The American Soul is without Mercy

Utterly without mercy.

On the right, on the left, in between. Whichever wrongdoing a particular faction gets most worked up about, the wrongdoer, and anyone supposedly in some way allied with the wrongdoer, will be savaged. Without balance. Without reasonableness. Without mercy.

Everyone one of us, without exception, must examine our consciences on this.

Whatever this American disease is, it isn’t Christianity. It is regression to a world untouched by the core Christian message of reconciliation.

Everybody wants to explain away what was proclaimed at Mass last Sunday: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand over your cloak as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go for two miles” (Matthew 5:38-41).

(I know it’s hard for me live this. I have tried, but I haven’t always succeeded. I need the grace of the slaughtered Lamb to grow in me.)

This passage should sting. It is not about geopolitical pacifism, but it is explicitly and unambiguously about interpersonal pacifism. THIS IS CHRISTIANITY, the very heart of the matter: love thy enemy.

I literally saw a column recently, from the right, claiming that Jesus Himself didn’t turn the other cheek! This betrays a profound misunderstanding of the Passion, which is the embodied gloss, as it were, on these verses—the demonstration of Christ’s total earnestness about these words. The whole of the Sermon on the Mount is staked on what Jesus knows He will do, out of love for the Father and for us, in not offering resistance to the Evil One and to all of us evil ones who crucify Him.

Why did this commentator stray into such radical confusion? To defend the paltry right to thunder in the culture wars and to smugly judge our neighbor. Pharisaizing the anti-pharisaical Sermon on the Mount—an astonishing act of ideological co-optation!

But this is not a disease confined to the right. Not by a long shot. We see the unedifying spectacle of defamatory denunciations against anyone whose thoughts or words might stray too much towards an opposing political stance. No empathy, no imaginative effort to see things from the other side, no reserve gained from epistemic humility. Just smug judgment. Christian rises up against Christian, feeling righteous about raising the rhetorical rock and bringing it down with a lust for destruction. It is a nauseating spectacle. See how they love one another.

It is all anti-Christ and the smoke of Satan.

Of course, Jesus is NOT saying that the abused should not resist the abuser. And He is certainly not telling us to stand by while SOMEONE ELSE gets abused or treated unjustly. It is the responsibility of the Christian community to defend the victim, every single time, with utmost urgency. The victim of sexual abuse or domestic abuse. The refugee. The immiserated. And, of course, the most defenseless victim of all: the baby in the womb. The preferential option must always be for the victim first. Every single time. Indeed, it is no mercy to victimizers to allow them to continue perpetrating evil upon another.

But there is such a thing as ius in bello [what is right in the conduct of a war]: we must fight the battles we must fight, the battles to defend the powerless, in such a way that we remember that the ultimate goal, beyond the supreme urgency of saving the victims, is to save the victimizers if we can.

Which is all to say, Christ’s injunction is no shield for abuse and violence. No, what Jesus is telling each of US, His disciples who are freely following Him around, at the very least, is to eat the slights to our dignity without pursuing self-justification and to care for the salvation of my enemy more than the preservation of MY property or MY well-being. The cycle of social retribution can only be broken when a Christian, in the strength of the suffering Christ, absorbs the malice.

This command of our Lord must also be seen to entail an infinite patience and gentleness in dialogue and in our every single interaction with our fellow suffering human being, as well as an infinite care not to strike back in anger. Most obviously, the Christian certainly cannot tear down someone else’s reputation and legacy.

The spirit behind our partisan mercilessness is the spirit of faction, of division, of contention. That is what last Sunday’s second reading is all about:

“Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy” (I Corinthians 3:16-17).

The “you” here is second person plural. This whole chapter of First Corinthians is focused on the problem of partisanship in the life of the Church. When Saint Paul speaks of destroying God’s temple, he is talking about backbiting and dissension and factionalism: he is talking about destroying the measureless treasure of Christian communion out of party loyalty.

The jouissance, the strange visceral satisfaction, of playing gotcha is real, I’ll grant. But it is also pathetic and sad.

Instead of this mean and contracted being-in-the-world, the good Father offers us, well, everything, in history and in eternity, up to the superabundance of a knowing and a loving without limit and without end:

“So let no one boast in men, for all things are yours: Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world or life or death, or the present or the future—all things are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (I Cor 3:21-23).

Christianity means preemptive, unilateral, and asymmetrical love. Therefore, the Christian is utterly exposed, with an open heart that will be struck, again and again. We can continue to survive having our hearts broken, because we belong to Jesus and Jesus belongs to His Father. And our good Father has marked every single thing with the sign of love, the Cross of His Son. We open our arms and our hearts, and that sign of love is simply our cruciform passion for the sake of the world. And all things will be drawn to a mercy and a love that absorbs without counting the cost.