It is a common theme in modern Christian culture, “We’re all sinners!” Whether you’re a high powered televangelist, a leather jacket wearing Christian musician or an energetic Youth Minister, we seem to employ the sentiment of Romans 3:23, “All have sinned and are deprived the glory of God,” to communicate a sense of welcoming within the walls of our Church. It is the response to the biggest protest to relationship with God, “I have messed up too bad or too often, God does not love me, I don’t belong in church.” And yet, despite its evangelical value, it remains one of the most struggled with ideas in the Church today, prompting Pope Francis to announce a Year of Mercy.
I saw a meme online the other day that really got under my skin. It was posted by someone I know who is respected in their church and wider community and it said, “I don’t care if you’re black, white, straight, bisexual, gay, lesbian, rich or poor. If you’re nice to me, I’ll be nice to you. Simple as that.” What bothered me is that it just doesn’t jive with Christian theology,
"But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect." -Matthew 5:44-48
As Christians we have a mandate to forgive. Today forgiveness seems like a nice thing to do but not required, especially if someone harms you deeply. However, Jesus minced no words when stressing the importance of forgiveness. “If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.” Matthew 6:14-15. We are called both to accept the mercy of God and to forgive our neighbor the wrong they have done us. The two go hand in hand and do not require an apology or allow for vengeance. In short, we cannot wait for someone to be “nice” to greet them as our brother or use the anger or hate of another to justify our own judgement.
While this seems like an easy enough teaching to accept, the application can often test our deepest commitment to living the love of Christ. Can you accept as a brother, the boss who cut your hours and threatened the livelihood of your family? the father or mother who left you as a child changing your life forever? the protester who spat at you while you were protecting their right to protest? or the man who killed your teenage son out of a misplaced fear? Could you offer forgiveness to the very worst of society? the murderers, drug dealers, pedophiles and rapists?
There is an insidious lie that persists among humanity fueling this struggle with shame and pride, ‘that there is no forgiveness,’ that some sins are just too big. As a teenager I remember being at a Youth Group lock-in and listening to one of the chaperones tell the segregated group of teenage boys about the dangers the girls in the other room face in the world. “There are a lot of perverts out there and you have to protect them.” He went on to say something about modesty and taking care of each other but that first thing he said stuck with me. As a 14-year-old boy struggling with my own sexuality and how to integrate my sexual drive with my faith life, in that moment, I identified with the deviant, the pervert and fell victim to a great deal of shame. My sin was too big, too gross, too difficult to overcome, so surely I could not be forgiven.
I struggle even now to write these words, for fear that some may read into my teenage struggles, make assumptions about their nature and pass judgment. In a world framed by social media we desperately write and rewrite the narrative of our lives to be exemplary and without stain. “What will my friends think? Would my partner leave me? Would I lose my job? Sure my friends would stick around but they would think worse of me and it would never be the same.” Sure, a healthy guilt reminds us when we’ve done wrong, a well formed prudence instructs us the right times and places to confess, disclose and confide but if we never admit to each other the very worst we can never become our best.
“Love,” Pope Francis says, “indicates something concrete: intentions, attitudes, behaviors that are shown in daily living,” Misericordiae Vultus 9. This is why my wife and I pray; it is why we talk every day about our struggles and why we offer each other, as much as we can, God’s unconditional love. By creating space that is safe to change the bandages on our wounds and reveal ourselves as vulnerable we exercise the intentions of love, the attitudes of mercy and behaviors of forgiveness. Furthermore, once we know the healing mercy of God’s unconditional love though confession and each other we are equipped to offer it to others.
The Holy Father goes on to remind us that “pardoning offences is the clearest expression of merciful love, and for us Christians it is an imperative from which we cannot excuse ourselves.” (Ibid.) Love and mercy however, demand something different for each of us. For some, it is the act of living joyfully in the face of hardship, for others it is serving those who reward you with anger and spite, and for someone else it is working for unity with those who have served as your oppressor.
Neither is mercy mutually exclusive with strength, conviction and corrective action. For, as Bishop Robert Barron notes, “Love is willing the good of the other…and then doing something concrete about it.” He continues to explain that love must sometimes be tough when, for example calling someone out of an addiction or on to conversion and that it may not seem nice. So maybe niceness, as stated above, has nothing to do with mercy but before we withhold kindness in self-righteousness hopefully we take a moment to think on our own sins.
Let us keep saying, “We’re all sinners” but with a sincerity that echoes through our churches as fuel for constant conversion. Let every Christian ear be a sacred space where those weary from struggling with sin may find a shared joy in repentance. Let us not wait for the respect and adulation of others but greet even those lost in the darkness of crime and sin with the light of charity. And, in this Year of Mercy, let us answer the call of Pope Francis: “to show mercy… because mercy has first been shown to us.”
Anthony was recently married and lives in Southern Maryland with his wife, Casey. He graduated from Franciscan University in 2012 and has had the adventure of serving as a Youth Minister, Religion Teacher, and Assistant to the Director of Liturgy at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Now he serves as Assistant Manager to the Bookstore at the Shrine where he has worked for over two years. He considers himself an artist, a wannabe chef and a sometimes stand up comic. This is his second contribution to The Holy Ruckus.