By Charlie Johnston
After all the hubbub from my last column, I was delighted to see a marvelous meditation by Fr. James Altman posted on the U.S. Grace Force website yesterday. It is insightful, it is bold, it is courageous, and it is charitable. This is the Fr. Altman who gave me heart for the first year he was speaking out. This is the Fr. Altman we need to help reconcile all things in Christ and reform our Church without destroying it.
As I said in a comment yesterday, I want strong allies in orthodoxy who help us win the battle. After the initial assault on his ministry, I knew of a couple Dioceses that were willing to take Fr. Altman in. I admired that he chose to stay in his own Diocese to try to fight it out there. That shows an abundance of character and grace – and commitment.
I fight and call out the depredations of the many heterodox clerics and Bishops who seek to undermine our faith and our Church. But I also know that God wins – every time. What is happening is God is forcing each of us to reveal who we are. For those who are open enemies of the faith, they reveal their cupidity and malice. But each of us stand in the docket, as well. If we attack our opponents with the sort of bitter malice that they engage in with us, how, then, do we trust God to justify us? Or to gain the victory? Being children of the light does not disqualify us from defending either our faith or ourselves. But if the devil can provoke us into doing so with bitter, hectoring invective it is he who gains the victory even in our defense of the faith. Again, I look to St. Joan of Arc and Abraham Lincoln as models of how to fight with vigor to victory without becoming, in the process, that which we oppose.
Fr. Altman’s meditation yesterday is a Godly one, made within the full armor of Christ. This is how we prevail, under God. I reprint it here as a primer for us all. After that, I reprint a comment I made yesterday. As much as some are determined that I should approve of any tactic that opposes the forces who are now arrayed against the faith and the faithful, I will not. I know that the sort of embittered, nasty attacks favored by our opponents are tactically unsound – and I am convinced that they are an offense to God, as well. If we are to be the army of God, we must be disciplined and show by our actions, as well as our words, our serene confidence that God will prevail. As the song says, He is not dead nor does He sleep.
First then, Fr. Altman’s marvelous meditation from yesterday’s U.S. Grace Force:
“Freedom from Vengeance” by Fr. James Altman
Dear family, vengeance sounds a whole lot like revenge to me, both of which we know in our hearts are not good things. One site tried to explain the difference: “the difference between revenge and vengeance is that revenge is any form of personal retaliatory action against an individual, institution, or group for some perceived harm or injustice while vengeance is revenge taken for an insult, injury, or other wrong.” Well, that was no help! They still sound like the same thing. Sure enough, another site called the words synonyms.
In any event, this we know: “Vengeance is Mine, saith the Lord” (Deuteronomy 32:35). The truth in Deuteronomy is found in the words of St. Paul, “Beloved, do not look for revenge but leave room for the wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19). When the Word became Flesh and dwelt among us, He confirmed it all, teaching: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on (your) right cheek, turn the other one to him as well” (Matthew 5:38-39).
What does “offer no resistance to one who is evil” mean exactly? In our day and age, this is an important question that is, unfortunately, too often answered with a glib and meaningless recitation of “turn the other cheek.” This response though is a disconnected scriptural verse, taken out of context, out of culture, and out of text written about 2,000 years ago in a language that few people understand.
Let us begin with what Matthew 5:38-39 really means. The biblical notes to those two verses state: “The Old Testament commandment was meant to moderate vengeance; the punishment should not exceed the injury done. Jesus forbids even this proportionate retaliation.” Right away then, we see this only pertains to the concept of retaliation. It did not mean then, and it does not mean now, that we simply lay down and play “doormat” for any evil doer.
This “I’m not a doormat” principle may be explained best by considering self-defense. We are entitled to protect our own lives and the lives of others. This right is not negated by Jesus’ teachings, and in fact, it stands in contrast to the scriptural admonition against retaliation. The warning against retaliation may be understood by pondering one of its consequences: escalation. For example, one bad actor “A” incites retaliation from “B”, which incites retaliation from “A”, which incites more retaliation from “B”, etc. This vengeance cycle can escalate to the point where others end up getting caught in the crossfire. In the real world this results in bodies in the streets of our cities, and innocent victims (too often little children) reaping the repercussions.
In a larger sense, who can deny that the current culture of violence, rioting, looting, and burning is nothing other than vengeance and retaliation? The anarchists set themselves up against Christian truth, truth found in the words of the great prophet Jeremiah: “To whom shall I speak? Whom shall I warn and be heard? … See, the word of the LORD has become for them an object of scorn, for which they have no taste” (Jeremiah 6:10). It explains why the Seattle mayor’s absurd response to CHOP (the Capitol Hill Organized Protest) seems to prevail everywhere – remember she called it “the summer of love.” We saw the “love” in the murders and violent crimes. Her perverse twisting of truth also is found in the words of Jeremiah: “They have treated lightly the injury to my people: ‘Peace, peace!’ they say, though there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14).
