Brother will hand over brother to death, and the father his child; children will rise up against parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by all because of my name, but whoever endures to the end will be saved.Matthew 10:21-22
On this Feast of St. Stephen we find ourselves somewhat jolted out of the spirit of “peace on earth and good will towards all.” We read today of Stephen’s martyrdom and in the gospel of Jesus’ warnings that discipleship will lead to, if not our martyrdom, at the very least our being rejected by even those closest to us. We are brought by the proximity of the message of Christmas with the martyrdom of Stephen into another of the paradoxes and polarities of human life. Or perhaps it is not a paradox at all that it is our innate violence and harshness as human persons that evinces our need for redemption, for a “prince of peace” to save us from ourselves.
What is Stephen doing that evokes such violence and hatred from the crowd? Acts tells us that, at least in part, it is his working of signs among the people and then besting them in a debate about their beliefs. As we live in a time where those with very loud voices would encourage our most arrogant and prejudiced impulses, it is vital that we meditate not only on the courage of Stephen but on what the author Morris West describes as the maliciousness, madness, and brutality of humanity. When someone threatens the thoughts, beliefs, and ways of acting that we have developed to protect ourselves and to foster the illusion of our own superiority, we want to eliminate them. Jesus well understands this aspect of our humanity, and it is this that leads him to predict that those who would bring a vision of transcendence and mystery that exceeded the prevailing mindset and orthodoxies would be met with a violent reaction.
The persistent and ruling orthodoxies of any given time and place develop structures of authority by which that “right-thinking” is forcefully and even violently maintained. This violence sometimes becomes overt and terrible, but often, day to day, it is much more subtle and, by dint of its prevalence, imperceptible. It is real, however, nonetheless.
Back in 2002 the horror of the long-term and hidden sexual abuse of minors by ministers in the church became apparent. Perhaps its most horrific aspect was that church leaders apparently valued the reputation of the institution above the well being of our children. As the grim truth of the situation became more and more apparent, I can remember emerging in me a sense, which I expressed at the time, that the institutional problem would not be addressed until the church came to grips with the deep vein of abuse and violence that ran throughout its structures and behaviors.
I received as a Christmas gift a memoir of the novelist Morris West. As a young man in Australia, he had been a member of the Christian Brothers of the Schools of Ireland from his teenage years up until the time for his perpetual profession. In his prologue, West describes precisely what I had not yet been able to clarify about the very structures of abuse that in part constituted the makeup of the ecclesial institution. He speaks of the “impersonal cruelty that institutions—my own church among them—practice upon their members.” It is a cruelty that every manner of authority must always guard against, for we human beings are in part malicious, mad, and brutal.
We are also, of course, much more than that, which is what we celebrate at Christmas in the Incarnation. As West also says, “love, and respect, and forgiveness can ennoble” us. We are both Stephen and those who stone him to death. We are both the disciple Jesus describes and the sibling, parent, and child who reject that disciple. Societal and institutional structures of authority, while necessary, are also, given our human condition, readily subject to abuse and violence. Jesus is so insistent on describing authority as service precisely because, in our hands, it so readily becomes an opportunity to exercise power over others.
One aspect of Pope Francis that so angers certain constituencies in the church is precisely his refusal to use his power to judge and humiliate others. What is of God in withholding access to the Eucharist from those “guilty” of certain kinds of sins? How is it justified to claim that the priesthood of the clergy continues despite any horrific and violent sin on their part, while the priesthood of the faithful ceases to exist in the case of those who are divorced? How is it that gay persons living monogamously and in integrity are excluded from participation in the church, while those living double lives are not? How was it in years past that brutal and savage dictators maintained their place in the church while those practicing liberation theology were excluded?
Yet, beyond the external and obvious abuses of power, we must also become sensitive to those imperceptible modes of abuse that are part of our everyday lives. Although we presently live, politically speaking, in an extreme version of the abuse of power over the helpless and the poor, we need to realize the danger of power in even those far more good willed and aware, including ourselves. As a member of a religious community, I have personally been, but rarely, the object of abusive power. Yet, I realize on my own part, having been given authority over others, that countless times I have failed in fully respecting, loving, and forgiving them. The violence in me has shown itself when I thought I knew what was best for them more than they did. Every time I objectify a student, a confrere, a person in formation, a colleague or a friend, I fall prey to the brutality and violence in me.
