RonRolheiser,OMI

On How We React to Criticism and Opposition

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Have you ever noted how we spontaneously react to a perceived threat? Faced with a threat, our primal instincts tend to take over and we instantly freeze over and begin to shut all the doors opening to warmth, gentleness, and empathy inside us.

That’s a natural reaction, deeply rooted inside our nature. Biologists tell us that, whenever we perceive something or someone as threatening us, paranoia instinctually arises inside us and has the effect of driving us back towards a more primitive place inside our bodies, namely, the reptile part our brain, that remnant still inside us from our evolutionary origins millions of years ago. And reptiles are cold-blooded. So too, it seems, are we when we’re threatened.

This, I believe, helps explain much of the paranoia and violence in our world today as well as the bitter rhetoric that, almost universally, is blocking any real possibility of meaningful discussion apposite our tensions today within politics, economics, and our churches.

We live in a bitterly polarized world.  All of us recognize this, and all of us see a lot of cold-bloodedness inside world politics, inside the politics within our own countries and communities, and, sadly, not least, inside our churches. What we see in nearly every discussion today where there is disagreement is a cold, hard rhetoric that is not really open to genuine dialogue and is, invariably, the antithesis of charity, graciousness, and respect. What we see instead is paranoia, demonization of those who disagree with us, ridicule of our opponents’ sincerity and values, and blind self-defensiveness.

Moreover this bitterness and disrespect, so contrary to all that’s in the Gospels and to all that’s noble inside us, is invariably “sacralized”, that is, it is rationalized as demanded by “God” because we believe that what we are doing is for God, or for truth, or for country, or for the poor, or for mother-nature, or for art, or for something whose transcendent value, we believe, justifies our bracketing both Jesus and common courtesy. If you doubt this, simply turn on any radio or television station that does commentary on politics or religion or listen to any political or religious debate today. We are, as John Shea puts it, more skilled in justification than in self-examination; but, then, we can sacralize our disrespect and lack of elemental charity.

But, in doing this we are far from the Gospel, far from Jesus, and far from what’s best inside us. We’re meant to be more than the reptile part of our brains and more than the instincts we inherited from our ancient ancestors, the beasts of prey. We’re called to something higher, called to respond to threat beyond the blind response of instinct.

St. Paul’s own reaction to threat can serve as a template for what our ideal response should be. He writes: When we are ridiculed, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we respond gently.  (1 Corinthians 4, 12-13) Earlier, in the same Letter, he had already given another counsel in regards to dealing with opposition. His counsel: Live with enough patience inside opposition so as not have to defend yourself, let God and history do that for you: “It does not concern me in the least that I be judged by you or any human tribunal; I do not even pass judgment on myself; I am not conscious of anything against me, but I do not hereby stand acquitted; the one who judges me is the Lord. Therefore, do not make any judgment before the appointed time.”

Admittedly, this is difficult. Our instinctual self is not easily subdued. Like everyone else, I struggle a lot with this. Every time I hear or read someone who dismisses my preaching and writing as heretical, or dangerous, or (even more biting) as light-weight fluff, the reptile part of my brain stirs to do its ancient job and my natural instincts bitterly resist the high road that St. Paul so wisely counsels. Natural instinct does not want to try to understand the position of the one who has belittled us, nor does it does not want to bless and endure and respond gently. It wants blood. I suspect that everyone’s instincts work in the same way. Natural instinct doesn’t easily honor the Gospel.

But, that’s the test; indeed one of the litmus tests of Christian discipleship. When we look at the core of Jesus’ moral teachings and ask ourselves, what more than anything else sets Jesus apart from other moral teachers? What particular challenge of his might serve as a litmus test for genuine discipleship?

I submit that at the core of Jesus’ teaching lies this challenge: Can I love an enemy? Can I bless someone who curses me? Can I wish good to someone who wishes me evil? Can I genuinely forgive someone who’s been unfair to me?  And, perhaps even more importantly, can I live in patience when I’m in tension, not rushing to defend myself, but leaving that defense to history and to God?

