Monday, September 22, 2008

Hooray for injustice!

"What I’d like to understand,” said the Ghost, “is what you’re here for, as pleased as Punch, you, a bloody murderer, while I’ve been walking the streets down there and living in a place like a pigstye all these years. Look at me, now. I gone straight all my life. I don’t say I was a religious man and I don’t say I had no faults, far from it. But I done my best all my life, see? I done my best by everyone, that’s the sort of chap I was. I never asked for anything that wasn’t mine by rights. If I wanted a drink I paid for it and if I took my wages I done my job, see? That’s the sort I was and I don’t care who knows it. You may think you can put me down because you’re dressed up like that (which you weren’t when you worked under me) and I’m only a poor man. But I got to have my rights same as you, see?”

“Oh no. It’s not so bad as that. I haven’t got my rights, or I should not be here. You will not get yours either. You’ll get something far better. Never fear.”

“What do you keep on arguing for? I’m only telling you the sort of chap I am. I only want my rights. I’m not asking for anybody’s bleeding charity.”

“Then do. At once. Ask for the Bleeding Charity. Everything is here for the asking and nothing can be bought.”
(C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce)

I mentioned a while back that I was mildly impressed with our new Associate Pastor, Fr. Brooks. I'm sorry, but I have to change my assessment of him in light of yesterday's Mass.

I'm impressed as all get out with him now.

Since we left Visigoth, Ostrogoth and the baby at home, we were able to sit through an entire Mass and actually hear what was being said. I have to tell you, I know Fr. Brooks is a cradle Catholic, but the way he preaches, I'd have taken him for a recovering Baptist.

You have to understand, I grew up in a church that was probably on the liberal end of Baptistdom, but still decidedly Baptist. And like many other denominations that don't make a big deal of sacraments, they compensate for it with a strong tradition of sermonizing. That's the primary criterion for a good preacher in that tradition, is how well he can drive a point home in a sermon.

When I turned Catholic, I found that one of the first things I missed was good sermons. We call them "homilies" on this side of the Tiber, and they're actually about five minutes of thoughts on the readings of the day. Most of the priests I've heard (which isn't many, admittedly) deliver them in almost a Father Mulcahy style, sounding well-educated in well-modulated tones, with enough reasonable openness not to offend anyone. In a word, Catholic homilies tend to be, well, bland.

Not so with Fr. Brooks. Now here's where the looks get deceiving. Fr. Brooks looks like a nerd among nerds. He's tall (about six-four), thin and balding and has kind of a perpetually befuddled look on his face. When he speaks to you, he kind of sounds hesitant and unsure of himself, like that shy middle-aged bachelor that lives two doors down and spends his time talking to cats and reading the lonelyhearts ads. (Father, if you read this, I'm sorry. I mean all that as kindly as possible.)

But when he finishes that Gospel and steps out from behind the ambo, it's like somebody threw a switch somewhere and he suddenly turns confident, colloquial and coherent. Having spent a fair amount of time in the business world before swapping a tie for a collar, his take on yesterday's Gospel reading was really, really cogent. (It was the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, if you're familiar with that.) He pointed out that it's human nature to demand fairness in our dealings, and that that principle is what the American business culture is founded on. If business were operated the way the parable describes, he said, the economy would crumble. That, he said, is where the American culture and the Kingdom of God part ways.

It's true. The entire Christian faith is predicated on unfairness. It's hard for the rest of the world to grasp, but that's the truth. Take a look at the "cultural religion" you see on TV and in the movies. There's an underlying assumption that you go to Heaven if you're good, and to Hell if you're bad. (And that once in Heaven, you turn into an angel, but that's a whole 'nother irritant.) You get what you deserve, in other words.

You can't blame the makers of such shows, because to a human way of thinking, that's exactly how it should be. Justice is one of the most basic human instincts, and on the whole, it's a good one. it is incumbent on us to behave justly toward one another. We should keep our word, give honest measure for fair pay, and return the wallet on the sidewalk with all the money intact. And if we violate laws, our punishment should be swift and sure.

To an extent, that's what we find in Christianity. There is a quid-pro-quo involved. Sin rates damnation. (N.B.: I'm not going to get into arguments about the exact nature of the Atonement. I'm not theologian enough to keep up my end.) But that's where it ends. Virtue does not rate salvation. In fact, nothing rates salvation. We start out sinful through no direct fault of our own, and as soon as we learn how, we proceed to add our own fault to it. Everybody does it, and once it's done, it's done. The debt outweighs our potential for payment. We cannot virtue our way out of it.

So damnation is a given. We deserve it, if not for original sin, then for actual sin. It's no use complaining that it's not fair, because it's eminently fair. We did the deeds, we take the consequences. it's also no good complaining that eternal damnation is disproportionate to whatever our little peccadillos are, because we simply have no way of knowing what is proportionate and what's not. We understand as much about God's operations as a cow understands about calculus. Did we know right from wrong when we sinned? We did. Then we're in a darn poor bargaining position to try to negotiate proportionality. We don't make the rules, we don't get to change them. We're damned, fair and square, and there's not a frimpin' thing we can do about it. And what's more, it's fair that we should be.

But God doesn't cotton to fairness. He's a Person, not an accounting system, and He has a way out of the dilemma. The catch is, we have to give up on the whole idea of justice. Justice won't keep us from toasting our toes eternally. Injustice will. God, who owes us less than nothing, will give us a free passage into Heaven, which He is under no obligation to share in the first place. The catch is, there is no catch. None. Take it or leave it. You can't pay for it, you can't repay it, you can't get it anywhere else. It's just not fair.

That's the part that's so hard to grasp. We automatically start looking for catches and loopholes. We automatically want to make an exchange. But while God does have some expectations for us as saved people (like not throwing it away once we have it), the actual salvation is not subject to any kind of deal whatsoever. Then, too, we think of a scapegoat system as a dishonest, sneaky way to do things. That we should gain by throwing Someone else under the bus upsets all our notions of right and wrong. Nevertheless, this is how God has decided to do things.

This is so much a part of the Christian faith that we tend to treat it as a fish treats water. We take it as a background and assume we're owed justice within that structure. Once we're in the Kingdom, we reason, we ought to get what we deserve. I've been good. Shouldn't good things happen to me?

That's kind of the attitude I took last year when our financial situation came to a head. I've been a good Christian, I figured. I don't kill, fornicate, worship idols or covet my neighbor's ass. My areas where I do fall short I glossed over, since that has already been taken care of. Unjustly.

But when it came to this, I figured I deserved justice. I did what I was supposed to do as a child of God. I should get the results I consider fair.

Yeah? Sez who? I don't determine what's right and wrong in that area, any more than I do wen it comes to salvation. I'm completely pig-ignorant of how God does things. the one thing I can be certain of is that I will not get what I deserve. I may get something better, or I may get poked in the metaphorical eye with a sharp stick. Either way, as long as I'm benefitting from God's manifest injustice, it's pretty stupid of me to start demanding "fairness" when it suits me. I'd much rather have the Bleeding Charity.

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