RonRolheiser,OMI

Doing Violence in God’s Name

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Blaise Pascal once wrote: “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction.” How true! This has been going on since the beginning of time and is showing few signs of disappearing any time soon. We still do violence and evil and justify them in God’s name.

We see countless examples of this in history. From the time that we first gained self-consciousness, we’ve done violence in God name. It began by sacrificing human persons to try to attain God’s favor and it led to everything from actively persecuting others for religious reasons, to waging war in God’s name, to burning people for heresy at the Inquisition, to practicing capital punishment for religious reasons, and, not least, at one point in history, to handing Jesus over to be crucified out of our misguided religious fervor.

These are some salient historical examples; sadly not much has changed. Today, in its most gross form, we see violence done in God’s name by groups like Al-Qaida and Isis who, whatever else might be their motivation, believe that they are serving God and cleansing the world in God’s name by brute terrorism and murder. The death of thousands of innocent people can be justified, they believe, by the fact that this is God’s cause, so sacred and urgent that it allows for the bracketing of all basic standards of humanity, decency, and normal religion. When it’s for God’s cause, outright evil is rationalized.

Happily, it’s impossible for most of us to justify this kind of violence and murder in our minds and hearts, but most of us still justify this kind of sacral violence in more subtle modes. Many of us, for instance, still justify capital punishment in the name of divine justice, believing that God’s purposes demand that we kill someone. Many too justify abortion by an appeal to our God-given freedoms. Not least, virtually all of us justify certain violence in our language and discourse because we feel that our cause is so special and sacred that it gives us the right to bracket some of the fundamentals of Christian charity in our dealings with those who disagree with us, namely, respect and graciousness.

Our language, in both the circles of right and the left, is rife with a violence we justify in God’s name. On the right, issues like abortion and the defense of dogma are deemed so important as to give us permission to demonize others. On the left, issues of economic and ecological injustice, because they so directly affect the poor, similarly give us permission to bracket respect and graciousness. Both sides like to justify themselves with an appeal to God’s righteous anger.

There’s a story in John’s Gospel, delicious in its irony, which helps expose how we are so often blind to the violence we do in God’s name. It’s the famous incident of the woman who is caught in adultery. They bring her to Jesus and tell him that they caught her in the very act of committing adultery and that Moses commanded, in God’s name, that women like this be stoned to death. Jesus, for his part, says nothing. He bends down and writes with his finger, twice, on the ground and then tells them the one among them who’s without sin might cast the first stone. They understand the gesture: why he is writing on the ground, why he is writing twice, and what that means.  What does it mean?

Moses went up a mountain and God, with his finger, wrote the Ten Commandments into two tablets of stone. As Moses approached the Israelite camp on his return, carrying the two tablets of stone, he caught the people in the very act of committing idolatry. What did he do? In a fit of religious fervor, he broke the Commandments, literally, physically, over the golden calf and then picked up the fragments and threw those stones at the people.

So here’s the irony from which to draw a lesson: Moses was the first person to break the Ten Commandments. He broke them in God’s name and then took the fragments and stoned the people.  He did this violence in all sincerity, caught up in religious fervor. Of course, afterwards, he had to go back up the mountain and have the Commandments written a second time. However before giving Moses the Commandments a second time, God also gave him a lecture: Don’t stone people with the Commandments! Don’t do violence in my name!

We’ve been very slow to grasp this mandate and take it seriously. We still find every sort of moral and religious justification for doing violence in God’s name. We are still, like Moses, smashing the Commandments on what we consider idolatrous and then stoning others with the fragments. This is evident everywhere in our religious and moral discourse, particularly in how we, as Pascal might put it, in God’s name, “completely and cheerfully” bracket charity as it pertains to graciousness and respect.

Our Shadow and our Self-Understanding  

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What is meant when certain schools of psychology today warn us about our “shadow”? What’s our shadow?

In essence, it’s this: We have within us powerful, fiery energies that, for multiple reasons, we cannot consciously face and so we handle them by denial and repression so as to not have to deal with them. Metaphorically speaking, we bury them in the hidden ground of our souls where they are out of conscious sight and mind.

But there’s a problem: What we’ve buried doesn’t stay hidden. While these energies are out of conscious sight and conscious mind, they continue to deeply impact our feelings, thoughts, and actions by pushing through in all kinds of unconscious ways to color our actions, mostly negatively. Our deep, innate energies will always act out, consciously or unconsciously. Carl Jung, one of the pioneer voices in this, says that we are doomed to act out unconsciously all the archetypal configurations which we do not access and control through conscious ritual.

Perhaps a simple image can be helpful in understanding this. Imagine living in a house with a basement beneath your living room, a basement into which you never venture, and every time you need to dispose of some garbage you simply open the basement door and dump the garbage there. For a while, that can work, it’s out of sight and out of mind; but soon enough that garbage will begin to ferment and its toxic fumes will begin to seep upward through the vents, polluting the air you breathe. It wasn’t a bother, for a time, but eventually it poisons the air.

That’s a helpful image, though it’s one-sided in that it has us only throwing our negative garbage downstairs. Interestingly, we also throw into that same place those parts of us that frighten us in their luminosity. Our own greatness also scares us, and we too bury huge parts of it. Our shadow is not just made up of the negative parts that frighten us; it is also made up of the most luminous parts of us that we feel too frightened to handle. In the end, both the negative and positive energies inside us, which we are too frightened to handle, come from one and the same source, the image and likeness of God imprinted in us.

