Thursday, January 22, 2009

Forgiveness and our Civil Life

As I asked in my last post, how do we move beyond a life of civil engagement informed by resentment? The recently Archpastoral Message of His Beatitude, Metropolitan Jonah for Sanctity of Life Sunday offers us the beginning of an answer. His Beatitude writes:

Our life as human beings is not given to us to live autonomously and independently. This, however, is the great temptation: to deny our personhood, by the depersonalization of those around us, seeing them only as objects that are useful and give us pleasure, or are obstacles to be removed or overcome. This is the essence of our fallenness, our brokenness. With this comes the denial of God, and loss of spiritual consciousness. It has resulted in profound alienation and loneliness, a society plummeting into the abyss of nihilism and despair. There can be no sanctity of life when nothing is sacred, nothing is holy. Nor can there be any respect for persons in a society that accepts only autonomous individualism: there can be no love, only selfish gratification. This, of course, is delusion. We are mutually interdependent.

Rooted as it is in pride and self-aggrandizement, is a symptom of my fallenness, of my futile and self-defeating attempts to live a life of radical autonomy and independence (what Robert Bellah somewhat more precisely calls "ontological individualism"). When I reduce my neighbor to the harm he has done me I also reduce myself to the harm that I have suffered. Resentment is a false ontology by which I only disallow my neighbor to be anything other than my enemy and myself to be anything other than a victim.

Resentment, as with "All the sins against humanity, abortion, euthanasia, war, violence, and victimization of all kinds, are the results of depersonalization" Metropolitan Jonah argues. His Beatitude continues,

Whether it is "the unwanted pregnancy", or worse, "the fetus" rather than "my son" or "my daughter;" whether it is "the enemy" rather than Joe or Harry (maybe Ahmed or Mohammed), the same depersonalization allows us to fulfill our own selfishness against the obstacle to my will. How many of our elderly, our parents and grandparents, live forgotten in isolation and loneliness? How many Afghan, Iraqi, Palestinian and American youths will we sacrifice to agonizing injuries and deaths for the sake of our political will? They are called "soldiers," or "enemy combatants" or "civilian casualties" or any variety of other euphemisms to deny their personhood. But ask their parents or children! Pro-war is NOT pro-life! God weeps for our callousness.

Moving from the spiritual life to our life of civic engagement, I think it is important to understand that the absence of resentment, our own personal struggles against the evils of ontological individualism and the depersonalization of self and others are not policy decisions. They are rather a precondition for our virtuous involvement in the civil realm.

Let me go further, whether we are taking political leadership or a leadership role in the home, the work place, or the Church, all demand from me that I first confront my own bitterness and resentment. Only then are we able to find "forgiveness for those who have hurt us," and live "free from the rage that binds us in despair."Whether we are engaging the social world around us as a citizen, a worker, a parent or a minister of the Gospel of Christ, as Christians we know that our work must begin in repentance. "Repentance is not about beating ourselves up for our errors and feeling guilty; that is a sin in and of itself!" as Metropolitan Jonah remind us. Such an approach only engenders guilt and that "keeps us entombed in self-pity. All sin is some form of self-centeredness, selfishness." Real repentance "is the transformation of our minds and hearts as we turn away from our sin, and turn to God, and to one another."

Repentance means to forgive. Forgiveness does not mean to justify someone's sin against us. When we resent and hold a grudge, we objectify the person who hurt us according to their action, and erect a barrier between us and them. And, we continue to beat ourselves up with their sin. To forgive means to overcome that barrier, and see that there is a person who, just like us, is hurt and broken, and to overlook the sin and embrace him or her in love. When we live in a state of repentance and reconciliation, we live in a communion of love, and overcome all the barriers that prevented us from fulfilling our own personhood.

Reflecting on what I've read these last few days about the new presidential administration I worry that whether or not people agree with the policy of the new president, there seems to be a noticeable absence of forgiveness. Both from the political left and right, even when I hear things that agree with the Gospel, I hear an echo of resentment, of old grudges and remembrances of past injustices committed against the speaker or his or her own cause.

While matters of public policy are important, they are secondary. I need to look first to my own heart and only then, in the measure of my own repentance and willingness to forgive those who have harmed me, proceed in the civil realm.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory
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