I often find that when I hear about injustices perpetrated by our government or by the Church, I fly into what I believe is called a righteous rage. I go on the attack through my preaching or in articles I might write up in my blog or newsletter. But recently I came across a quote from Martin Luther King that caused me to pause and reflect on this typical response and look deeper at what is behind this reaction. The quote from Dr. King was, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
I want to write about this because, form my observation, this reaction is not unique to me. I wonder, in light of the above quotation, if such violent internal emotions might not indicate that, when we react that way, we are on the wrong path.
The fact is that when I am made aware of injustices committed against the innocent, particularly by institutions in which I have invested my trust, I feel hurt and betrayed. Such revelations leave me feeling debilitated, insecure and vulnerably powerless. I want to be able to rely on these authorities and trust that they will do the right thing by me. If I can feel secure in my trust of these institutions then that frees me up to worry about the everyday problems of my own life in the trust that these authorities will deal with the big issues for me. I want to be able to trust that the world remains manageable and predictable and that these institutions will uphold the values I treasure, always acting with integrity, honesty and transparency. I want to know that my faith in them is not in vain, and that I can feel safe in their care.
To invest such trust, of course, means that there is a reciprocal price. In relinquishing responsibility of governance to these institutions, I in turn pledge my loyalty. Loyalty to the government manifests itself in terms of being a law-abiding citizen, paying taxes, rates, etc., where as loyalty to the Church means, as a priest, that I uphold the institution and represent it, that I put up with certain rules and regulations that I don’t necessarily like (like conforming to the new English translation of the liturgy of the Mass), because overall I hope the Church knows what it is doing and perhaps even represents God’s will.
But when injustices come to light (for me this might take the form of the Australian Government proposing to deal with the issue of Asylum Seekers by using the ‘Malaysian solution;’ or with the Church it might take the form of the dismissal of Bishop Bill Morris from the Toowoomba Diocese for suggesting the Church needs to discuss options like ordaining women) I feel my trust has been betrayed. And I feel the betrayal at a fundamental level. In psychological terms what I believe is occurring is what is called a ‘transference,’ where I have transferred a feeling of parental betrayal on to these ‘pseudo-parents’ because they represent figures of authority in my life, just as my parents did when I was a child.
In other words, the powerlessness I feel is akin to the powerlessness a small child feels before its all powerful parents. So, in an effort to regain some sense of power, I claim the moral high ground and put myself in a position of judgement over these institutions. There is energy in feeling this righteous rage, all be it a negative energy, but at least an energy that helps to assuage the powerlessness I feel in the betrayal. It’s like the child is holding its parents to account for their poor parenting and demanding that they get their act together so that the child can feel safe again. It is the fear of the instability created by the betrayal of trust that is so debilitating. We feel a threat to our survival and the instincts for self-preservation kick in.
In light of this psychological experience, I reflected on the quotation I presented above. According to Martin Luther King darkness cannot cast out the darkness. The darkness of my violent emotions cannot cast out the darkness of the injustice perpetrated. The hate I feel cannot drive out the hate perpetrated in the world. So, this being the case, I ask myself, how can we put love and light in place of the rage? What would it look like?
Well, the first step is to understand what is going on inside us and why. Self-awareness is the key to giving perspective to the violent emotions. This helps to recognise that, while these feelings of moral outrage give us energy, in the end they leave us feeling worse. This self-awareness is the light that drives out the darkness within. Such self-awareness/reflection/analysis helps us to recognise that perhaps these violent feelings really originate in our childhood and that the Government and Church are not our parents. Perhaps we give these institutions a power over us that does not belong to them. We do it because we want them, like our parents, to take care of us. We want them to take responsibility to make us feel safe. We want to be able to relinquish our responsibility to take care of ourselves. In short, there is a part of us that wants to remain a child and not have to deal with this frightening adult world in which we live in.
In light of this psychological experience, the love Dr. King speaks of comes with the compassion for that part of us that is like a child that seeks to feel safe. The love comes with recognizing that these institutions are run, not by the perfect parents we wished we’d have had, but by people who are just as we are. The love comes when we realize that the only person that can take responsibility for my life is myself. The love comes when we recognize that we are not perfect either, but can only do our best, and if we are people of faith, to trust that it is enough.