In a more personal sense, all that we are seeing is nothing other than a reflection of people’s hearts devoid of the tempering grace of Divine Love. Divine Love did not rain down lightning bolts upon the Roman centurions who drove the nails into His sacred body. Rather, Jesus sought to show Divine Love when He asked our Father to forgive them, for they knew not what they did (cf. Luke 23:34).
Let us realize, though, that Jesus did not paint with a broad brush of forgiveness to include those who knew what they were doing, or those who should have known. That is why Jesus said the members of the Sanhedrin who condemned Him would not enter the Kingdom of Heaven (cf. Matthew 5:20). That is why God’s justice will have its day when the lack of love drives so many to act in a vengeful way.
Again, the opposite of vengeance is love. But love is not demonstrated by playing “doormat.” In the face of evil, genuine love is known as “tough love.” True love speaks up and speaks out with courage, in the face of grave error that threatens real peace. True love is enshrined in the spiritual works of mercy that teach us to instruct the ignorant and admonish the sinner. Instruction and admonishment are correction, they are not the same as vengeance or retaliation.
In these dark times, let us not fall into the trap of a false mercy, some twisted interpretation of “turning the other cheek.” Rather let us be a Light of Christ and an example of genuine love that instructs the ignorant and admonishes the sinner. Amidst all the vengeance we see in the streets, and in the personal hurts in our own lives, we will have plenty of opportunity to do that. So, any time we find ourselves struggling with thoughts of vengeance instead of mercy, let us make haste to spend more time before the Blessed Sacrament, meditating upon the Holy Cross, where the Light of Christ enlightens the darkest thoughts of our own souls.
Prayer of Reparation
My Lord and my God, we have allowed the temptation of the devil to move our hearts toward vengeance. We have allowed works of evil to foment within us a heart of retaliation. Worse, through our own sins of omission, we have not come to a fuller understanding of Your truth about the difference between a heart dark with the spirit of vengeance, that expresses itself in acts of evil against others, and the heart enlightened by love and mercy, that expresses itself in instruction and admonishment of others. By allowing our hearts to move toward darkness and not toward the Light, we have allowed the ancient foe to advance in our streets and in ourselves. We turn to You Lord, in our shame, and beg Your forgiveness for any heart of dark vengeance and any failure to be the light of love. We beg for the grace of Your strength and power to grant us the resolve to turn back the falsehoods of the enemy by freely and openly speaking Your truth with love to a waiting world. We know, Lord, if You will it, it will be done. Trusting in You, we offer our prayer to You, who live and reign forever and ever. Amen.
I loved that Fr. Altman made reference to the “turning of the other cheek.” I don’t have a reference link handy, but I read in two different histories – one secular and one that was devoted to Church history – that in Roman occupied Israel at the time of Jesus, the prescribed response to being slapped by an authority, either secular or religious, was to fall to your knees and beg pardon. That puts a whole different light to Jesus’ injunction to remain standing and turn the other cheek. It neither retaliated in kind nor timidly submitted. Truth be told, many of Jesus’ injunctions were both subtly defiant and subversive of those authorities who forfeited their own legitimacy. Because of the shortage of pack animals, Roman authorities had the right to conscript people in the street to help carry provisions for a mile. A man who went the prescribed mile was a conscript; the man who went the extra mile of his own accord was a generous citizen. The man who was robbed of his coat was a victim; the man who gave his cloak as well was a philanthropist. Jesus sometimes denounced his tormentors in harsh terms. More often, he called them to repentance or deftly turned their abuse of their authority back on them. And He was always eager to embrace and commend any genuine act of faith, even by Roman authorities or timid temple authorities. Here we find instruction on the “full armor of God.”
Now then, my own comment from yesterday, made with, maybe, a little heat:
“A few years back, the primary criticism of my takes were that they were too radical and provocative; now the primary criticism is that they are not radical and provocative enough. It is a little bemusing to see people who said I fantasized about absurdities that would never happen now, that they have happened, give me expert advice on what they could never imagine happening that I always knew would. Some panicked because I got significant details wrong about how it would happen – even as it inexorably unfolded. Some have even insinuated that I want to take the coward’s way – even among those who witnessed how I did not back down under withering attack for accurately depicting where we were headed – and did not try to excuse my two significant legitimate errors as I took criticism for those with equanimity. So my question is, who has changed? The positions I take are largely the same ones I took when I first started writing about these things eight years ago. Perhaps others are more nimble than me in changing circumstances…or perhaps I have thought consistently about what would happen and more deeply about how best to confront it long-term. You make the call.
