Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The only starting point for broken people in a broken world

As I am out-of-town I had to settle this morning for reading USA Today in lieu of a newspaper. It is always surprising what I find in the most unexpected places. In the Life section of USA Today this morning is an article (I can't locate it on-line) entitled Fighting postwar stress: Groups, congregations pave a path of spirituality to help veterans. It is a moving story, to which the generic term spirituality in the title does not do justice.

James Knudsen, a Vietnam veteran in Iowa, who is involved in outreach to the new generation of combat veterans who are suffering sums up well, not just the mission of Point Man ministries, but the Gospel, when he says:

"We emphasize that everybody else can forgive you, and now it's your turn to forgive yourself because God already has." He continues, "And then we go from there." What Knudsen and Point Man ministries understands is that there is no other starting point.

In the movie Rachel Getting Married there is a powerful scene in which Kim, Rachel's sister, played by Anne Hathaway, goes to a rehab meeting and talks about how driving the family car off a bridge while high and killing her little brother has impacted her life, how she feels about it. She says that doesn't want to believe in a God who would forgive her for what she has done. I cried at that scene, it broke my heart because I know people who feel and think like this.

What can you say? Let me answer that: Nothing and you are foolish to try, believe me! You just have to hang in there compassionately and prayerfully. Let's not forget that compassion means to suffer with... I am nobody's savior. The point is not to play God and be the dispenser of what Dietrich Bonhoffer called cheap grace, which pastoral ministers are often all too eager to do in order to avoid suffering with someone through a struggle. Besides, to do that shows a distinct lack of faith and trust in God, who is at work in the situation and in the life of the one with whom you are suffering. The point is to be human, to share my humanity that has been changed because of an encounter with the Presence, who deigns to come to me in my nothingness. As Don Giussani taught us: "He mounted the Cross to free us from the fascination with nothingness, to free us from the fascination with appearances, with the ephemeral." He came to save me from, in the words of a REM song, "being lost inside my head," in what Sting, in a long ago Police song, described as "this desert that I call my soul" where "I always play the starring role... so lonely."

Last night I was watching CNN before I went to bed. It was program about the 40th anniversary of the Manson Family murders. The film-maker John Waters was interviewed about his friendship with Leslie Van Houten who became involved with Charles Manson as a teenager. At nineteen she participated in the LaBianca murders. Van Houten, who turns 60 later this month, has been imprisoned for 40 years. Her death sentence was commuted to life in prison in 1971 when it was abolished by the California Supreme Court's ruling in People v. Anderson. Subsequently, the California State Assembly passed a resolution calling for the execution of the Manson Family murderers despite the court decision.

Van Houten and Waters emphatically claim that over these past 40 years the woman who committed a violent murder has changed. Waters says she should be "the poster girl for the prison system," a rare case of a rehabilitated person. She is asking for parole for the 17th time at the end of this month, a request that John Waters supports. He has just written a book, Leslie Van Houten: A Friendship. The Huffington Post has serialized the first chapter in five parts- part one.

What strikes me about this is the notion of mercy. It is correct that Van Houten and the other drug-crazed and maniacal members of the Manson Family had no mercy on those they killed, even as their victims pleaded for it. There is no way around this ugly and disturbing fact. I suppose the question on the table is, Should mercy be denied them on that basis, especially when they are genuinely remorseful? Wasn't it Jesus who said: "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy" (Matt. 5:7)? Doesn't his question imply that we need mercy, too? Waters lambasted no one in his interview. He said he understood how the families of victims must feel and in no way diminished the horrific nature of these seemingly random and evil acts, made all the more frightening by their randomness.

We need look no further than Merriam Webster to gain insight into what it means to have mercy: to show compassion, to be lenient. Mercy is "a blessing that is an act of divine favor or compassion." I remember many years ago seeing hats, t-shirts, and bumper stickers that read "To err is human, to forgive is out of the question." Typically, there was a hangman's noose underneath the words "to forgive is out of the question." This was an attempt to humorously deviate from the saying To err is human, to forgive is divine. I never found it the least bit funny. To forgive is divine. If Jesus showed us what divinity looks like in human form, when we contemplate the cross, we see that it is not easy. How else can God bring life from death except through love? Love is the only thing stronger than death, than the thanatos syndrome from which we suffer until we come to know, through often painful experience, that we are redeemed.

Who knows, perhaps I would feel differently if something horrible happened to someone near and dear to me? I know it would be a struggle, a process, something that would wound me for a lifetime, but I hope I would be merciful and not because the other person deserved it- that is not mercy. We use the word gracious too liberally. To be merciful is to be gracious in just the way God is gracious. To be gracious is to be like Christ to die to yourself, not annhiliate yourself, but to rise to new life, the life for which you are created.

Jesus, the healer of my soul, help me to see my need in your cross and its fulfillment in your rising from the dead. Amen. Let's not forget Mary's response to the unjust execution of her son. So, I pray: Remember, O Most Blessed Virgin,..."


  1. So true and beautiful. And everything would be different. It reminds me of the one father in *Dead Man Walking* who had to pray and had to forgive in order to come to terms with his child's death, while the others even after execution found no peace.

  2. Scott, a couple of days ago, I posted a link on my blog ( about a woman in California who is an excellent example of forgiveness even when the victim tragic deaths in her family. You might be interested in logging on to her story in the diocesan newspaper:

  3. Thanks, Sharon.

    Bob, I have enough real-life instances.

  4. I've never heard term "cheap grace" before but it all too well describes those moments when a trusted religious leader brushes off a deep personal concern with glib advice...or worse, when in the hurry of life, we offer our friends or family a "pop culture" solution for some repeating ailment....the rationale for such behavior is spot on: to evade suffering.

    Those moments never feel right (neither as recipient nor issuer) and this term, "cheap grace", helps color and clarify the way to live a truly Christ-like life of mercy, compassion and forgiveness.

    Good post.