A Harsh and Dreadful Love

In today’s second reading, Paul writes, “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another….Love is the fulfilling of the law.” To say that Christianity is about love is, of course, right. But if we mistake love for niceness, the same statement becomes terribly wrong. Dostoyevsky had his wise spiritual leader Fr. Zossima comment, when a woman came to him disappointed and embittered by her attempts to be charitable, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” Our reading from Matthew’s gospel today calls us to a harsh and dreadful love, one that speaks words we would rather not speak and hears words we would rather not hear.

Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador from 1977 to 1980, knew this harsh and dreadful love. He had the unenviable task of preaching to his people in a time when longstanding structural violence was breaking into outright civil war. The government targeted not only the guerilla opposition, but also those seen to be on the side of Salvadoran peasants, whether by promoting labor unions and land reform, by educating and providing health care, or by preaching in a way that spoke the truth about the social structures that kept most Salvadorans in miserable poverty.

The conflict was also inside the church. The parties to the conflict, after all, were almost all Catholic, sharers in one Eucharistic communion. It was a national crisis; it was also a crisis of faith.

Romero, like Ezekiel, was a sentinel, commanded to cry out to those in danger in a desperate bid to convert them. He said, “A preaching that does not point out sin is not the preaching of the gospel. A preaching that makes sinners feel good, so that they become entrenched in their sinful state, betrays the gospel’s call.” (32) The prophet is sent to confront because God loves the sinner.

We shy away from such confrontation. We don’t want to open ourselves to the conflict it entails, to the counter-charges that may (sometimes deservedly) be lobbed back at us. In order to avoid conflict, the command that we “love one another” can slide over into meaning that we should lie to each other. In order to be kind (so we tell ourselves), we smooth the surface of our relationships with polite falsehood, keeping the deep currents of resentment and mistrust hidden. Or given the chance, we stay far enough out of each other’s lives that we don’t have to avoid conflict; we don’t have enough contact to do each other much harm (or much good).

It may look on first blush as though Matthew’s gospel is advice about how to manage failures in the church, but this passage is describing the community’s participation in Christ, in the sense that it shows how the church overcomes evil with good. When I’ve been hurt, I’m to go directly to the one who has done the harm. My love of the one who hurt me allows no space for self-righteous suffering in silence, no licking my wounds in the quiet of a false peace. Jesus tells church members to take the risk to lay bare the hurt. This process is neither an occasion for venting outrage nor even for standing up for oneself. It is dying to one’s own desires to save the other beloved member of Christ’s body. In that way it is a participation in Jesus’ personal and costly confrontation with sinners throughout his ministry.

One might need to bring along witnesses for another attempt. One might ultimately need to make the matter public within the church, even to the point of the church enacting the break in community that the sin has already caused. But the aim of all of this is that the sinner might see the error and be restored. God desires that we live.

Still, it is a hard practice. As Romero put it, “No one wants to have a sore spot touched, and therefore a society with so many sores twitches when someone has the courage to touch it and say: ‘You have to treat that. You have to get rid of that.’” (30) The calling of all Christians to love one another is a calling to touch and be touched, and even to touch the sore spots, in the hope of healing.

We may be especially reluctant about such confrontation because it seems to invite self-righteousness. What if the offense was unintentional or the blame may even be mislaid? The truth is that this church practice not only requires that I have the courage and hope to speak directly to someone who has hurt me; it also requires that I have the courage and hope to listen when someone else tells me that I have done wrong. That’s why we refer to it as “mutual admonition.” We remember Oscar Romero for his bold speaking, but he became the preacher who could confront sinners by listening and learning from the people he pastored, by allowing himself to be informed and instructed by wise teachers, by enduring with patience many accusations against himself, and by continually consulting with other members of the church. He commended “a conscience docile to the word of truth that demands conversion.” (43)

The Benedictine tradition calls that “obedience.” It’s a hard virtue to cultivate, the habit of listening and allowing oneself to be changed. Like the habit of speaking directly to one who has offended us, this exemplifies a courage that comes from confidence that God means good for us, even when that good leaves us open to all of the challenges of life in a church community. The prophet’s ability to speak and even the victim’s ability to speak arises out of obedience to the call of God, who desires not that we leave each other alone, not that we maintain an appearance of getting along, but that in mutual love we come to share in God’s own life.

We will hurt each other from time to time. We may do it quite a lot. Jesus calls the church to testify to the boundless mercy of the God who touches our wounds so that he can heal them. In the harsh and dreadful practice of love in action, we may one day find again how it is that our God “makes all things new.”

All quotations from Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love. Compiled and translated by James R. Brockman, S.J. Farmington, PA: The Plough Publishing House, 1998.

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