Our Timidity in the Face of God’s Abundance

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My youth had both its strengths and its weaknesses. I grew up on a farm in heart of the Canadian prairies, a second-generation immigrant. Our family was a large one and the small farm we lived on gave us enough to live on, though just enough. There were never any extras. We were never hungry or genuinely poor, but we lived in a conscriptive frugality. You were given what you needed, but rarely anything extra. You got just one portion of the main course at a meal and one dessert because these had to be measured out in a way that left enough for everyone. And I lived happily inside that, taking for granted that this was the way life was meant to be, assuming that all resources are limited and you shouldn’t ever be asking for or taking more than what’s necessary.

And such a background has its strengths: You grow into adulthood with the sense that there’s no free lunch, you need to earn what you eat.  You know too that you shouldn’t be taking more than your share because the goods of this world are limited and meant to be shared with everyone. If you take more than your share, than there won’t be enough for everyone. Resources are limited, so if anyone gets too much, someone gets too little.

But such an upbringing also has its downside: When everything has to be measured-out to ensure that there’s enough for everyone and you live with the underlying fear that there might not be enough, you can easily end-up with a sense of scarcity rather than of abundance and an inclination towards stinginess rather than generosity.

A mindset of scarcity rather than of abundance debilitates us in several ways: First, it tends to leave us standing before life’s abundance too timid to celebrate life with any exuberance. Life is too equated with frugality and you are forever haunted by guilt in the face of life’s goodness and especially before any experience of luxury, not unlike the discomfort felt by Jesus’ disciples when they are face to face with a prodigal woman lavishly anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume. Inside a mindset of scarcity there’s the perennial temptation to falsely idealize suffering and poverty and have them replace grace and abundance as God’s real gift to us. More crippling still is the fact that a sense of scarcity too often gives us a concept of a God who is limited and who is frugal rather than prodigal. But that isn’t the God of Jesus.

Allow me just one, rather pointed, illustration: A seminary professor whom I know shares this story. He’s been teaching seminarians for many years and in recent years, when teaching about the sacrament of penance, is frequently asked this question, often as the first question in the class: “When can I refuse absolution? When do I not grant forgiveness?” The anxiety expressed here is not, I believe, triggered by a need for power but by a very sincere fear that we have to be rather scrupulous in handing out God’s mercy, that we shouldn’t be handing out cheap grace. And, undergirding that fear, I believe, is the unconscious notion that God too works out of a sense of scarcity rather than of abundance, and that God’s mercies, like our own resources, are limited and need to be measured out very sparingly.

But that’s not the God whom Jesus incarnated and revealed. The Gospels rather reveal a God who is prodigal beyond all our standards and beyond our imagination. The God of the Gospels is the Sower who, because he has unlimited seeds, scatters those seeds everywhere without discrimination: on the road, in the ditches, in the thorn bushes, in bad soil, and in good soil. Moreover that prodigal Sower is also the God of creation, that is, the God who has created and continues to create hundreds of billions of galaxies and billions and billions of human beings. And this prodigal God gives us this perennial invitation: Come to the waters, come without money, come without merit because God’s gift is as plentiful, available, and as free as the air we breathe.

The Gospel of Luke recounts an incident where Peter, just after he had spent an entire night fishing and had caught nothing, is told to cast out his net one more time and, this time, Peter’s net catches so many fish that the weight of the catch threatens to sink two boats. Peter reacts by falling on his knees and confessing his sinfulness. But, as the text makes clear, that’s not the proper reaction in the face of over-abundance. Peter is wrongly fearful, in effect, wanting that over-abundance to go away; when what Jesus wants from him in the face of that over-abundance is to go out to the world and share with others that unimaginable grace.

