Monday, February 18, 2013

Wrongs that are so wrong that there is nothing you can do to make them right

Over the last few weeks, I've been mulling over a particularly striking phrase employed in a video of Stanley Hauerwas talking at Azuza Univeristy (the part I'm thinking about starts around the 9:45 minute point in the attached video). In a discussion of his discomfort with being called the best theologian in America, Hauerwas explains that "America is a country which has no idea of what to do with wrongs so wrong that there's nothing you can do to make it right". While his discussion goes on to what Hauerwas perceives as the American inability to come to terms with its past wrongs, I was struck with his phrase 'wrongs so wrong that there's nothing you can do to make them right'. That's a striking phrase in the Hauerwasian vein--provocative and memorable. Yet, I admit, on reflection, that its meaning isn't necessarily so clear.

What I think Hauerwas is getting at are wrongs that strike at the heart of who we are as people in a God-made world. That is, they challenge what God is trying to do in this world by elevating our self-interest and drive for power to the place that it overrides the justice and compassion that we are called to exercise in this world. They are, in that sense, the wrongs committed while we are imprisoned by the idolatry of ourselves and our place in the world. That makes them, I think, one of the multiple milestones that we hang over our own necks as we seek our will to the exclusion of God's and our neighbours. The fallout of these wrongs distort our relationships, create new conflicts, perpetuate old ones and, ironically, make it increasingly difficult to face up to our wrongs because of our need to create a self-justifying narrative to avoid admitting to our weakness and need for forgiveness. The result is that it is frightfully difficult to break out the cycle of these wrongs which are so wrong that there's nothing you can do to make them right', partly because it is easier to ignore them than to face up to our capacity for evil and partly because they tend to be the start of a string of such wrongs by all sides in a situation. So, these wrongs merely feed the cycle of violence, injustice and brokenness which characterizes not only the political realm which is Hauerwas' focus, but our communal and personal lives.

Anyone who reads Christian history knows that we, like most other groups of people, have any number of wrongs so wrong that there is nothing that we can do to make them right. It isn't difficult to generate a list: the Crusades, religious wars, treatment of Jews and other religious minorities etc.. Nor have we been immune from the temptation to whitewash them as we think about our past. That is, I think, one reason why ecclesiastical history has such a bad name in the historical profession because all too often our historians have tried to spin our wrongs to blame our victims and cast ourselves as the injured in too many cases. No wonder even a whiff of Christian theology is likely to cause other historians to dismiss what we have to say.

Yet, as Hauerwas points out, Christians have a unique understanding of these 'wrongs that are so wrong that there's nothing you can do to make them right' because of our participation in the passion of Christ. In fact, the Cross may represent the ultimate wrong that is so wrong that there's nothing we can do to make them right because it represents the moment when humanity rejected the Son of God and inflicted our injustice and violence on an entirely innocent God. There is nothing that we can do to make it up that humanity, nearly as one, cried 'Crucify Him' when they confronted God as Man.

What is more the phrase continues to percolate down from the level of our faith communities and into our own lives. Wrongs that are so wrong that there's nothing that we can do to make them right are also legion in the lives of individuals, Christian or not. We have all, I think, done damage to our relationships and each other by insisting on our own will and disregarding or overriding those around us whom we will hurt in consequence. We can come up with all sorts of excuses for that like "I felt led to do that' or the 'The Lord told me...' or 'I had no choice....' or 'I had to live my truth....', but the damage is no less real. Relationships break, resentment grows, the desire for revenge is sparked and soon we're in a tit-for-tat exchange of wrongs. Christian or not, this is a sad reality in our lives.

Yet, what is remarkable about Hauerwas' discussion is not that he identifies these wrongs, but that he identifies what solves it--the ability to be forgiven and the consequent commitment to speak truthfully about our wrongs. The temptation in these wrongs is to sweep them under the rug, possibly by affected cluelessness about the impact of our decisions, or denial that it even mattered, or by angrily blaming the person we have wronged, or by framing the resistance of those we've wronged as aggression, or by tireless self-flagellation without any attempt to seek forgiveness. All of these attempts to sweep aside these wrongs are founded upon a rejection of the humility needed to admit one's sins and seek forgiveness. It is hard to be honest enough to admit even to oneself the depth of our wrongs. And so the poison of resentment or self-righteousness can seep in our lives and blight everything we see and we love. Receiving forgiveness is a hard remedy to many of us, but the disease which results from these kinds of wrongs, not only in the one who suffers the wrong, but the one who perpetrates it, is so much worse.

Wrongs that are so wrong that there's nothing we can do to make them right, in whatever form they take, the collective or the individual, are scary things. They're scary because, not only because they reveal the truth of how we all sin and fall short of the the good God made us to do, but also because they are demonstration of our powerlessness in the face of our failings. No one goes out to commits these kinds of wrongs. They almost always appear when we seek our advantage or the advantage of those around us without regard for the bigger picture; when the good we seek becomes greater than the good God would have us do. It happens when what we seek becomes the idol and God and his children becomes the means to feed that idol. They are the relational fallout of our will to power and they can only be fixed by an equally scary emptying of our desires and 'needs' to seek the restoration of relationship through forgiveness. That effort demands both humility and rigorous honesty. And a hefty supply of divine help.

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