Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Practicing Progressive

Rich Mayfield
For: 5-23-09

A distraught husband comes to the office of a certain minister complaining that he is plagued by guilt. “Please,” the man implores the pastor, “I need to stop feeling so guilty.” The minister inquires as to the source of the man’s guilt and learns that his visitor has been cheating on his wife for over three months. “I just don’t want to feel so bad,” the errant husband whines. Whereupon the cleric, employing a well-seasoned pastoral insight combined with a less than kindly tone, says, “You should feel guilty. I’m glad you feel guilty. I hope you feel guilty until you stop what you’re doing, confess your infidelity to your wife and ask for her forgiveness.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Christian martyr executed by the Nazis days before the liberation of Europe, once wrote that the power of forgiveness to mend relationships was cheapened when forgiveness was proffered without a call for repentance.

I was reminded of Bonhoeffer’s keen insight this past week when I read a summary of the Irish government’s report on the appalling abuses perpetrated by priests and nuns upon young Irish children during most of the 20th century. The 2600 page report, over nine years in the making, describes horrific crimes against the children remanded to the custody of church institutions from the 1930s to the 1990s. There were immediate apologies from church leaders upon release of the massive document but many of those abused during their childhood are claiming the report doesn’t go far enough in naming names of the perpetrators and uncovering the systematic institutional practice of turning a back on its victims rather than offering the other cheek.

What is troubling to many is the lack of personal responsibility. When everyone is guilty, no one really is and the church has apparently managed to avoid having to actually list the names of the evil-doers. It is, of course, much easier to offer instead a neatly pre-arranged acknowledgement of corporate mistakes and move on to more pressing orders of business. Letting sleeping dogs/abusers lie seems to be the approach the Irish Catholic Church has chosen. After all, most of the criminals are dead so what good would it do to embarrass their families and, God forbid, tarnish the priests’ pious reputations?

Such thinking seems also to be practiced by the Obama Administration in their reluctance to ferret out those in the previous administration’s employ who allegedly ignored constitutional restraints and engaged in or approved of illegal and certainly immoral acts of torture. Our president’s seemingly noble desire to “look forward rather than back” is being applauded by many. After all, this nation has a myriad of monumental problems to contend with right now. But the danger of ignoring governmental wrongs from the past might easily result in perpetuating similar crimes in the future. Even a president with the best of intentions may be running the risk of not just jeopardizing our nation’s moral standing with the rest of the world but our own foundational principles as well. If such egregious behavior suspected of the very highest offices in our country’s government is allowed to be swept under the rug for the sake of a temporary political accord, a terrible precedent for future lawlessness is realized.

When South Africa finally emerged from the nightmare of apartheid and began the long process of reconstituting its government, Noble prize-winner Bishop Desmond Tutu advocated for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that would bring to light the terrible ramifications of a nation divided by institutional racism. Over the many months that the Commission held its meetings, where victims of racial abuse were able to confront their abusers and vividly describe the terrible wrongs done to them, South Africans of all races began to realize the importance of throwing light on the past in order to form a more perfect union in the future.

It is not some kind of code of vengeance that demands the assumption of responsibility by those who have perpetrated wrongs but rather a deep concern that, as the philosopher George Santayana so famously wrote, “Those who choose to ignore the past are condemned to repeat it.”

May wayward husbands, discomforted bishops and idealistic presidents all take note.