"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, February 18, 2007

The objectivity of love

Like good poetry, the proverb "love is blind" is creatively ambiguous. Limerence, which only the young and foolish believe to be love, can make people quite remarkably blind; but the proverb ordinarily means that those who love each other tend to discount the depth of each other's flaws. For many people, marriage and especially parenthood cure that. The daily demands and gritty realities of family life dissipate the erotic haze in which most people marry and, by calling for sacrifice, expose and test their true character. Such is the objectivity that explains why the real work of love so often begins with falling out of love. Of course sound marriages—there are still some left—will integrate passion with sacrifice . And it helps that babies, our own flesh and blood, are cute. But all that is still, quite recognizably, natural. Today's readings at Mass remind us that the greatest love is unmistakably supernatural, and thus all the more objective in both its perspective and its scope.

David did not kill King Saul when he could easily have done so, even though Saul had been trying to kill him. For he asked, rhetorically, "who can lay hands on the LORD’s anointed and remain unpunished?” Here we see the primitive reverence for "the other" based on the "fear of the Lord," which is the "beginning of wisdom." But that is only the beginning. Jesus takes things a step beyond that:

Do to others as you would have them do to you. For if you love those who love you,what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them.And if you do good to those who do good to you,what credit is that to you? Even sinners do the same.I f you lend money to those from whom you expect repayment,what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners,and get back the same amount.

But rather, love your enemies and do good to them, and lend expecting nothing back; then your reward will be great and you will be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Thus we are not merely to treat others fairly because we fear a just God; we are to treat others mercifully because we are called to be children of a merciful God. And God's mercy is utterly objective. It is on offer to all; it heals if we accept it, which starts with acknowledging our need for it; and in lawlike fashion, it remains with us if, having accepted it for ourselves, we show it to others. Of course the others don't deserve it. Neither do we. If we or they deserved it, it would not be mercy.

For many reasons, the mercy of which Jesus speaks has never been popular and seems less so than ever today. Indeed, the objectivity it requires is impossible for us on the natural level. We want justice, which we think of as objective and impartial; we nurse grudges and look for a chance to "get even" unless or until we get justice, or what we think of as justice. But of course, any kind of human justice is at best an imperfect facsimile thereof, and often isn't justice at all. We blame others and excuse ourselves too readily; when we blame, even when blaming ourselves, we are slow to forgive; even when we forgive, we are slow to forget. Ultimately, such attitudes are not true to reality and thus not objective. For this life is not about what we think of as justice; remember all the innocent who suffer and all the wicked who prosper. No, this life is about salvation, which is the mercy that transforms. The justice God will show to the wicked is what they do to themselves by neither accepting nor showing mercy. That will be manifest to all on the Last Day.

But what is this mercy which most of us want for ourselves and are called upon to show others? When Jesus says "Judge not, lest you be judged," does that mean we are to pretend that evil is not, objectively and undeniably, evil? So it is often thought in today's dictatorship of relativism, when being "judgmental" is one of the worse social faux pas one can commit—unless those being judged are the stock "oppressors" of a duly accredited group of victims, in which case failure to judge is one of the worst social faux pas one can commit. But Jesus' meaning is both sterner and gentler than that.

It is generally acknowledged among Christians that we are not to make any definitive judgment of a person's culpability for their sins. It is even grudgingly acknowledged that we must always be eager to forgive. And that's part of what Jesus means. What is not generally accepted, or realized, is how hard it is to be merciful despite such acknowledgements. In my observation, problems persist between people mostly because of unforgiveness. We say to ourselves: "He's done it before. If you cut him any slack, he'll do it again. And again." People being what they are, he probably will—at least for a time. So we seek to protect ourselves and our loved ones: we either don't forgive at all or, if we forgive after a fashion by letting go of the deadly sin of anger, will maintain a cool distance that precludes real reconciliation. But Jesus makes clear that, if that's how we treat others, that's how God will treat us. And we don't want that, of course: we want mercy for ourselves and justice for others. In other words, self-protection. But that is not objectivity; it is not the kind of love we are shown and are called to show; in the final analysis, it doesn't even protect us. What it's after cannot be had and can only be sought counterproductively.

To love God and each other as we are loved by God, which is our vocation, requires that objectivity which can only come when we turn a statement of St. Paul's into a prayer: "Let it not be I who live, but you who live in me." To the extent we pray that sincerely, the prayer will be answered. That in turn will bring us, inexorably, a joy which we otherwise become too cynical to expect.
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