiscent thoughts seem like a fairy tale. And guess what? I'm part of that evil machine that disrupts life and ruins people all over the world, and so are you. When we don't notice it, it isn't any less evil, though we may be less culpable. The Mordor that is human commerce and power is hell. What we need is a way out of hell. We think God wants us in there, but we made it ourselves, and it is the natural consequence of our choices. (The link to Soundcloud will play right in your browser - there's nothing to buy or download. It's just if you'd like to listen.)



But "the Lord is kind and merciful." Lent is trying to teach us the way out of hell. Part of the cycle of violence and vengeance is "the blame game." In Sunday's gospel for those of us not celebrating scrutinies, the disciples want to know whether God is punishing evil by inflicting violence, natural disaster or manmade accidents on the wicked. Were those people killed by the falling tower more evil than the rest of us? Jesus tells them no, they were no worse than anyone else. God is patient, Jesus says. God doesn't even want to cut a tree down that doesn't produce fruit. God is a cockeyed optimist, Pollyanna with a spade and handsaw. A little pruning, a little mulch, a little water, and we'll see. Maybe next year it'll be good as new. What's the rush?

The scapegoating mechanism helps us 
as a group to transfer our self-identification with evil to someone else, so that a person or group of persons can bear the weight of our  corporate self-hatred and we can get rid of them and feel better about ourselves. Our leaders can be a natural target. We expect more from them. Occasionally, we have leaders who are really, really good, whether politically or as moral leaders, and then one of two things happens. A character flaw is exposed, and we turn on them. I'm thinking here of former President Clinton, or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. At that point, many of us find that all the good that they've done is compromised, and they fall from our grace. Conversely, we will canonize other good people, like the late Pope John Paul II, and completely overlook their human faults, and act as though they are incapable of error. To me, both of these are fallacies, and need to be seen for what they are: a failure to appreciate both the charisms given to us by God and a denial of the universal fallenness of humanity. We have to look both of those realities straight in the eye.

The genius of the hero in classical tragedy was the "tragic flaw," the blind spot in a great person's character that was the ultimate cause of his downfall. The proverbial example, of course, is Achilles' heel, by which his mother held him as she dipped him into the river of immortality when he was a baby. An indestructible warrior as an adult, he eventually meets his demise at Troy when he is pierced by an arrow in this one vulnerable spot. I think that what is amazing about this insight is that even in antiquity our vulnerabilities were seen to have their origins in our remote pasts, even in early childhood. I'm sure this is a Freudian reading of myth and overly simplistic, but it certainly applies in my life.

In modern stories, too, we like our heroes invulnerable and our bad guys irredeemable. We like Superman and his ability to set things right in society, but how boring would he be without kryptonite? How much fun can good be if it's not compromised somehow? And there you have it again, kryptonite's source is the planet where Kal-el was born. His origins come back to haunt him in a most deadly way. Superman's overcoming of the enemy who wields kryptonite is a battle more to our liking: there's actual human drama in it. Conversely, I think of George Lucas's Star Wars, the complete rottenness of the Sith lords, irredeemable. Yet, in the climactic scene of episode 6, Darth Vader finds redemption through the faith of his son, and is able to finally bring an end to nasty presence of the Sith in the galaxy.

William Jefferson Clinton was one of the most intellectually brilliant presidents we've ever had. His economic policies over the course of eight years reversed the trickle-down rape of the economy overseen by the Reagan-Bush I oligarchy, and when he left office in 2000 the nation had an economic surplus and was well on its way to retiring the national debt. He might have been remembered as presiding over and helping to create one of the greatest domestic booms in history. But his dalliance with the young intern Monica Lewinsky became the focus of the last years of his presidency, and suddenly all the good
 that the man had done was forgotten as the nation focused on his mendacity and marital infidelity. Similar attempts have been made to besmirch the immense good Dr. King has accomplished by focusing on possible occasions of marital infidelity made public by Dr. Ralph Abernathy in his memoir, as well as by others.

