RonRolheiser,OMI

Of Virtue and Sin 

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There’s an axiom which says: Nothing feels better than virtue. There’s a deep truth here, but it has an underside. When we do good things we feel good about ourselves. Virtue is indeed its own reward, and that’s good. However, feeling righteous can soon enough turn into feeling self-righteous. Nothing feels better than virtue; but self-righteousness feels pretty good too.

We see this famously expressed in Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. The Pharisee is practicing virtue, his actions are exactly what they should be, but what this produces in him is not humility, nor a sense of his need for God and mercy, but self-righteousness and a critical judgment of others. So too for all of us, we easily become the Pharisee: Whenever we look at another person who’s struggling and say, There but for the grace of God go I, our seeming humble gratitude can indicate two very different things. It can be expressing a sincere thanks for having been undeservedly blessed or can just as easily be expressing a smug self-righteousness about our own sense of superiority.

Classical spiritual writers like John of the Cross, when talking about the challenges we face as walk the way of discipleship, speak about something they call: The faults of those who are beyond initial conversion. What they highlight is this: We are never free from struggle with sin. As we mature, sin simply takes on ever more subtle modalities inside us. For example, before initial maturity, what we’ve classically called the seven deadly sins (pride, greed, envy, lust, anger, gluttony, and sloth) express themselves in us in ways that are normally pretty crass and overt. We see this in children, in adolescents, and in the immature. For them, pride is plainly pride, jealousy is jealousy, selfishness is selfishness, lust is lust, and anger is anger. There’s nothing subtle or hidden here, the fault is out in the open.

But as we overcome these sins in there crasser forms they invariably take on more subtle forms in our lives. So that now, for instance, when we’re humble, we become proud and self-righteous in our humility. Witness: Nobody can be more smug and judgmental than a new convert or someone in first fervor.

But sin too has its complexities.  Some of our naïve ideas about sin and humility also needed to be critically examined. For example, we sometimes nurse the romantic notion that sinners are humble, aware of their need for forgiveness, and open to God.  In fact, as a generalization, this is true for the gospels. As Jesus was preaching, it was the Pharisees that struggled more with his person and message, whereas the sinners, the tax collectors and prostitutes, were more open to him. So this can pose a question: Does sin, more than virtue, make us aware of our need for God?

Yes, when the sin is honest, humble, admitted, and contrite or when our wrong actions are the result of being wounded, taken advantage of, or exploited.  Not all sin is born morally equal: There’s honest sin and dishonest sin.

As human beings, we’re weak and lack the moral strength to always act according to what’s best in us. Sometimes we just succumb to temptation, to weakness. Sin needs no explanation beyond this: We’re human! Sometimes too, people are caught in sinful situations which are really not of their own making. They’ve been abused, made to live in sinful circumstances not of their own choosing, are victims of trafficking, are victims of unjust familial or social situations, or are too-deeply wounded to actualize their own moral faculties. In situations like this, wrong action is a question of survival not of free choice. As one woman described it to me: “I was simply a dog, biting in order not to be bitten.” In these cases, generally, beneath an understandably hardened, calloused surface lies a still innocent heart that clearly knows its need for God’s mercy. There’s such a thing as honest sin.

But there’s also sin that’s not honest, that’s rationalized, that’s forever buffered by a pride that cannot admit its own sinfulness. The result then, most often, is a hardened, bitter, judgmental soul. When sin is rationalized, bitterness will invariably follow, accompanied by a hatred towards the kind of virtue from which it has fallen.  When we rationalize, our moral DNA will not let itself be fooled. It reacts and punishes us by having us hate ourselves. And, when someone hates himself, that hatred will issue forth in a hatred of others and, more particularly, in a hatred of the exact virtue from which he has fallen. For example, it’s no accident that a lot of people having adulterous affairs have a particular cynicism towards chastity.