A full frontal charge in battle is the easiest and most emotionally satisfying response – at least at the start of the charge. It also makes you very vulnerable to ambushes and flanking movements and is one of the easiest methods of attack to deflect and destroy by a competent opponent, except when the mounters of frontal assault hold an overwhelming superiority of forces. If you believe that our side has overwhelming numerical superiority, by all means go right ahead with the frontal charge – and dismiss the counsel of the fellow who accurately described where we are now publicly eight years ago and privately over a generation ago. I mean shoot, with my stubborn fixation on what would happen for so long, it’s not like I had time to think through what the most effective responses would be. Those who have taken it seriously only for a couple of years are obviously much more penetrating in their analysis then my decades of contemplation on it.
Alas, the same mulishness that made me hold fast to my analysis for decades when it seemed to most unlikely or absolutely absurd still constitutes a major part of my character. So I will hold fast to the same sort of tactics that I held to from the beginning and that actually served me quite well in other venues where I had a cacophony of voices telling me that my refusal to make a full-on frontal charge was a result of my stupidity or cowardice.
I will tell everyone quite candidly that I spent much of my life wondering if I was deluded or fantasizing. Those worries did not stop even when I went all in in the fall of 1997 – but after taking steps to protect people if I was just a charismatic nutjob, I have acted “as if” it were all true, for I had accepted that as my calling. Now heaven knows I have often benefited from the counsel of both my friends and some of my critics. Alas, I am sometimes wrong…and even sometimes badly so – but have the wit to look closely at and take responsibility for the things I do…and listen for the voice of God in the counsel of my friends and critics, for often I find it there. Particularly since I went all in, I have tried to behave as if I have an audience of One – and that One is God. I AM a coward about failing Him, whether in acting prudently, acting boldly, giving hope one by one to those around me, and never giving in to the groupthink of either the age or of my circle of friends. From my own perception, if others’ counsel lead us into an ambush or a withering flanking attack decimating us, I will be held to account by God if I did not speak boldly against it if I saw the deadly danger it would lead us into. But I will also be held to account by God if I do not take into account the considered counsel of those around me who I trust to be of good will. But for heaven’s sakes, give me something better than a reactionary response that I dismissed several decades ago because of its obvious flaws. Or, at least, acknowledge those flaws and give me some prudent counsel on how they can be ameliorated. Suicide missions are very emotionally satisfying until their last minutes. I do not do suicide missions.
If everyone would stand and be counted we would not be in this mess. But they don’t – so a HUGE part of our job is to recruit the lukewarm into our ranks. Unless you have given serious thought to how your preferred course of action will help or hurt that, you have not thought it through well. If your only answer is that they should, then you are a fantasist rather than a strategist. We do not get to choose the army we want; we must work with the army we have and then carefully shape it, under God, into the army we need even as the battle rages.
There are times when each of you will be right when I am wrong. But whatever you think, I guarantee you I have been thinking seriously about the problem for much longer than you: I have been working on it since 1963, in fits and starts, in contemplating erroneous courses that seemed good at the time, until I looked more carefully at all the interlocking parts. I am not about to destroy the Christian community in order to save it, nor to endorse elementary tactics that are easily turned asunder by a competent opponent because they feel good. I will not suffer offenses from the opposing tyrants in silence, nor will I endorse equal and opposite offenses by allies simply because they are allies. I want to participate in God’s victory…and to do so I must be disciplined and prudent, as well as bold and fearless – and I call on Our Lady to give me and all our allies a double measure of the grace that guided her. In everything, I must consider whether the tactic chosen will tend to augment the number and quality of troops in God’s service or diminish them.
I have chosen my course. I rely on my friends to be the voice of God in helping me to refine it. But I will lose friends rather than go forward in a course I know will lead to destruction. I want victory under God. The price of that for each of us is to stand and be true. So follow the course you choose, but choose carefully lest what you think is big and bold is only nasty and offensive and will diminish our ranks. And if you see fit to lecture me on cowardice and submissiveness, know that until you have weathered some fraction of the public attacks I have and stayed steady through my whole life, some of which has been visible to you, such a lecture will more likely lead me to think you are not a serious person than to make me think I am a quivering coward – even if in your eyes I am. My eyes are always on the prize – which is God and His ways. Even when I am wrong, my aim is to get our allies to help us win rather than to help us lose.”
I know this: we have a long, protracted battle before us. If all we have is heat with no light, we will spare the devil the effort of destroying us by doing it ourselves. I also know this: the Fr. Altman who wrote that marvelous meditation is a noble Priest and a man who I would be delighted to have my back in a foxhole.
Let us put on the FULL armor of God.