‘Justice without mercy is cruelty.’ Thomas Aquinas
When St. John (JN 8:1-12) describes the Pharisees hauling the adulterous woman before Jesus in the hopes of exposing His inability to unite mercy and justice (Lev. 20:10), with whom do we identify?
Like me, you can probably admit that you are both prostitute and Pharisee. Many of us who come out of sexual disintegration have worked hard at coming clean and helping the Church clean house. Congratulations. We now are less tempted by unclean spirits and more inclined to religious ones. What else explains the shock we feel when a real sinner shows up in our midst?
God is faithful. Might we recognize in our Christian ‘enculteration’ a flash of the inner-Pharisee whose outrage over the gender meltdown in our day tempts us to look with disgust at the unidentified gender being before us? Have we forgotten the bullies who beat us up at school before we were LGBT-anything, just lost and alone in our uncentered selves? What about the religious who squinted through their smiles at us? The idiotic counsel from church men who punctuated their platitudes with ‘just don’t tell anyone…’?
It is good to forgive and also not to forget how tough it is for outliers to find footing among the holy ones. And if we do forget, just wait. God is merciful to bring up old struggles of the flesh just to remind us of how vulnerable we still are and how somehow, we need the saving love of Jesus more today than yesterday. Let the accusing voices roar. Let the demons howl and chase us right back to the feet of Jesus where our divided souls can find refuge from the stones and stony gaze of Pharisees. C.S. Lewis is right: ‘If religion does not make you an awful lot better, it can make you an awful lot worse.’
Maybe your sins are not sensual; you cannot relate to the prostitute. Then think about adultery as illicit virtue, not sex. Have you quietly begun to pat yourself on the back for your ordered life rather than to thank God for His mercy? Perhaps you spend more time praying for your holiness than for saving a tortured soul from the flames of hell. Many of us can confess honestly that we needed the disordered son or daughter or spouse or friend to rouse us from our self-centered faith and to cast ourselves once more on the saving love of Jesus.
The sweet, savory truth: Jesus is God’s justice for broken ones like us! And it takes a good break in order for us pilgrims to be made new by His mercy, a cleansing love which engulfs and transforms our injustices into something good.
All we have left is tears, evidence that we have lost our way, grown cold in the light, weary in well-doing, unmerciful. Tears are good. They show us that we still have hearts that can break. What better time to break than now as we walk with Jesus to Calvary? Maybe our broken hearts are required to make room for persons who will perish unless they receive a share in His heart through ours.
‘The fire of divine love, which burns on the altar of our hearts…miraculously turns itself into water, the compunction of tears, which purifies us from sin and commends our good works. When our works are sprinkled with tears, splendor shines upon us, and a ray of light radiates from our depths with a serenity of delightful brightness.’ St. Peter Damian
‘Mercy without justice is the mother of disintegration.’ Thomas Aquinas
Conviction for sexual sin is dull today. We no longer feel bad for acting badly. Misuses of mercy may well enable the problem. When we placate the disintegrated who sow seeds of disorder everywhere, are we disintegrating others? Where is justice for persons caught in the crossfire of another’s sin?
Last week, we as a staff prayed for a godly wife whose husband abruptly left her and is fast-tracking a divorce so he can proceed with his sexy new friendship. Our small group surrounded a mother whose once beautiful daughter now postures as a macho dude and refuses proximity with her grieving mom. I talked with a colleague about how to best respond to a once chaste friend who now works for a ‘gay’ rights group and who slanders his former recovery/ministry mates as abusive and greedy ‘conversion’ therapists. All three cases involve persons who refuse the truth, cannot change the truth, and vent their conflict on loved ones who remind them of the truth.
Justice is all about the truth. As Pieper says about this foundational virtue, ‘What is right comes before justice; justice is second.’ The truth—we seek to give others their due. In this we serve justice. It is right and fair to seek to live undivided lives. However weak we may be, tempted by myriad desires, we can desire one true thing: to love others in a way that honors our commitment to what is best for all. In the sexual realm that involves keeping the commitment of love we sealed with our bodies (aka marriage), keeping same-gender friends chaste, and making every effort to honor the gender of our birth.
It is fair to name efforts to ‘expand’ human liberty by forsaking these truths as unjust. One person’s freedom becomes a loved one’s nightmare. Before we fawn over the unrepentant prodigal, we must first recognize that his or her sin has set in motion a series of sins that has victimized others. How are the forsaken spouse and grieving parent and helpless friend doing? We must first uphold what is just by caring for the injured.
Secondly, the injustice of today’s new sexual liberties wreaks havoc on children who grow up in an amoral, chaotic world. Yesterday, everyone had a ‘gay’ niece. Today, everyone has a ‘trans’ nephew. Is it because we underestimated the number of gender disoriented folks? No. We just popularized them, made it crazy cool to ‘gender bend’ and barely formed kids begin to entertain the possibilities. Every ‘gay marriage’, every ‘trans’ testimony, every divorce pollutes the air and the water our kids depend on and makes them that much more susceptible to immorality. That is the nature of injustice. Founded on lies, it spreads its deception naturally, deeply. Pray mercy on our children. We have sown to a violent wind and we now reap destruction.
‘For rebellion is like the sin of witchcraft, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry.’ (1S 15:23)
‘The Church must accompany with attention and care the weakest of her children by restoring their hope like a torch carried among the people to enlighten those who have lost their way in the midst of a storm.’ Joy of Love, Pope Francis
While Pope Francis magnificently honors marriage in his recent exhortation, he falters in fueling the torch necessary to enlighten persons lost in the storm surrounding homosexuality. Yes, he exposes the lie of constructing one’s own gender ‘self’. But he falls fall short of illuminating Christ Crucified and Raised as the fire that can consume the disordered heart and win it over to holy love.
