A few years ago, the Diocese mandated that parish Religious Education programs for school children provide annual Safe Environment Trainings for children and their parents despite the fact that schools already provide such training. The mandate is the result of a concern, not about parents and children, but about potential litigation; the recent policy change is intended to keep potential problems at a safe distance. The desire to avoid trouble is understandable, but not the very best reason for doing good.
At All Saints this year, the Safe Environment Training addressed the issue of bullying. The students and parents who attended the Safe Environment Training had some very insightful and thought-provoking comments about the topic. For the most part, the group agreed that bullying is an intractable problem with no completely satisfying solution.
After the evening had concluded, I came to a realization based on some of the comments and questions from earlier in the evening. Many in the group felt that something more should be done to protect the innocent, punish the guilty, and discourage others from future incidents of bullying. I realized that this was a reflection of some of the popular cultural myths we maintain in our society.
In American society, we like to believe that every difficult situation can be resolved eventually in a satisfying way. We like to believe that the good guys (and/or gals), always win. We like to believe that justice prevails and everyone eventually receives what they merit. For these reasons, most Americans recoil in shock at the acts of violence that recur persistently on school campuses, public streets, and places of worship.
I’d like to suggest that the American cultural myths that justice prevails and good wins in the end are not only false idealism but that they are obstacles that prevent us from acknowledging the irrationality of the world in which we live. I’d like to suggest further that the Scriptures provide a perspective on life that is both redeeming and much more realistic than some of our American cultural myths.
The question that the scribe asked Jesus in today’s Gospel reading was a question discussed routinely by rabbis at the time. It was commonplace to propose summaries of the Law of Moses. The summary of the Law and prophets that Jesus proposed was not original; it was one of the common summaries used by many scholars of the Law. The summary mentioned in today’s Gospel does not quote the Decalogue, but love of God and neighbor were universally accepted as the means to fulfill the Commandments.
These sorts of discussions about the interpretation and application of the Law of Moses held a place of central importance in Late Second Temple Judaism because of a foundational insight about human nature taught by the Hebrew Scriptures. The Law of Moses, the preaching of the prophets, and the other Scriptural texts exist in order teach God’s People how to remain separate from the faithlessness and immorality of the world. The Pharisaic reform movement, of which Jesus was a member, took its name from this central insight of the Scriptures. The word “Pharisee” means separate or distinct.
Jewish moral teachings, and Catholic moral teachings as well, exist in order to instruct the Faithful how to remain separate from the violence, dishonesty, greed, and licentiousness that flourishes in the absence of an authentic faith in the One, True God.
The discussion that the scribe in today’s Gospel had with Jesus was about how to live a faithful life. Both Jesus and the scribe agreed that living a faithful life requires that one orient one’s life in the appropriate direction. There is only one direction that is appropriate for human life; it is the direction that acknowledges both God’s sovereignty (by loving God above all else), and human dignity (by loving one another).
Horrendous acts of violence and hatred, such as the murder of the eleven worshipers at Or L’Simcha Synagogue last weekend, are the consequence of the absence of faith in God. The only faithful response to such violence is to live a life separated from lawlessness and violence. A life intentionally separated from faithlessness and immorality is not simply about keeping potential problems at a safe distance; rather, it is a choice to live according to our human nature.
Daily, we are surrounded by the destructive effects that violence, retribution, anger, dishonesty, and indecency have on human nature. It is obvious that we exist in this world for a purpose that is separate from faithlessness and immorality. Keeping ourselves separate from acts of retribution and immorality is the only appropriate response to the faithlessness that surrounds us. There is only one direction that is appropriate for human life; it is the direction that separates us from evil and keeps us bound to God.