What God’s over-abundance is meant to teach us is that, in the face of limitless grace, we may never refuse anyone absolution.

May your Kingdom Come, But not Yet

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A friend of mine likes to humor about his struggles in growing up. When I was in my twenties, he quips, I felt that by the time I was forty I would have grown-up enough to let go of my bad habits. But, when I turned forty, I gave myself an extra ten years, promising myself that by age fifty, I’d have conquered these habits. Well, now I’m my fifties and I’ve promised myself that by age sixty, I’ll be more mature and more serious about the deeper things in life.

Most of us, if we are honest, have a similar story. We’re well intentioned, but we keep pushing the things we need to change in our lives off into the future: Yes, I need to do this, but I’m not ready yet. I want more time. Sometime in the future I’ll do this.

That’s a near-universal sentiment, and for good reason. The tension we experience between our desire to grow-up and our perennial procrastination and infinite stalling in doing that, reflects in fact a tension that lies at the heart of Jesus’ message, a tension between God’s promises as being already here and God’s promises as still coming. Simply put: Everything Jesus promised is already here and everything Jesus promised is still coming. We’re already living the new, resurrected life, even as we’re waiting for it still to come. What lies inside this paradox?

Biblical scholars and theologians tell us that everything Jesus came to bring us (the Reign of God, the Kingdom of God, the New Age, the Final Age, the reign of justice on this earth, new life, the resurrection, eternal life, heaven) is already here, except that it’s also still coming. It’s here now, but not fully; a present reality, but in tension. And it’s still coming, in its fullness; still to arrive, in ecstasy. It’s already here and it’s still to be realized. For instance, when Jesus says that he has come to bring us new life, he is not talking simply about our future our lives in heaven; he is also talking about our lives here, already now. The new life is already here, he assures us. Heaven has already begun.

Jesus preached this very clearly and the problem was not that his hearers didn’t understand him. They understood; but, almost universally, they resisted that message. Much as they yearned for God’s Kingdom to be already here, like my friend who keeps asking for another ten years to get his life in order, they preferred to push things into the future. Having God become concrete in their lives was far too threatening.

Gerhard Lohfink, the renowned Biblical scholar, aptly articulates both the resistance that Jesus’ hearers had to this part of his message and the reason for that resistance: “Jesus’ hearers prefer to push everything off into the future, and the story comes to no good end. The reign of God announced by Jesus is not accepted. The ‘today’ offered by God is denied. And that, that alone, is why ‘already’ becomes ‘not yet’. …. It is not only in Nazareth that the ‘today’ of the Gospel was not accepted. Later also, in the course of the church’s history, it has again and again been denied or rendered toothless. The reason was the same as in Nazareth: apparently it goes against the human grain for God to become concrete in our lives. Then people’s desires and favorite notions are in danger, and so are their ideas about time. It can’t be today, because that would mean that our lives have to change today already. Therefore it can lie, hygienically and snugly packed, at rest, inconsequential.”

I suspect that all of us can relate to that: It’s very threatening to have God become “concrete” in our lives, as opposed to God simply being a reality that will one day become very real. Because if God is “concrete” already now that means that our worlds have to change now and we have to stop pushing things into the indefinite future.  This isn’t so much a fault in faith as it is a procrastination, a stalling, wanting of a little more time before we need to get serious. We’re like the guests in the Gospel parable who are invited to wedding banquet. We too want to go to the feast, intend to go to the feast; but, first, we need to attend to our marriages, our businesses, our ambitions. We can get serious later. There’s time. We fully intend to take Jesus seriously; it’s just that we want a little more time before we do that.

We are all, I suspect, familiar with St. Augustine’s infamous prayer. After converting to Christianity at age twenty-five, he struggled for another nine years to bring his sexuality into harmony with his faith. During those nine years, he prayed this way: Lord, make me a chaste Christian … but not yet!

To his credit, unlike many of us, at least eventually he stopped pushing things into the indefinite future.