Finding ourselves as weak and sinful can soften our hearts, make us humble, and open us to receive God’s mercy. It can also harden our souls and make us bitter and judgmental. Not every sinner prays like the Publican.

Virtue makes us grateful. Sin makes us humble.

That’s true. Sometimes.

Of Winners and Losers

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Our society tends to divide us up into winners and losers. Sadly, we don’t often reflect on how this affects our relationships with each other, nor on what it means for us as Christians.

What does it mean? In essence, that our relationships with each other tend are too charged with competition and jealousy because we are too infected with the drive to out-do, out-achieve, and out-hustle each other. For example, here are some of slogans that pass for wisdom today: Win! Be the best at something! Show others you’re more talented than they are! Show that you are more sophisticated than others! Don’t apologize for putting yourself first! Don’t be a loser!

These phrases aren’t just innocence axioms cheerleading us to work harder; they’re viruses infecting us so that most everything in our world now conspires with the narcissism within us to push us to achieve, to set ourselves apart from others, to stand out, to be at the top of the class, to be the best athlete, the best dressed, the best looking, the most musically talented, the most popular, the most experienced, the most travelled, the one who knows most about cars, or movies, or history, or sex, or whatever. At all costs we drive ourselves to find something at which we can beat others. At all costs we try to somehow set ourselves apart from and above others. That idea is almost genetically engrained in us now.

And because of that we tend to tend to misjudge others and misjudge our own meaning and purpose. We structure everything too much around achieving and standing out. When we achieve, when we win, when we are better than others at something, our lives seem fuller; our self-image inflates and we feel confident and worthwhile. Conversely, when we cannot stand out, when we’re just another face in the crowd, we struggle to maintain a healthy self-image.

Either way, we are forever struggling with jealousy and dissatisfaction because we cannot help constantly seeing our own lack of talent, beauty, and achievement in relationship to other’s successes. And so we both envy and hate those who are talented, beautiful, powerful, rich, and famous, holding them up for adulation even as we secretly wait for their downfall, like the crowd that praises Jesus on Palm Sunday and then screams for his crucifixion just five days later.  

This leaves us in an unhappy place: How do we form community with each other when our very talents and achievement are cause for jealousy and resentment, when they’re sources of envy and weapons of competition? How do we love each other when our competitive spirits make us see each other as rivals?

Community can only happen when we can let the talents and achievements of others enhance our own lives and we can let our own talents and achievements enhance, rather than threaten, others. But we’re generally incapable of this. We’re too infected with competitiveness to allow ourselves to not let the achievements and talents of others threaten us and actualize our own talents in a way so as to enhance the lives of others rather than to let ourselves stand out.

Like our culture, we too tend to divide people into winners and losers, admiring and hating the former, looking down on the latter, constantly sizing each other up, rating each other’s bodies, hair, intelligence, clothing, talents and achievements. But, as we do this, we vacillate between feeling depressed and belittled when others outscore us or inflated and pompous when we appear superior to them.

 And this becomes ever more difficult to overcome as we become more obsessed with our need to stand out, be special, to sit above, to make a mark for ourselves. We live in a chronic, inchoate jealousy where the talents of others are perennially perceived as a threat to us. This keeps us both anxious and less than faithful to our Christian faith.

Our Christian faith invites us not to compare ourselves with others, to not make efforts to stand out, and to not let ourselves be threatened by and jealous of other’s gifts. Our faith invites us to join a circle of life with those who believe that there is no need to stand out or be special, and who believe that other people’s gifts are not a threat, but rather something which enriches all lives, our own included.

When we divide people into winners and losers then our talents and gifts become sources of envy and weapons of competition and superiority. This is true not just for individuals but for nations as well.

One of these competitive slogans within our culture tells us: Show me a good loser and I will show you a loser! Well, seen in this light, Jesus was a loser. People were shaking their heads at his death, and there was no championship ring on his finger. He didn’t look good in the world’s eyes. A loser! But, in his underachieving we all achieved salvation. Somewhere there’s a lesson there!

