Sunday, February 22, 2015

Forgiveness - what happens to justice?

When we hear about the crowd who brought an adulteress to Jesus, most Christians can tell you what happened next: the teachers of the law spoke of Moses, and stoning, and the death penalty. And they asked Jesus what they should do with the woman. And Jesus answered very simply: whoever was without sin could cast the first stone. And they all walked away, one by one, starting with the oldest. 

The crowd probably would have claimed that they wanted justice. Were they going to leave the guilty unpunished? But when they dropped their stones and walked away, they as much as admitted: there was a time when they were the guilty ones, and had gotten away with something, whatever it may have been. The older ones -- I think they left first, not just because they had more sins to remember or more time to regret. I think they left first because they already knew that, in the end, everybody would have to drop their stones and walk away. They'd lived enough to know that everybody had done something. 

Here's the thing about justice: Sure there's an aspect of punishing the guilty -- but not for the sake of blood-sport. (Is that why not only crime but also "justice" can attract such unsavory characters?) The "justice" aspect is about treating people fairly, treating all people the same. And if everybody in the crowd had gotten mercy at some point -- they still had their respectability, which is some kind of redemption for a sinner -- well, if everybody in the crowd had received some measure of mercy, then forgiveness was closer to justice than punishment would have been. If justice is treating people evenhandedly, then that was its own kind of justice: everybody has received mercy. 

I can't help but wonder how the people looked at each other. When Jesus said, "Whoever is without sin, let him cast the first stone" -- did they dare to meet each others' eyes? Were they looking around eagerly for the "hero" to step forward? What did they think when their neighbors wouldn't look them in the eyes? They came as a crowd, but we read that they left one by one ... which almost sounds like they slipped away in shame. The next day, did they understand mercy any better? Did they look each other in the eye with more compassion? 

They were all ready to condemn, at first. Jesus was ready to redeem. But the only one who got to hear that from Jesus' own lips was the adulteress, because she stayed to the end: "Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more." I hope she did run into her former accusers in the following days, and that they asked what he had said. Because they left in shame over their own sins, they did not get to hear the words: "Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more." Did she get a chance to pass it along? There is more justice in mercy than I had realized.  

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Love with mind and strength: Insight and determination

It is just a fact of human life that people have the capacity for good in them somewhere -- even if it is undeveloped. It goes with being created in the image of God. It is also a fact of human life that this capacity for good is often undeveloped not only in others but in ourselves as well -- and that pride, jealousy, a bad history, or a competitive nature can make us more likely to find things to criticize than things to praise. We tend to find what we're looking for. 

Love has the impulse to look for the good. It is like a precious-metal detector that finds what is beautiful in the other person, even if it is buried deep. When it finds that gold, it uncovers it and lifts it up. I'm reminded of one of my grandmothers, who was always rehearsing stories in her husband's praise. In the way that a jeweler takes all kinds of study and applies it to how to cut a gem, how to show it to best advantage so that it catches as much light as human skill can arrange -- so my grandmother would take just that much care with the "jewel" events of my grandfather's life. I wonder if she was polishing as she was retelling. I don't recall my grandfather ever blowing his own horn; considering my grandmother, there was hardly any need. She could communicate that my grandfather was a treasure in a way that made clear she thought she was quite the lucky woman as well. I doubt my grandfather -- or any of his friends -- ever harbored any doubts about her devotion. My grandmother was a master jeweler in that kind of craft. May I be that, starting with my children.  

I think to some extent we're all the treasure-hunters and jewelers in each others' lives. It takes insight to see what is good. It takes determination to keep looking. It takes wisdom and skill to present someone else's life in a way that it shines. Love does that. 

More than that, love is the alchemy that changes the baser matter into gold. It adds that hope to the other person, that desire to develop their own capacity for love and kindness, for wisdom and understanding. It is in our hearts' desire not only to be treasured, but to deserve it. In this way love shows itself nearly the opposite of flattery: where flattery plies someone with undeserved praise to manipulate and deceive, love gives every bit of deserved praise to build up the other person. 

Sunday, February 08, 2015

"Knowledge becomes love": Part 2

When we talk about loving with "heart, soul, mind, and strength", it's not always clear how "mind" fits into the picture. How do we love someone with our mind? Last time we considered the value of getting to know and understand the other person as an expression of love, and as a way to build love. Here I'd like to look at two ways we talk about love that show how important it is that we use our minds:

"Thoughtful" is a compliment that we pay to someone to recognize that they are loving and kind. It's not only that they have a good heart, but that they use that good heart to direct their thoughts. They employ their minds in thinking of ways to be kind. They actually seek out ways to help as a matter worthy of serious thought. The way a researcher might pursue a puzzle, the way a treasure-hunter might pursue a legendary treasure, these people pursue kindness. They use their minds to plan special occasions, to remember special days, to choose meaningful gifts. They seek out ways to recognize the value of other people. They give thought to ways to lift up, to encourage, to reassure.

"Considerate" is another compliment that we pay to someone who is loving and kind. And again, it amounts to someone using their mind: to consider. Here we talk about someone who considers another point of view, considers another perspective, considers how his own actions will affect other people. It is a habit of mind that we can cultivate, and whether we cultivate it reflects the value we place on it.

The whole area of "loving with our minds" is under-developed because so often we think of love as a matter only for the heart; we imagine the mind as dispassionate. It does not help our ability to love when we see things that way. It is doubtful whether the mind is ever truly that dispassionate, or whether it would be a good thing if it were. "Dispassionate" is a close cousin to "unmotivated". There is a passion that confuses our thoughts, and there is a passion that gives direction and speed to our thoughts. It calls for wisdom.

Monday, February 02, 2015

"Knowledge becomes love": Part 1

I wanted to pursue in more depth the ancient Christian saying "knowledge becomes love". Its first use seems most suited to knowing God: it is assumed that knowledge becomes love because whatever we know of God, whatever we learn, is necessarily beautiful or holy or in some other way inherently good.

But thinking it over, notice the close links between knowledge and love in our human relationships:

  • But when someone asks if we like someone else or if we're friends, consider one traditional answer: "I don't really know him." It is understood that if you don't really know someone, you can't possibly love them. 
  • Consider the early stage of a growing friendship or relationship: we call it "getting to know each other". 
  • We consider this to be an offense when we have been familiar with someone for awhile: "She didn't even know my name." 
  • If someone has a gruff exterior but a good heart, his friends may explain, "You have to get to know him."
  • Of the people closest to us, we may say, "He really understands me."

Then again, consider that prejudice is often based on ignorance: on not knowing. And the traditional defense against "getting to know" someone is "why would you want to know someone like that?" But they may not actually be like that ... regardless of how hard we try to convince ourselves otherwise. In my own life, I know I was raised to despise political conservatives. Because one of my parents preferred liberal-style solutions to problems and did so out of good motives, she assumed that people who prefer conservative-style solutions must lack her good motives. (I expect that something similar happens with all kinds of prejudices, but in the current media environment, such prejudice and ignorance is particularly noticeable about politics, where it does seem that people on different sides assume the worst of each other, and make a point of not getting to know or understand each other.) 

Why is knowledge so related to love? One thing is the simple statement of value: if we get to know someone, if we take that time and effort, it shows that we value that person. And value is one of the main messages of love: that you are worthwhile.

More next time ...