We live in a time of pain and division. Daily, in the world and in the church, hatred, anger and bitterness are growing. It is ever harder to live at peace with each other, to be calm, to not alienate someone just by being. There is so much wound and division around. Women’s issues, poverty and social justice, abortion, sexual morality, questions of leadership and authority, issues of war and peace, and styles of living and ministry, are touching deep wounds and setting people bitterly against each other. This is not even to mention issues such as personality conflicts, jealousy, greed and sin – which habitually divide.
Our psychic temperature is on the rise and with it, as Jesus predicted, son is turning against father, daughter against mother, sister against brother. We are being divided. It is no longer possible to escape taking a stand on these issues and, to take a stand on them, is to make enemies, to have someone hate you, to be accused of being narrow and to be alienated from other sincere persons. For anyone who’s sensitive, this is the deepest pain of all. Moreover, none of us ever approach these issues in complete fairness and objectivity. We are wounded, whether we admit it or not. Knowingly and unknowingly, in all these issues we have been either oppressor or oppressed and consequently we approach them either too full of wound or too defensive to see straight. In either case, the temptation is to become bitter and to give in to the propensity to feel that we have the right to be angry, to hate certain people, to be self-righteous, and to dissociate entirely sympathy and understanding from certain others. That is a tragic mistake. As valid, painful and imperative as these issues may be, reason, love, understanding and long-suffering, may never give way to a progressive and militant bitterness which can irrevocably alienate. That is the road to hell because bitterness is hell.
Yes, that is what is happening today. We are too easily giving into the temptation to think that because we have been wounded, or because others are wounded, we have the right to hate, to withdraw our empathy, to think in terms of black and white, and to be bitter. It is getting worse. Bitterness like cancer is slowly infecting more and more of Christ’s body. We need to read this, the sign of the times, and respond to it out of the Gospel. It is my submission that, given this bitterness, the Christian vocation today, for a time, will be that of letting ourselves bleed, in tears and tension, to wash out these wounds.
Let me illustrate what this means by way of an example: Just to be alive in the church today is to be caught in a painful tension. For example, the issues of women’s rights and social justice are, without doubt, two of the primary challenges that the Holy Spirit is giving our age. Yet Rome refuses to raise seriously the question of the ordination of women and it silences Leonardo Boff, a voice for the poor. With that comes a wave of resentment, bitterness and hatred.
Daily I move in circles where people are bitter about these issues and I find myself increasingly reluctant to defend Rome’s stance on them. On these two issues we are sitting on a powder keg and a deadly bitterness is flowing from them. Yet, no serious Catholic can be cavalier about the church as institution, as universal. Some 800 million Catholics cannot travel together without compromise, frustration, impatience, tears, rules and traditions which, at times, might seemingly strangle some of the life that the Holy Spirit is spawning. When a universal church moves forward, it can only be in baby steps. So what does the Christian who wants to be faithful today do? Ignore Rome? Consider the women’s movement and social justice as fads? Grow cynical? Mind his/her own business and let be what is? Say “the hell with them all”? Since nothing else is possible, for now, save for bitterness which must be rejected, the answer lies in a fidelity which accepts suffering. To be faithful today means to live in pain, in tension, in frustration, in seeming compromise, often hated by both sides.
Our call today is to reconcile by feeling the pain of all sides and by letting our pain and helplessness be a buffer that heals, the blood that helps wash the wound. As a simple start, we can test how open-minded we are on all of these issues by seeing how much pain we are in. Not to be in pain is not to be open-minded. It is a time of pain for the church, a time when we will all feel some hatred, a time when above all we must keep our peace of mind, our inner calm of spirit and our outer charity. Most of all, it is time to resist bitterness and that hardness of spirit which dampens the Holy Spirit.