Show Mercy to the Unfortunate

Brothers and Sisters, if anyone is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted.  (Galatians 6:1)

St. Basil the Great makes a distinction between rebuking and reproaching a fellow Christian who has fallen into sin.  Rebuking in his thinking is correcting the sinner, meaning that if we point out to a fellow Christian that they have fallen into sin, we do so with the goal of helping them, not just embarrassing them.  Here St. Basil (4th Century) touches upon something modern counseling would agree with.  For Basil, if we merely shame an individual without offering them help for correcting their behavior, then we are wrongfully reproaching them.  If we drive someone into feeling shame, we rarely help them improve themselves, for shame most often causes a person to withdraw further from those who might help them.  Shame causes a person to hide, to cover up, to lie – all of which are tools of the devil to further keep a person in sin.  St. Basil writes:

“And it seems that while rebuking has the goal of correcting the sinner, reproach is meant to disgrace the fallen sinner. Now as for reproaching poverty, low birth, ignorance, or physical disability, this is utterly irrational and alien to the virtuous man. For whatever we did not choose to happen to us is involuntary. And in the case of involuntary disadvantages, it is appropriate to show mercy to the unfortunate rather than to mistreat them.”   (On Christian Doctrine and Practice, p 98)

A second issue St. Basil touches upon is a tendency of some to shame a person for things over which they have no control:  poverty, poor upbringing, bad genes, family dysfunction, social status, lack of education, lower intelligence, physical disabilities, illnesses, addictions and the like (for some unemployment or homelessness might also be issues beyond their control).    Today we are confronted with novel claims there are many other issues over which a person has no control – gender identity or sexual orientation.

For St. Basil it is irrational for the virtuous to blame people for issues over which they have no control.  Basil’s list, though probably not intended to be exhaustive within the context of his comments, does not include the new categories for which claims are being made that we humans don’t choose these characteristics but receive them at birth.  In any case, St. Basil’s teaching on how to respond to those with characteristics which are involuntary and not of an individual’s choosing is mercy.  His comments don’t resolve what human characteristics are truly involuntary [some today would say these new categories are not characteristics but rather are behaviors and so were not imagined by St. Basil], but he does see whatever characteristics are involuntary as disadvantageous to individuals, and so require from Christians a response of mercy.  He forbids Christians to mistreat them in any way.  Certainly, the proscription for how to treat others, especially those with “involuntary disadvantages” (Basil’s words, I recognize many today want these characteristics to be seen simply as human and normal) is to treat them as unfortunate and thus deserving mercy.   Many today might say but that attitude is wrong, such people do not want our pity, they want our acceptance, they want to be treated with dignity as full human beings not as defective ones.  My point here is only that if we follow St. Basil’s thinking, we will not treat such folk with disdain, judgment, hatred, fear, rejection, but rather with mercy and empathy.  We would recognize them as human beings for whom Christ died in order to save them, just as He did for the rest of us.  We would recognize them as having human struggles like the rest of us.  Struggles that many of us would never want (and often we can’t imagine that God would give to anyone), but nevertheless can recognize as human, and thus the very kind of struggles which St. Paul envisioned when he wrote in Galatians 6:2:

Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. 

In the modern world, we accept many more categories of behavior than St. Basil had in his day.  In his world there are conditions over which we have no control and behaviors over which we can and should control, including desires.  In the modern age we have a much more nuanced approach to human behavior and do recognize the possibility of behaviors resulting from genetics, addictions, medical conditions, mental conditions, chemical imbalances, dysfunctional upbringing and social conditioning – over which we have no control or which we have little control but which seem to control us.  Consequently, we have to deal with a more complex world – a matrix of values, beliefs, science and pseudo-science.  In the midst of all that, we still find ourselves following St. Basil’s interpretation of Christ’s Gospel commandments that are grounded in love for one another.    The changing nature of culture and science continues to challenge us in how to live the Gospel in a society in which there are few permanent values, no one perspective predominates, in which there is little agreement about what the facts are even when related to science.

 

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