Pope Francis does not connect the dots. On the one hand he alludes to misbegotten cultural shifts like ‘gay marriage’ and the folly of being tossed about by self-serving, shortsighted desires. He highlights the Gospel passages in which sexual sinners are admonished by Jesus ‘to live more worthy lives’ as His love awakens ‘consciousness of sin.’ Yet his pastoral directives for enlightening persons lost in the gender storm are bland and dim; Francis invokes accompaniment and the law of gradualism and other references to walking with persons in pain. All good—but none adequate to awaken the soul in darkness to the saving light of Jesus.
I longed to hear Francis refer to repentance and sexual sin in the same sentence. He hesitates here. Inspired by the Spirit and commensurate with the damage done, the urgent call for repentance seems in line with Francis’ consistent regard for ‘the immense psychological burden’ that unfaithful adults impose upon children. We serve justice to kids by returning to the Father and casting off destructive identities and relationships. By aspiring to be faithful ‘gender’ witnesses, we the repentant do our part to meet the identity needs of children.
For this, we the Church need to declare the clear and compassionate call for all to turn to Jesus amid confused identities. Repentance is the base on which our eyes are opened and we can begin to make wise choices. Yes we slowly progress in our moral formation, and yes such formation is founded on the Word who exposes our chains and offers Himself as the key.
I now live in a Catholic world where the slight majority uphold gay unions, are intolerant (often cruel) to persons who lovingly refuse to bless ‘gay unions’, and whose clergy men tend to invoke a repentance-free mercy for persons with SSA. Where is the Church who blazes like a torch in order to enlighten her members? Where are the merciful lights to guide lost loved ones home? May God fan into flame a host of blazing lights to light the way in the storm that Francis describes but inadequately guides us through in this turbulent hour.
‘For Zion’s sake, I will not be silent; for Jerusalem’s sake, I will not remain quiet, until her righteousness shines out like the dawn, her salvation like a blazing torch.’ (IS 62:1)
I spent Divine Mercy weekend in Ubon Thailand near the Laos border. Beneath a bamboo cross, an international team welcomed a diverse group of Thai men and women whose love for Jesus compelled them to offer Him their sexual brokenness. Ever faithful, He loosed a flood of mercy for persons raised in a Buddhist culture (only .4% claim Jesus as Lord) where sexual abuse and emotional neglect lay groundwork for many to become sexually compromised as adults.
As we ministered, I glimpsed the witness of Mary Magdalene, regarded by many as the Apostle of all Apostles. Culturally powerless, probably a prostitute, she was yet entrusted by Jesus with the message of the resurrection. Her exchange of false lovers and many demons for devotion to the One forged an intimate communion between Jesus and herself; He was all she had, an authority that could bear the most important message of all.
I witnessed men and women alike at our conference weeping at the foot of the cross over their sexual sins and those committed against them. I watched hope rise as Jesus encouraged them through our healing stories.
I observed a young Thai pastor crying out for purity from his depths, wanting nothing to sully his care for the women he serves. Another man, older and wizened by years of hard work in an outlying village, said very little but his face conveyed anguish as He listened to our histories of affliction and deliverance. His face shone as Jesus extended mercy to Him throughout our weekend together.
Most moving to me was a young woman—an ex-prostitute—who Jesus is making a deep well of mercy. She knows degradation better than most and the lure of big quick money. But she is committed to exchanging her lovers and demons for the only One who can love her without compromise. She knows she must stay near Him through the Living Waters community in order to live true. She weeps as much as she smiles; her eyes convey a heart united with Jesus for dear life.
Jesus is raising up all three (and many others) as witnesses of His life-transforming mercy. He died to put their sin and shame under His wounded feet; He lives to give them life. On Divine Mercy Sunday, I had the privilege of preaching on Mary Magdalene before my new friends in Ubon. We rejoiced together: ‘We have seen the Lord!’ (JN 20:18)
His smooth smiling face may have belied a deeper conflict but none was apparent. Jim responded to my story of sexual brokenness and Jesus’ healing with simply this: ‘My [homo]sexuality has been positive for me. But I can see why you needed Jesus. You were so wounded.’
When I suggested that ‘we are all wounded and that’s precisely why God allowed Himself to be wounded for us’, Jim begged to differ: ‘I understand God differently. I consider myself deeply spiritual, not Christian.’
He did not mean to be condescending. Jim was just being honest. No apparent wounds, no need for the Crucified God. I appreciate that he did not lump Jesus into his ‘Oprah-fied’ gospel. The truth is: the cross remains a scandal for persons who want to control their own destinies with a little help from God, rather than persons whose help is God.
How did I or any of us come to that place of surrender? I believe that it has something to do with the mercy that meets us in another person, someone who somehow warrants our trust. In the light of love, we are freed to admit: ‘I have needs for love that I cannot manage and that another person cannot satisfy.’
Love alone frees us to lay down sleek defenses and show our wounds. Every week Annette and I gather with a group of men and women who do just that. Mercy drew us and now frees us to be poor together. Out of that poverty—the halting and at times shameful exposure of what needs to be cleaned and set and protected from further infection—we are becoming rich.
God is glorious among us. The Risen Christ, His wounds yet visible, is healing us from the inside out. Around the cross with these ones is heaven-on-earth. Nowhere I would rather be.
I keep praying and waiting for Jim to be among us. He needs us. He just does not know it yet. Maybe my presence will draw him yet, though I pray for others more winsome than I to do the trick. Regardless, I will keep reaching to him in love. May mercy flow like a river from our wounds, clean and glorious.