Yesterday, I posted something my friend said in response to a quote-meme:
Everything starts with actually loving people. If you don't love the person first, for who they are right now, why the heck would they want to converse with you about deeply personal topics? I sure wouldn't.
Love before all else. Love underlying everything. Love informing every action.
So, essentially, the friend had attempted a link, an identification: the problem with reaching-out-with-correction, she was saying, is that it does not start with loving people. It does not put love before all else.
I thought: Yes, intuitively that seems to be an accurate identification.
And I thought: I wonder, then, if love is not coming first, then something else must be put first. So what is the value, or message, or whatever, that is being put ahead of love when people make the mistake that the meme quote is calling out? The mistake of trying to "draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what we believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are." The mistake of failing to show them "a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it."
If the problem is caused by not putting love first, then something else is being put forward in its place and underlying the attempt.
And yet I am sure that the problem is obscured. Whether they say "You are wrong, you do wrong" explicitly or subtly, I think many evangelizers of that sort would say that they are putting The Truth first. And that, because Truth = Jesus and Jesus = Love, this means that they are putting Love first. "You don't love someone by hiding the Truth," we might imagine them saying. "You don't love someone by lying to them. That's not loving."
You might imagine such a person pointing out that right in the midst of the Seven Spiritual Works of Mercy are "Instructing the Ignorant" and "Admonishing the Sinner." They are instructing and admonishing; ergo, they are offering Mercy. If the listener stops listening or responds in defensive anger -- or, say, simply stops tweeting back -- whose fault is that? "Perhaps I planted a seed," says the evangelizer. "I'll pray that his heart softens."
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I know that this line of reasoning -- which I know I've articulated so poorly that it's simplified to a near-caricature, forgive me -- is not quite right. At least, that's not all there is to it. The pieces are right -- truth is good and Jesus is the Truth and instruction is a work of mercy -- but they seem to have been put together crooked. How to put them back together correctly, and show what went wrong?
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I look back at the corporal works of mercy, which are so much easier to understand. Feeding the hungry is a work of mercy; but force-feeding even the dangerously malnourished is a work of cruelty. Giving drink to a thirsty man is a work of mercy; waterboarding him is not. Visiting the sick is merciful; barging in on one who needs privacy and quiet is not.
A crucial ingredient of mercy is respect for the knowledge and will of the human subject.
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Whenever the subject is Love, we do well to consider some ideas that were articulated by Pope St. John Paul II. These are my paraphrases, which we'll put together in order to understand what it means to put forth, before all else, love; and what it would mean to let something that was not love underlie our outreach.
- Idea 1: The human person is the entity towards which the only proper response is love.
- Idea 2: The human person must always be regarded as a "subject" and never as an "object."
- Idea 3: The opposite of love (the noun) is use (the noun)' to use a person, instead of loving the person, is to treat the person as an object.
- Idea 4: An object, but never a person, may be treated as a means to an end; if we catch ourselves treating a person as a means to an end, we may be sure that we are not loving them.
It strikes me that in every interaction or contact with another person, we either can put love first; or we can put first the furthering of some end that we find desirable.
In the first case, the person exists for us as an end in himself; perhaps we enter into a transaction, a conversation, a mutual labor, or a cooperation together, as two subjects whose equal dignity is a reality to us.
But in the second case, the person exists for us primarily as the means of furthering that different end that we desire. How do we know that we have treated someone as the means to an end? We fail to recognize their subjectivity, their personhood. We treat them as a being devoid of knowledge and will, at least for the length of that interaction. We do not engage them as persons, but as a tool; or perhaps as a creature that we have the power stimulate as we wish in order to evoke a looked-for response. If our stimulus yields the desired response, we are content, and if it gives us a response we do not like, well then, that particular one is messed up, broken, won't work.
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So, if we aren't putting love first when we try to draw people to Christ, what are we putting first instead? How do we reconcile the intellectually obvious fact that Truth = Love from the intuitively obvious fact that certain presentations of the Truth are not demonstrations of Love?
I think the answer is that if you aren't putting Love first in the interaction, you are seeking -- not really the good of the other -- I mean, maybe if everything worked perfectly that would be a by-product -- but are seeking an end that satisfies your own self, your ego.
You are perhaps using that person in order to make yourself feel good about yourself.
Or as a mock-debate partner (an involuntary one) on which you can practice your logical argument.
Or to rack up points on a scoreboard in your head.
Or to amuse and impress the onlookers or the readers of your blog.
Or to satisfy your sense that you have done all you could for that person and you are clear of any obligation to try to reach them any more.
There are lots of things you could be seeking entirely for your own good, while you tell yourself with plausible deniability that you are really only seeking the instruction of that ignorant person, the admonishment of that sinner. And you could be using that person not as a subject, but as an object, a toy with which to stroke yourself, for your own intellectual or emotional or moral gratification.
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It is really easy in even close relationships for an abuser to convince himself that his abuse is a kind of love. So in distant or tenuous or momentary relationships it should be even easier to convince yourself that your using that person is a kind of love.
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The 1917 Catholic Encyclopedia, the online incarnation of which I referred to just now to check my memory of the lists of works of mercy, offers a helpful reminder:
It has to be remembered however that the precept [to perform any of the works of mercy] is an affirmative one, that is, it is of the sort which is always binding but not always operative, for lack of matter or occasion or fitting circumstances. It obliges, as the theologians say, semper sed non pro semper.
Thus in general it may be said that the determination of its actual obligatory force in a given case depends largely on the degree of distress to be aided, and the capacity or condition of the one whose duty in the matter is in question. There are easily recognizable limitations which the precept undergoes in practice so far as the performance of the corporal works of mercy are concerned.... Likewise the law imposing spiritual works of mercy is subject in individual instances to important reservations.
- For example, it may easily happen that an altogether special measure of tact and prudence, or, at any rate, some definite superiority is required for the discharge of the oftentimes difficult task of fraternal correction.
- Similarly to instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, and console the sorrowing is not always within the competency of every one.
- [on the other hand.... ] To bear wrongs patiently, to forgive offences willingly, and to pray for the living and the dead are things from which on due occasion no one may dispense himself on the pleas that he has not some special array of gifts required for their observance. They are evidently within the reach of all.
- It must not be forgotten that the works of mercy demand more than a humanitarian basis if they are to serve as instruments in bringing about our eternal salvation. The proper motive is indispensable and this must be one drawn from the supernatural order.
It seems I have been too harsh. It could be that some of the people who are "loudly discrediting what people believe," "telling them how wrong they are," are failing to draw people to Christ out of simple incompetence. They are out of their depth. They do not know that they need to have a relationship with a person -- must be fratres -- before they can exert fraternal correction. They do not realize that the relationship they have is the wrong one.
There comes a time, however, when incompetence is confronted with its lack of results and must decide whether to go on being incompetent just the same, or whether to attempt to acquire competence, or to go off and serve people by some method that is actually in the servant's wheelhouse. And it is maybe in that moment when the motive becomes clear, and whether they ever meant to serve at all.