The most fundamental thing we believe about ourselves as Christians is that we are made in the image and likeness of God. However it isn’t very helpful to imagine this as a beautiful icon stamped inside our souls. Rather we might think of it as irrepressible divine energy, infinite eros and infinite spirit, constantly wrestling with the confines of our finitude. No surprise then that we have to contend with energies, feelings, pressures, and impulses that frighten and threaten us in their magnitude.

Ironically, the struggle with this can be particularly trying for sensitive people; the more sensitive you are, morally and religiously, the more threatening these energies can be. Why? Because two fears tend to afflict sensitive souls: First, the fear of being egoistical. Greatness isn’t easy to carry and few carry it well, and sensitive souls know this. The wild and the wicked unreflectively feed off of sacred fire, except they aren’t known for their sensitivity and too often end up hurting others and themselves. Sensitive souls find themselves considerably more reflective and timid, and for good reason. They’re afraid of being full of themselves, egotists, unhealthily imposing. But that timidity doesn’t everywhere serve them well. Too sensitive in dealing with certain energies inside them, they sometimes end up too empty of God.

The second reason sensitive people tend to bury much of their luminosity is because they’re more in touch with that primal fear within us that’s expressed in the famous Greek myth of Prometheus, namely, that our most creative energies might somehow be an affront to God, that we might be stealing fire from the gods. Sensitive people worry about pride, about being too full of ego. Healthy as that is in itself, it often leads them to bury some or much of their luminosity.

The consequence isn’t good. Like the negative parts of ourselves we bury, our buried luminosity too begins to ferment, turn into toxic fumes, and seep upward through the vents of our consciousness. Those fumes take the form of free-range anger, jealousy, bitterness, and cold judgments of others. So much of our undirected anger, constantly looking for someone or something to land on, is the shadow side of a greatness, which is repressed and buried.

Where to go in the face of this? James Hillman suggests that a symptom suffers most when it doesn’t know where it belongs. We need more spiritual guides who can diagnose this. Too often our spiritualities have been naïve in their diagnosis of human pride and ego. We need more spiritual guides who can recognize how we too much bury parts of our luminosity and how our fear of being too full of ourselves can leave us too empty of God.

Nothing is Ever Really Ours

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Everything is gift. That’s a principle that ultimately undergirds all spirituality, all morality, and every commandment. Everything is gift. Nothing can be ultimately claimed as our own. Genuine moral and religious sensitivity should make us aware of that. Nothing comes to us by right.

This isn’t something we automatically know. During a class some years ago, a Monk shared with me how, for all the early years of his religious life, he had been resentful because he had to ask permission of his Abbott if he wanted anything: “I used to think it was silly, me, a grown man, supposedly an adult, having to ask a superior if I wanted something. If I wanted a new shirt, I would have to ask the Abbott for permission to buy it. I thought it was ridiculous that a grown man was reduced to being like a child.”

But there came a day when he felt differently: “I am not sure of all the reasons, but one day I came to realize that there was a purpose and wisdom in having to ask permission for everything. I came to realize that nothing is ours by right and nothing may be taken as owned. Everything’s a gift. Everything needs to be asked for. We need to be grateful to the universe and to God just for giving us a little space. Now, when I ask permission from the Abbott because I need something, I no longer feel like a child. Rather, I feel like I’m properly in tune with the way things should be, in a gift-oriented universe within which none of us has a right to ultimately claim anything as one’s own.

This is moral and religious wisdom, but it’s a wisdom that goes against the dominant ethos within our culture and against some of our strongest inclinations. Both from without and from within, we hear voices telling us: If you cannot take what you desire then you’re weak, and weak in a double way: First, you’re a weak person, too timid to fully claim what’s yours. Second, you’ve been weakened by religious and moral scruples so as to be incapable of seizing the day. To not claim what is yours, to not claim ownership, is not a virtue but a fault.

It was those kinds of voices that this monk was hearing during his younger years and because of them he felt resentful and immature.

But Jesus wouldn’t echo these voices. The Gospels make it pretty clear that Jesus would not look on so much that is assertive, aggressive, and accumulative within our society, despite the praise and envy it receives, and see this as admirable, as healthily seizing the day. I doubt too that Jesus would share our admiration of the rich and famous who claim, as by right, their excessive wealth and status. When Jesus states that it is harder for a rich person to go to heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, he might have mitigated this by adding: “Unless, of course, the rich person, childlike, asks permission from the universe, from the community, and from God, every time he buys a shirt!” When Jesus tells us that children and the poor go to heaven more easily he is not idolizing either their innocence or poverty. He’s idolizing the need to recognize and admit our dependence. Ultimately we don’t provide for ourselves and nothing is ours by right.

When I was in the Oblate novitiate, our novice master tried to impress upon us the meaning of religious poverty by making us write inside of every book that was given us the Latin words: Ad Usum. Latin for: For use. The idea was that, although this book was given to you for your personal use, you ultimately did not own it. It’s was just yours temporarily. We were then told that this was true of everything else given us for our personal use, from our toothbrushes to the shirts on our backs. They were not really ours, but merely given us for our use.

One of the young men in that novitiate eventually left the order and became a medical doctor. He remains a close friend and he once shared with me how even today, as a doctor, he still writes those words, Ad Usum, inside all his books: “I don’t belong to a religious order and don’t have the vow of poverty, but that principle our novice master taught us is just as valid for me in the world as it is for any professed religious. Ultimately we don’t own anything. Those books aren’t mine, really. They’ve been given me, temporarily, for my use. Nothing belongs to anybody and it’s good never to forget that!”

It’s not a bad thing as an adult to have to ask permission to buy a new shirt. It reminds us that the universe belongs to everyone and that all of us should be deeply grateful that it gives us even a little space.