Recently I was conducting a retreat day for year 12 students of an Ecumenical College as they completed their year and were preparing for the next step in their life’s journey. Because the retreat fell at the very end of the year, the focus of the retreat was reflecting on what they wanted to take with them, from their journey so far in the Christian education system, to the next phase of their lives. Given that the Christian faith was part of their education, I used a session to help them reflect on where God might fit into the picture for them as they leave school. The session I used is called the ‘Panel of Wise Elders.’
The way this session works is that I first get the students to imagine that they could meet God face-to-face, whatever they imagine God to be. I say to them that if this could take place, and they had the opportunity to ask God whatever they wanted to ask, what would be the one question that they would want to ask. After giving them time to think about this and write their questions down, I then assemble the ‘Panel of Wise Elders,’ who in actual fact are their teachers as well as any members of my youth retreat team I take with me. I then act as the compare in a game show. I ask the students who would like to go first and choose one who puts up their hand. They have the opportunity to ask any 2 members of the panel their question, understanding that the panel members are not God, just ‘wise’ elders in the sense that they are older than the students and therefore have a little more life experience to draw on. The panel members chosen then do their best to respond to the questions asked.
I shouldn’t have really been surprised, given the close proximity of the retreat to the Paris terrorist attacks, how much this event coloured the questions being asked. The students were struggling with what attitude God might have towards the terrorists and hence what attitude should they have. There was a part of them that was horrified, frightened and angered by what had taken place, yet these powerful feelings jarred against the Christian teaching on love and mercy.
The tension in the room was building with each question as students and teachers grappled with their feelings and their Christian ideals. Eirin, the member of my youth retreat team who I brought with me defused the tension when she answered one such question by stating that the real difficulty in changing the current situation is that terrorists truly believe that what they are doing is right and that their victims are wrong. They don’t do it because they want to do evil, but believe they are fighting for justice. This point opened up a different perspective on the situation and enabled those present to see the terrorists less as threats and more as human beings with perhaps a flawed perspective. It changed the battle lines from a win/lose scenario to a win/win possibility.
The same problem is created with issues such as the marriage equality debate, or admitting divorced and remarried Catholics to communion. At the moment the conversations around these issues are being driven by extremists on both sides, people who see the struggle as a polarised conflict with the only goal possible being that of overwhelming victory. But most of us would find that victory unattractive, no matter which side is triumphant. Is there not a way that we can find a win/win solution? Is there a way that people on both sides can work together to build a lasting peace?
In terms of the debate on marriage equality, an example of such a negotiated path here in Australia was modelled recently in the Victorian Parliament, where same-sex couples won the right to access adoption services while religious organizations won the right to restrict access to their own adoption services to heterosexual couples.
Of course the extremists on both sides were unhappy with the result, but as a negotiated outcome it allows both same-sex couples and religious organizations to continue to pursue what they consider as their best interests unimpeded.
The same can be said on exploring the possibility of admitting divorced and remarried Catholics to Holy Communion. Last week Cardinal Raymond Burke stated that if the family Synod opens the way for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion, then it has, “departed from Catholic teaching in a very fundamental matter.” This is the language of a win/lose battle where the goal is overwhelming victory and no compromise is possible.
Most Catholics would find that victory unattractive if either side won overwhelmingly. On the one hand, we would all want to uphold the ideal of Christian marriage and would not want to advocate an ‘anything goes’ approach where we let go of our ideals for marriage as if they really don’t matter. But the Cardinal Burkes of this world only show us the ugly face of the Church that is totally lacking in compassion or mercy.
It is like the story of Jesus healing the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath (Mk 3:1-6). The scribes and the Pharisees are watching to see what Jesus will do, not because they are evil, nasty men. On the contrary, they are pious men. In their minds, what they are thinking is, “if this man were truly from God, he would uphold God’s commandments. God has said, ‘you must keep holy the Sabbath day,’ which means you do no work on the Sabbath day, for God created the world in six days, and on the seventh day, the Sabbath day, God rested, and therefore we are supposed to rest as well. Healing has been defined as work. There are six days in the week when Jesus can heal this man. Why does he have to heal him on the Sabbath day when it is specifically prohibited by God’s commandment. If Jesus heals this man on the Sabbath, he is treating God’s commandments as if they don’t matter, so he cannot be from God.”
This is what they are thinking. So they are not evil men – they are pious men. But you know what they have failed to see? Do you know what they have failed to notice? – The man! They don’t care about him. They don’t care if he has had a withered hand all of his life, or if he has one for the rest of his life. All they care about is The Law!
So Jesus tries to get them to see the man. He asks them, “What does the law allow on the Sabbath – to do good or to do evil? To save life or to kill?” But he can see that he will make no impression on them because there is no mercy, compassion or compromise in their hearts. They don’t want a win/win solution, they want to win overwhelmingly, which means that Jesus and the man with the withered hand have to lose overwhelmingly. Indeed, when Jesus heals the man, they cannot see this as good, so immediately leave the synagogue and begin to plot how to destroy him.
What Pope Francis is offering us in this Jubilee year of mercy is the same opportunity Jesus offers the Pharisees in the Synagogue. It is the opportunity to change our perspective, not to water down our ideals. He is inviting us to see the victims and look on them with Mercy and Compassion. He is inviting us to negotiate and see if we cannot find a win/win solution together. He is inviting us to see others less as threats, and more as human beings.