Overcoming the hatred and fear of the ‘other side’

Well, I was all set to write a nice little First Column of 2021, about looking ahead and new beginnings and loving each other. 

And then January 6 happened. 

I turned on the radio for an update, and heard screaming callers. Then I turned to Facebook and found the same vitriol times ten. I saw a few respectful discussions. But for the most part, the keyboard warriors were in full battle mode. Friends were lashing out against friends. Emotions were high. Expletives were flying. Any semblance of respect was gone. I walked away, so as not to wind up having to unfriend and block all of the ugliness and vulgarity. 

It’s not my intent here to delve into what happened at the U.S. Capitol that day. I wasn’t there, I didn’t see what happened, and I have no interest in speculating. I’m sure sufficient pixels have been spilled on that subject elsewhere, without me adding my two cents. I have only one thing to say in that regard: I absolutely, unequivocally denounce and condemn the actions of those who stormed the Capitol, just as I denounced and condemned the destruction and violence of last summer. I don’t care which side perpetuates it or why. It’s wrong. Last summer, some on the left seemed to be excusing the violence by saying “This is what happens when people don’t feel heard.” This week, I have heard some on the right parrot the same line. It may be true, and it may be interesting as a sociological observation, but in neither case does it pass muster as justification. We aren’t animals. We are human persons with free will, and we can — and must — do better. 

Now I want to talk about what’s really on my heart — the civil war that I see brewing. Not a war that will be fought with muskets and cannons — although we may find ourselves in something resembling the modern equivalent soon enough. But it seems to me that, on the micro level, we are already engaged in a war that will divide brother and sister and family and friends just as surely as the muskets and cannons did. What I saw on Facebook on Jan. 6 was a heart-wrenching lack of civility and respect for the humanity of those on the other side. And worse, I saw what looked like the fracturing of a lot of relationships. 

For those of us who profess the faith based in “love one another,” we need to look closely at our behavior in these difficult days. 

I have friends and family across the political spectrum. People I love deeply. Of course, I am at times appalled at opinions they hold, or votes they cast. But here’s what has struck me: when I listen to them — really listen — I find that given the information they have received, and the worldview they have formed, their opinions make perfect sense. Of course, in many cases I think they have received flawed information, and that their worldview is skewed. But that doesn’t change their sincerity. 

What’s more, I am also struck by the fact that so many people I know, on both sides, are also sincerely afraid of the other side, and what will happen as that side gains power. Now, I have my own opinions about which side poses the greater danger. But that’s not my point here. My point is that the fear on both sides is real.  And when I express my fear to friends of other ideological persuasions, they are genuinely surprised. Of course, they don’t take my fear seriously. But then again, I find their fears pretty baseless as well. But at least we’re talking and listening to each other, and dispelling misconceptions that often further drive fear. 

In this age of information overload, it has become easy for us to build little “information bubbles” for ourselves. And, subsequently, to build our own “realities.” I reject the idea that “there is no reality, only perception.” Objective reality exists. But that doesn’t change the fact that most people are reacting to their own perception of that reality. And in many cases, it is flawed.

It all boils down to this: I really do believe most people are doing the best they can. We need to cut them some slack, and to the extent it is possible, to treat those who disagree with us — especially those within our own circles — with respect and charity as we discuss these explosive issues. 

I understand that we need to stand up against evil. But also remember that many of the people who may espouse that evil also sincerely believe that we are espousing some sort of evil. And if we believed what they think we believe, it would be evil. Without honest communication, each side just hardens in its own respective perceptions.  

I also understand that some people aren’t open to such communication. You can’t get blood out of a rock, and you can’t get sincere communication out of someone who is unwilling. But you can control yourself. You can strive to be the person who listens, who asks, and who loves regardless of disagreement. 

On that dark day on Facebook, I saw a lot of “if you believe x, unfriend me now.” And I get that, from where they sat, “x” seemed pretty appalling. But wouldn’t it be so much more constructive to say “If you believe x, talk to me. Tell me why. Am I missing something? Help me understand what is motivating that belief.” 

A few months back, I wrote about the totalitarian tendency to de-humanize those who are considered enemies of the regime, and thus make their persecution palatable to the masses. I see us drifting dangerously in that direction. We need to resist the temptation, both collectively and individually. 

There are a lot of forces in today’s world that threaten to damage or destroy us. Don’t let “entrenched mutual hostility” be one of them. 

Featured image: The Peace Monument memorial is seen in front of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC. (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP)

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.