NO EASY ANSWERS, BUT A CLEAR EXAMPLE
Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflection
3rd Sunday of Lent - Year B
March 15, 2009
We humans seem to have it in our heads clearly enough… the answer to evil is retribution. Anybody guilty of doing wrong ought to be punished. The more impulsive among us would demand immediate retribution, as in the case of capital punishment for “heinous crimes.” The more pacifist among us, especially those whose faiths have been hijacked by New Age doctrine would rather believe that the evil one does already has a built-in retribution mechanism in the very act itself. What goes around comes around, and it would just be a matter of time when karmic retribution would haunt the doer of the evil deed, so they say. The former takes the act of retribution actively into one’s own hands… “an eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth”… Revenge, many times violent, is the way to go for these people who think that every action demands an equal, (more often, it is unequal) and opposite reaction. This is behind the popularity of capital punishment. One who is guilty of killing, they say, does not deserve to live…He or she has forfeited his right to life…so they reason! The latter is more philosophical about evil and the evil deeds of other people. With a perpetual cherubic smile on their lips, mistaken many a time for Christian inner peace, these people find no more reason to exact vengeance or any form of violent retribution. Karma will take over, and will settle the score for him eventually, sooner or later. What goes around, comes around, they often say. One’s evil action will eventually catch up with him, and karmic retribution will soon restore the disrupted equilibrium.
Both, ultimately, are an affront to genuine human freedom and personal autonomy. Both extremes do not represent the spirit of the decalogue, the ten commandments given by God through Moses. Both really emphasize the punishment aspect for evil. Both are focused on the aspect of retribution. And both, in varied ways, really subscribe to the idea that evil acts are due to be punished, whether directly or indirectly. This mentality, at bottom, also explains the popularity of war. That explains why at some point 67 % of the American society supported the war being waged in Irag.
But the “ten words” (not really ten commandments, etymologically speaking), are more about freedom, than they are about anything else! The decalogue were directed to the totality of the person, not to the materiality of the infraction. The decalogue highlighted the inherent dignity and autonomy of the human person, not primarily the material disobedience of the same person, and definitely not the punishment each infraction would entail. The decalogue, in that sense therefore, is a path that leads to wholistic, total liberation. The law liberates the person. Sin enslaves.
Rightly does the liturgy today would have us proclaim after the first reading: “Lord, you have the words of everlasting life.” For the same reason, the psalmist declares: “The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul; the decree of the Lord is trustworthy, giving wisdom to the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the command of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eye.”
For many of us, naturally inclined (owing to original sin) to retaliation, Jesus’ righteous indignation and anger at the sight of so many sellers and money-changers at the temple, elicits a whole lot of sympathy. Serves them right! … many of us would probably say. After all, they did the unimaginable – convert the temple into a place of commerce! How many of us have secretly said the same thing to ourselves at the sight of criminals being executed, “rightly paying” for the crimes they did? How many of us have secretly gloated at the apparent on-going “defeat’ of leaders of “rogue” nations who abuse their power and authority? What sort of logic is behind the senseless deaths of thousands of innocent people who happened to be in the wrong building at the wrong time at the infamous 9/11 incident? What moral justification is there in killing innocent people in the name of God all because one is trying to restore the balance of justice?
Jesus’ example today, as he drove out the sellers and money changers from the temple is a timely one for us now caught on two sides of an emotionally laden issue. Even as war rages, we are confronted with an important principle: one has the right to be angry, but not the right to be cruel. One definitely has the perfect right to be offended, but never the right to do injustice to others.
In these complex conditions of the world, in these difficult times where a lot of grey areas exist in all imaginable aspects of our societal lives…in these tumultuous times when people are faced with difficult choices, and when evil seems to penetrate all institutions, not excluding organized religions all over the world, when even religion is sometimes hijacked by questionable ideologies, there are no easy answers to the question of evil in the world, and how to deal with evil men and women. For far too long, humankind has always resorted to violence, to killing, to punishments, to wars. And history tells us that wars solve nothing. They only increase the aggrieved parties’ resolve to increase their capability to do warfare. They only drive a deeper wedge between two opposing sides. This, I am afraid, is what increases the great moral, cultural, economic and geopolitical divide between Christians and Muslims, or those identified with either, rightly or wrongly. As a Christian, as a priest, as a pastor, I deplore the increasing possibility of an Islamic backlash to all this violence going on. The cycle of violence is only bound to get deeper and stronger.
In these situations where it is very hard to decide and discern who is the aggressor and who is the aggrieved, there are no easy answers… But there is a clear example for us to pattern our lives with – the example of Christ, who got angry alright, but who did not resort to violence beyond driving them out of the temple with the use of a whip. How does one deal with evil in the world? There are no easy answers. And violence, no matter how seemingly cogent and logical in our linear thinking mode, is one such questionable answer. It is my hope and prayer that indeed, for both sides of the ongoing conflict, genuine zeal for God’s house, genuine love for the God of peace and righteousness, will lead them to paths that make for peace…peace to all women and men of good will!