PETER DAY. To Light a Candle or Curse the Dark: The Cardinal Dilemma

Mar 19, 2019

‘Foolishly, indulgently’, Christian mercy does not depend on remorse, repentance, or even whether it is deserved. It takes the initiative in willing the good of the other.

Hardly a minute goes by that we don’t look at the news to find more bad news – it’s a daily ritual of ubiquitous “gotcha” moments exposing yet more of our collective underbelly. Be it newspapers, television, or social media, rarely can we find anything to counter the conviction that we’re a terribly underperforming species.

And then, just when you think there may be a little respite – just a little, please: the Christchurch massacre! The Cardinal George Pell disaster!

Sometimes it feels like our social order is about to unravel, is about to collapse under the strain of it all.

Immersed in a fog of shock, bewilderment, and outrage citizens are left to grapple with two seemingly impenetrable questions: How is this so? Why is this so?

This dilemma is not new, of course, and there have been some extraordinary figures in history that have grappled mightily with it: Jewish refugee and political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, comes to mind.

In 1962 Arendt was tasked by The New Yorker to cover the trial of the notorious Nazi, Adolf Eichmann – one of the chief architects of the holocaust.

What became clear, if counter-intuitively, to Arendt as she observed the Nazi ‘monster’ in the dock was that he presented as anything but a monster: his ordinariness, even ‘normalcy’ stood out.

“The sad truth,” she said, “is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

Indeed, it was Arendt who coined the controversial and oft misunderstood phrase, “The banality of evil” – she was even accused by some of trivializing it.

After much toing and froing with her critics, she concluded:

“It is… my opinion now that evil is never radical, that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface. It is “thought-defying,” as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its banality. Only the good has depth that can be radical.”

So, what to do with the evil we confront today? How might we respond? Dare we turn to another extraordinary Jew?

Love your enemies; bless those who persecute you… (Jesus of Nazareth circa. 32 AD)

“Yeah, right; Christian nonsense; madness; bleeding-heart folly!”

I’m reminded of a story I came across many years ago about an elderly black South African woman whose son and husband had been brutally murdered by white security officers under the apartheid regime.

Especially heinous was the way her husband died: burnt alive on a pile of wood as she was forced to look-on.

Several years later, she came face-to-face with the man implicated in both murders in a courtroom established by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The woman, along with relatives and friends, stands and listens as the white security officer confesses. A Commission official then turns to her and asks: “So, what do you want? How should justice be done to this man who so brutally destroyed your family?”

“I want three things,” the frail woman says.

“I want first to be taken to the place where my husband was burned so that I can gather the dust and give his remains a decent burial.

“My husband and son were my only family. I want, secondly, therefore, for this man to become my son.

“I would like him to come twice a month to the ghetto and spend a day with me so that I can pour out on him whatever love I still have remaining.

“And, finally, I want a third thing. I want this man to know that I offer him my forgiveness because Jesus Christ died to forgive. And so, I would kindly ask someone to escort me across the courtroom so that I can embrace him in my arms and let him know he is truly forgiven.”

“As the woman is assisted across the room, the white officer, overwhelmed by what he has heard, feints.”

The purpose here is not to offer some cheesy morality tale, or infer that only Christians have access to the “radical good”. Rather, it is to show that despite the untold damage evil can wreak, it never has the final say because it is utterly powerless in the face of that which has infinite depth: Love and Mercy.

And while an “eye for an eye” is a seductive and eminently understandable human response to heinous acts; the problem is, as Ghandi quipped, “all the world ends up blind.”

“We’re in an era,” says social commentator Waleed Aly, “where anger dominates our sense of morality. To be angry is to be righteous, while to temper that anger is to be somehow morally complacent, apologetic, complicit even. Of course, there’s nothing new – or wrong – in anger as a moral response. It’s a crucial part of our moral vocabulary.

“But there is something new – and wrong – in it being our only moral resource, our only way of demonstrating moral seriousness. That’s why the phenomenon of outrage culture is so runaway: we find precious few alternatives for expressing our moral agency.”

Within this milieu, mercy is sidelined as a foolish indulgence. It has no place in the conversation. Of course, no one can begrudge victims of heinous crimes the right to want revenge, even to hate the perpetrator, but as for the rest of us, it behoves us to find “alternative ways to express our moral agency” – within the legal system, for instance, this is called a “Jury”.

The command to “Love your enemies”, or, better still, “to will the good” of your enemies, has nothing to do with sentimentality, or feelings. It is about choice. And this is why mercy – and forgiveness – is so damned hard: it is an act of the will that calls us to defy raw, atavistic emotions.

To will the good of the “monster” in the dock in never about obstructing or negating the path of natural justice; rather, it is about ensuring that justice is meted out without hatred and vengeance.

Surely, at the very least, we owe survivors and victims of heinous acts this glimmer of hope: the assurance that we will not replace the tyrant who brutalized them with yet another brute: the baying lynch mob? Our social cohesion depends on this.

“It is better to light a candle than to curse the dark.”

Peter Day is a priest of the Archdiocese of Canberra-Goulburn.

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