lundi, mai 07, 2007

From Saturday's Intelligencer Journal-my column

'Love the sinner, but hate the sin
Published: May 05, 2007 12:01 AM EST
The Sunday after the massacre at Virginia Tech, when student Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 students and teachers and then himself, I slipped into a back pew at our family church.
If I'd thought about it, I would have realized our pastor had to address the tragedy, an extraordinary wound even in a nation continually rocked by the toll extracted by angry and/or mentally ill people armed with guns.
But I wasn't prepared by what our pastor had to say. How swift we are, in times of crisis, to revert to our childhood fears of monsters under the bed. How quickly we have been to label Cho a monster, a paradigm of evil, the minister said. How blind we are, and have been, to the possibility that God could reach even someone like him.
As it happened, our lectionary provided him with the perfect text with which to make his point — the conversion of St. Paul.
Our pastor reminded the congregation that before his encounter with God on the Damascus road, Paul was best known in the Christian community as a persecutor. In the book of the Acts of the Apostles, the writer describes him as a witness to the martyrdom of the Christian disciple Stephen.
Our pastor reminded us of how the first Christians received Paul. Where as they might have been tempted to throw Paul off a cliff, said the preacher, the early followers of Christ welcomed him, recognizing that no one in God's eyes was beyond redemption.
Right now, another Cho may be in a kindergarten somewhere, growing up among us, concluded our pastor. Clearly, Paul was not beyond the reach of God's redemption. Do we want to say that a "monster" who is yet to come is beyond God's love?
My guess is mine were not the only tear-filled eyes in the congregation that morning. Grieving and shocked like so many, I wasn't ready to take in the implications of our pastor's sermon: Dare we call anyone, no matter how evil their actions, a fiend beyond God's reach? If we do so, what does it say about the depravity within our own souls?
In the days after the shootings, many Virginia Tech students didn't wait to act as they grappled with weighty questions like these. As an article in last week's New York Times recounts, they set up memorials of letters, flowers and stones across from the campus administration building — 33 of them.
One of the letters left at Cho's memorial puts the question in a way both humble and brave: "I hope that if I ever met anyone like you I would have the courage to reach out and change his life for the better." Another note left at the memorial says simply: "I forgive you."
When someone commits such terrible actions, members of faith communities who believe in a god of love and justice, mercy and judgment, quickly find themselves wrestling with profound paradoxes. In Cho, we see the probable evidence of biological and psychological disturbance, coupled with unquestionably evil behavior.
Yet to reduce his actions to his idiosyncratic brain chemistry would be as wrong as to say that he, a killer, or the men who slammed the airplanes into the twin towers, were simply pawns of Satan.
In the evangelical community in which I worked, believers often threw out the aphorism "Love the sinner, but hate the sin." If Cho had lived, we would have been sorely challenged to put this belief into action. How do you love someone whose actions violate almost every human norm we have, and certainly most divine ones?
Yet in our prisons — and perhaps even in some of our high school and college classrooms — we have young men and women as bitter, furious and cut off as Cho apparently was. How do those of us who profess belief in the Holy Scriptures act in ways consonant with the God who chose David, a man of great moral flaws, and the Jesus who said in Matthew 5 that everyone who is angry with a brother or sister is liable to judgment?
I profess belief in what is called a "web of life" ethic that holds that all life, from the fetus in the womb to the prisoner on death row to the terminally ill stroke victim, is sacred.
Yet I find myself struggling with my deep and human desire to judge, to condemn and to toss aside those who show themselves contemptuous of other human life.
At the end of the day, I see relatively little Scriptural support for that point of view.
I see more for the belief that until our last earthly breath, God does not give up on us. After all, He was willing to have a face-to-face (or voice-to-voice) meeting with Paul and all kinds of other lost souls — people who sound a lot like us.
I can't help but wonder what would have happened if the Disciples, so new to belief themselves, had turned their back on Paul, a vehement tormentor of Christians.
What would he have become? What would have become of them? What will happen to us if we choose to enter the darkness of hate?
Perhaps we do better to focus on the goodness that has revealed itself, shining like a bright spark in the darkness of the grief that has followed the slayings. Let us rather meditate on the heroism of Holocaust survivor Liviu Librescu, who interposed his body between his students.
How much more edifying to recall the words of freshman Mary Read, found in a notebook after her death and read by her father at her funeral, according to a Washington Post account. "When a deep injury is done us, we will never recover until we forgive."
Forgiveness, moral courage and the willingness to extend a hand even to the "monsters" among us are the tasks of the living. Redemption and rescue are God's work. Where we confuse our work with His, we run the risk, not only of idolatry, but of becoming that which we most fear.

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