Whenever the rage for order supersedes respectful service to the unique Divine call of another, we are being abusive. The community in which I live has done much good in the course of its history and continues to do so. That good is done through the work of God alive and active in the lives of each brother. But we have fallen short of our call to witness to the Incarnation and God’s love for the world when, in service to order, efficiency and apparent effectiveness, we have failed to reverence the brother’s uniqueness and call above any practical considerations. Having lived religious life for decades and knowing many consecrated persons, I have always been troubled by an often hidden and suppressed resentment in many of them. Sometimes this manifests in an angry disposition, but very often it manifests in passivity and irresponsibility. Over time I am realizing that the resentment is actually a sign of life in the person. It is an expression of what has refused to be extinguished within them, despite the ways the person has been used and unrecognized.
Why does an institution like the church have this tendency to repressiveness and abuse? It is, I think, for the very same reason we all have it. It is merely magnified when institutionalized. Stephen evokes the rage, abuse, and violence in the crowd because he points to the deficiency in their lives, their religious practice, and their orthodoxies. It will be the same, says Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, for anyone who truly follows him. We’ve turned Jesus’s universal invitation and teaching into a restricted and restrictive ecclesial structure. So, I often wonder if we, who call ourselves Christians, might not in all likelihood kill Jesus again should he come among us to tell us that we don’t have “the truth.”
There are those who believe that the answer to the church’s problems would lie in the creation of a purified church consisting of only those most faithful to its doctrines. But this, in fact, is the church’s very problem. One cannot impose that kind of purity on human beings without violence. So, when religious life was seen as “the life of perfection,” of course it became violent and abusive. It too often became lifeless and loveless.
If love and forgiveness do not lie at the heart of our being together, in relationship, family, society, or church, then we shall relate to each other only by force. In my earliest days of teaching, when I so feared not having control in the classroom, I governed my classes principally with discipline and force. As I became free to love my students, the effortful modes of discipline and control relaxed.
As I have in recent times become experientially aware of the strength of the “impersonal cruelty” that is always present in the institutions of which we are a part, I am reminded, in sorrow, of when I have inflicted such cruelty on others by my impersonalization of them. There is great danger in every position of authority over others. For we are all human, both as redeemed, loved and forgiven, but also as malicious, mad, and brutal. Both as individuals and as institutions, we must always be held to accountability and must foster the spirits of humility, confession, and repentance that make that accountability truly transparent. It is often difficult for us to discern the difference between service and the exercise of power.
Spiritual and transcendent life directives are vey difficult to live and maintain. So, even in the church, it is easy over time to allow the strength of the will to power to overtake the distinctively human dispositions of humility and service. After a while we even cease to recognize that we are living not in love, respect, and forgiveness but rather by relations of force, by pushing each other around. Both ourselves and the church must be constantly living in a state of repentance and reformation. We must not blaspheme by speaking of the creations of our own power as the work of God and the Holy Spirit, for we have then made ourselves or our institutions God.
The most horrible of moments, in our personal and institutional lives, can also be moments of grace and transformation. What is required of us to make this possible, however, is the real humility to face what is dark and brutal in us. That means remembering that the power lies not in us but rather that “the kingdom, and the power, and the glory are Yours now and forever.”
There was one more harsh lesson. My novice master was a loveless man. He had never experienced love; therefore, he could not give it. So he lived out his life by text and rote and ritual. With males, he was always in contest; with women, although he was a big, athletic fellow, he was so afraid that he scuttled away when they approached. I prayed I would never be like him. I knew that I could never believe in the God he preached. To reach the calm in which, thank God, I now reside, I have had to learn to forgive him.
What I cannot forgive, and what I can never condone, is the impersonal cruelty that institutions—my own church among them—practice upon their members and that they justify by a thousand arguments, none of which I find acceptable. I have fought this cruelty all my life. I hold firmly to the gospel message that authority is given for service and not for the exercise of power. Magistracy is a function of ministry; all other use of it is a perversion.Morris West, A View From the Ridge: The Testimony of a Twentieth-Century Christian, p. 8