So the king said to Joab and the army commanders with him, “Go throughout the tribes of Israel from Dan to Beersheba and enroll the fighting men, so that I may know how many there are.” . . .
David was conscience-stricken after he had counted the fighting men, and he said to the Lord, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. Now, Lord, I beg you, take away the guilt of your servant. I have done a very foolish thing.”2 Samuel 24: 2, 10
David is an inspiring figure, not because he does not do horrible things and commit the most serious of sins but because he possesses, as Psalm 51 states, a heart so “contrite and humbled” that the merciful God cannot spurn it. The sin that David commits in today’s reading is perhaps one of the most threatening for us in our own day. He wants a count of his soldiers. From time immemorial this is the great temptation, especially for persons in any position of power or authority. It is the objectification of persons, the view and relationship to human persons that sees them merely in light of one’s own project.
Fr. Adrian van Kaam once told us, his students, that when we were attempting to appraise or discern a situation involving another we should strive to be aware of his or her project. The reason for this, and to my knowledge none of us are exempt from this temptation, is that we are constantly in danger of seeing others in light of and using them in service to our own projects.
So, David’s military project requires that he have taken a census of his his potential conscripts. In God’s eyes this is a moral inversion. David’s divinely ordained role is to be a servant of his people, while at this moment he sees his people in terms of how they are to serve his military agenda and aims. Yet, David becomes aware of this grave abuse of his people. When God punishes him and the people with a three day pestilence, David cries out to God, “It is I who have sinned; i is I. the shepherd, who have done wrong. But these are sheep; what have they done? Punish me and my kindred.” (2 Samuel 24:17)
Thankfully, we live in a time of awakening consciousness of the damage that the most severe forms of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse inflicts on their victims. It remains, however, much more difficult to be aware of the more hidden forms by which our relationship to others is not first of all a relationship of love but rather one of subtle manipulation in support of a personal project. What makes David such a towering spiritual figure is that, unlike most of us, he is acutely attuned to the ways in which he fails the call to love and service of others. It is not that he fails any less often or seriously than the rest of us. In fact, if anything his offenses are far more grievous that those of many of us. Yet, the movements of eros, the impulses to deep love and relationship to God and humanity, are fully active and alive in him. When he has acted in service of selfishness and death rather than love and life, he recognizes his own responsibility and seeks to make amends.
This morning I was reading about a group of economists gathered in order to discuss the effects of climate change socially and economically. Impassioned speeches were quoted about the responsibility that they, some of the most powerful persons in this world, would bear if they failed to address the urgency of the moment. This, of course, is an encouraging thing. And yet, as I read it I also felt sad. The arguments made were most rational and practical, and yet, they were also remote and technical. There was nothing about selfishness, about the harm we have inflicted and continue to inflict on each other out of our narcissism and greed and especially of the effects on our children and grandchildren and beyond. What was missing was the “distinctively human” element. We find ourselves at this moment of crisis because we have failed to seek our wealth and our comfort in such a way that our duty and responsibility to others and to our common home remained in the forefront of our consciousness. The human response to our climate crisis, as to every human challenge, should be first of all a matter of love and responsibility, to each other, to all creation, and to God.
But we are where we find ourselves because of our human capacity for self-centeredness, our tendency to place other human persons and all creation in service to our projects. Politically speaking we witness how any appeal to “the common good” is absent from our discourse.” Yet, perhaps we have yet to connect this to our own inveterate tendencies to “use” others. Perhaps the greatest cause of resentment among us is the awareness that our relationships often prove to be contingent upon whether or not we are serving the project of the other. So pervasive is this form of relating in our time that it becomes very difficult to recognize.
A few days ago we read of David’s dancing before the Ark as it was brought to Jerusalem. It is David’s love of God above all that forms his heart and so his capacity for love and for repentance. He is not always faithful to that love, but he suffers his failures in such a way that they become sources of a deepening love and responsibility. When love is not primary for us, then we become confused and even unable to distinguish between love and the use of others for our projects. Those projects can be actually physical in nature, but they can also be inner, as using others to enhance in us a sense of our own power and significance. In any case, the effect of living this form of relationship is increased loneliness and alienation, from others and ourselves.
We shall instinctually feel resentment and anger when we have been used by another, for it is, in truth, a form of abuse. As such pragmatic modes of relating are dominant in our culture, we must pay close attention to our own inner lives to realize the cause of our resentment and anger. And, as we do, we then can awaken to when we tend to use others as we are being used. Churches and religious groups are not exempt from this struggle. The greatest pains and struggles in the churches is related to the unconscious domination of others by those in positions of power. This goes far beyond the issue of physical or sexual abuse. It is a view of the others as lesser, as needing to be take care of rather than loved. It is the mistaking of one’s own human needs and power projects for the mission of the gospel. It is what makes possible a vision of persons as disposable when they fail to meet up to expectations or serve the personal or corporate project.
Every human institution is both graced and sinful. It is thus that they can only endure in a spirit of compassion and forgiveness. What David exemplifies for us is that such compassion, forgiveness, and reconciliation requires first and foremost encounter with the truth. “It is I who have sinned.” He is a great king and great leader because of his great love, one that is constantly being humbled by his own sinfulness, but then raised up in his primary concern for the well being of the others.
In 1986, the novelist Morris West wrote a reflection on Pope John Paul II. The following is excerpted from that piece.
It is precisely in this sense of a shared mystery that many in the Church feel alienated today by and from the man who is their Supreme Pastor. His utterances—and those of the curial officials who speak in his name—seem often too curt, too peremptory, too dispassionate in reasoning, too poor in compassion, to give comfort or light on the darkling pilgrim road. As one distinguished educator—a longtime nun—put it to me recently: “They talk at us and about us; but they don’t listen. And who in a patriarchal hierarchy understands women anyway? They leave us very lonely.”
The sense of exclusion from common counsel, of being subjects and objects of pastoral direction instead of sharers in familial love plagues us all. The gap between pastors and people has grown wider every day since Vatican II. Every restriction on open discussion widens it still more. It is a far cry back to the original invitation of Jesus: “Come to me all you who labour and are heavily burdened and I will refresh you . . . My yoke is sweet and my burden light.”
This alienation is part of the pontiff’s burden too. The idiom of his style of government belies his own compassion. I have watched him in close-up through the eye of a movie camera during the rituals of Holy Week in Rome . . . . These are more than ceremonies, they are figurations of Christ himself in the last days of his life. The face which was recorded on our film was that of a suffering man, full of unexpressed anguish. For those moments, the Vicar of Christ seemed to wear the face of Christ himself, the “Man of Sorrows acquainted with infirmity.”
In truth, he has much cause for grief. His world which is our world, too, seems to be spinning out of control. The signs of the times read like the apocalyptic warning: “wars and rumors of wars, famines and earthquakes in diverse places.” His Church is distressed, discouraged and deeply ashamed of its own very public deflects.
On the other hand, it is surfeited with reproaches, admonitions and repressions. It waits, like the man and women and children of Israel, parched in the desert, for the Man with the Staff to strike the rock and release the living waters of charity, compassion and reconciliation.Morris West, A View From the Ridge, pp. 138-140