Welcoming the Stranger

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In the Hebrew Scriptures, that part of the bible we call the Old Testament, we find a strong religious challenge to always welcome the stranger, the foreigner. This was emphasized for two reasons: First, because the Jewish people themselves had once been foreigners and immigrants. Their scriptures kept reminding them not to forget that. Second, they believed that God’s revelation, most often, comes to us through the stranger, in what’s foreign to us. That belief was integral to their faith.

The great prophets developed this much further. They taught that God favors the poor preferentially and that consequently we will be judged, judged religiously, by how we treat the poor. The prophets coined this mantra (still worth memorizing): The quality of your faith will be judged by the quality of justice in the land; and the quality of justice in the land will always be judged by how orphans, widows, and strangers fare while you are alive.

Orphans, widows, and strangers! That’s scriptural code for who, at any given time, are the three most vulnerable groups in society. And the prophets’ message didn’t go down easy. Rather it was a religious affront to many of the pious at the time who strongly believed that we will be judged religiously and morally by the rigor and strictness of our religious observance.  Then, like now, social justice was often religiously marginalized.

But Jesus sides with the Hebrew prophets. For him, God not only makes a preferential option for the poor, but God is in the poor. How we treat the poor is how we treat God. Moreover the prophets’ mantra, that we will be judged religiously by how we treat the poor, is given a normative expression in Jesus’ discourse on the final judgment in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25. We are all familiar, perhaps too familiar, with that text. Jesus, in effect, was answering a question: What will the last judgment be like? What will be the test? How will we be judged?

His answer is stunning and, taken baldly, is perhaps the most challenging text in the Gospels. He tells us that we will be judged, seemingly solely, on the basis of how we treated the poor, that is, on how we have treated the most vulnerable among us. Moreover at one point, he singles out “the stranger”, the foreigner, the refugee: “I was a stranger and you made me welcome … or … you never made me welcome.”  We end up on the right or wrong side of God on the basis of how we treat the stranger.

What also needs to be highlighted in this text about the last judgment is that neither group, those who got it right and those who got it wrong, knew what they were doing. Both initially protest: the first by saying: “We didn’t know it was you we were serving” and the second by saying: “Had we known it was you we would have responded.” Both protests, it would seem, are beside the point. In Matthew’s Gospel, mature discipleship doesn’t depend upon us believing that we have it right, it depends only upon us doing it right.

These scriptural principles, I believe, are very apropos today in the face of the refugee and immigrant issues we are facing in the Western world. Today, without doubt, we are facing the biggest humanitarian crisis since the end of the Second World War. Millions upon millions of people, under unjust persecution and the threat of death, are being driven from their homes and homelands with no place to go and no country or community to receive them. As Christians we may not turn our backs on them or turn them away. If Jesus is to be believed, we will be judged religiously more by how we treat refugees than by whether or not we are going to church. When we stand before God in judgment and say in protest: “When did I see you a stranger and not welcome you?” Our generation is likely to hear: “I was a Syrian refugee, and you did not welcome me.”

This, no doubt, might sound naïve, over-idealistic, and fundamentalist. The issue of refugees and immigrants is both highly sensitive and very complex. Countries have borders that need to be respected and defended, just as its citizens have a right to be protected. Admittedly, there are very real political, social, economic, and security issues that have to be addressed.  But, as we, our churches, and our governments, address them we must remain clear on what the scriptures, Jesus, and the social teachings of the church uncompromisingly teach: We are to welcome the stranger, irrespective of inconvenience and even if there are some dangers.

For all sorts of pragmatic reasons, political, social, economic, and security, we can perhaps justify not welcoming the stranger; but we can never justify this on Christian grounds. Not welcoming stranger is antithetical to the very heart of Jesus’ message and makes us too-easily forget that we too once were the outsider.