Again, looking at the other side of the coin, we see the huge contribution to modern history accomplished by Pope John Paul II on the international scene by his support of the Solidarity movement in Poland, helping in no small way to set the dominos of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe falling one after another. Yet for all of the tremendous good he did, so many of his supporters want to overlook the iron-handedness of the way he ruled the church, his dismissiveness of the claims of women to equal access to church leadership, his unwillingness to bring the full force of his office against priests and bishops who engaged in malfeasance against children and others, and his monolithic rule which threatened to undo the work of a council of the church in modestly decentralizing governance by returning more of it locally to national synods of bishops.

We have trouble with nuance in our moral judgment. Maybe it's because we're projecting our own inadequacy, penchant for betrayal, and desire for integrity onto others, especially our leaders, and we want them to bear the moral weight of living so that we don't have to do it.

The wonderful film Crash exposed some of this prejudice in us. You were watching the movie, seeing peoples' faults and foibles and judging them big time, and by the end of the movie, we saw that we were pretty much wrong about everybody. With as contrived a plot line and characters as that movie employed, real life is so much more complex and we are all connected so much more intimately, and yet the judgments still go on. What's with that?
 

What does this have to do with me, church musician and Catholic? Well, it has to do with Lent. It has to do with rejecting sin, and the first step in that is recognizing it. Jesus had to reject the temptation to be the kind of Messiah who turns stones into bread, who rules like an emperor, and who leaps tall parapets in a single bound. Jesus, by rejecting the temptation to throw aside his humanity and "fix" his problems and the world's with powerful deeds, shows us what God is like. Since the Garden of Eden, we have wanted to be like gods. We want more than the amazing blessing of solidarity and community. And we created God in our image and likeness. Instead of being one who went "walking in the garden in the breezy time of day," we made a god that looked like a king, a judge, and a warrior. We have to reject that god, who is really an idol. Otherwise, we try to imitate a model we were never meant to fit. We were made for success as a people; we lust after success as heroes and outliers.

Yet when we ourselves fail, we tend to cut ourselves a lot of slack. When we screw up, we say, "I'm only human," and expect other people to cut us the same slack. The gospel instructs us to remove the beam in our own eye before concentrating on the splinter in the other's eye, but we go on projecting our own moral turpitude onto others. The fact that a lot of this anger and vindictiveness centers around sexual (mis)conduct is worthy of further reflection, too. Why, on the one hand, were people so quick to destroy Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky affair, and on the other so quick to reward the murderous conduct of his predecessors for Iran-Contra, for supporting Central American right-wing dictatorships, for arming Saddam Hussein and the Taliban, for supporting Saudi despots and intransigent Israeli oppressors, for training the death-squads of Guatemala and El Salvador on U.S. soil at the School of the Americas with the honorary renaming of highways and airports and re-election? When did sex get to be worse than murder, war, neglect of the poor, and systematized larceny?

The Lord is kind and merciful. O bless the Lord, my soul.
Before sin entered the world, God was here. God created (whatever that means) things, us, the cosmos, to be good. For all our faults and sin and scandal and hypocrisy, the church, meaning you and me and (at least) a billion other people, is God's strategy of grace. An interdependent body, a living organism of grace and gift serving need, we could offer solidarity in the Holy Spirit, formed by the word of God, as an alternative to the brutality of economics and politics. Schools, hospitals and clinics, reconciliation commissions, ministry to the marginalized, the poor, the hungry, immigrants, exiles, and homeless, all of these are ways that the light of grace pushes back against the night. All of these are ways the church in the world has and does proclaim the mercy of God over the brutality of sin.

Looking back over this, it may seem I was harsh on Reagan and Bush, and soft on Bill Clinton and probably myself. I suppose that was judgmental and not helpful to the spirit of Lent, mutual acceptance, and dialogue. I apologize. Hey, I'm only human.


(Other posts on Lent 3/4/5 Year A and the scrutinies here.)