6 Then the Lord said to Cain: Why are you angry? Why are you dejected? 7 If you act rightly, you will be accepted; but if not, sin lies in wait at the door: its urge is for you, yet you can rule over it. (Genesis: 4:6–7)
21 “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.” (Matthew 5:21–22)
When I stopped and gazed intently,
I saw muddy people in that mire,
all naked and with indignant looks.
They struck one another not just with hands,
but with heads and with chests and with feet,
tearing each other with their teeth, bit by bit.
My good master said: “Son, now see
the souls of those who are defeated by anger…
The Comedy of Dante Alighieri: Florentine by Birth, but Not by Character: Canticle One, Inferno, trans. Tom Simone (Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing, 2007), 70.
If one looks at recent disputes on Facebook or Twitter, it’s clear that they are filled with anger. Disagreements are now seen as affronts that must be avenged. Insults and attempts to destroy reputations are common. If it were just the worldly who did this it would be bad enough, and show us we have a lot of work to do evangelizing. But it seems all too often the ones who are savaging each other are those who profess a belief in Christianity. Where Tertullian could once write that pagans marveled and said to look and see how Christians loved one another, the modern worldly people can marvel and say how we behave no differently than them despite our claims.
This is not just a byproduct of refuting error a little too passionately. This is an example of Christians bearing witness to how we preach but do not practice, or as Pope Francis put it, "So many Catholics are like this and they scandalize. How many times have we heard—all of us, in our neighborhood and in other places—'But to be a Catholic like that one, it would be better to be an atheist.’ That is the scandal. It destroys you, it throws you down.”
Our Lord warned us of sinful anger, but we prefer to think of our own anger as “justified” and only the anger of others as being sinful. This is the danger of this generation. WE are crusaders for a righteous cause. THEY are vicious people. We believe God is angry at others, not us personally. But the problem is, our anger leads us to view those we are at odds with as enemies to be crushed, not as fellow sinners just as much in need of mercy as we are. Their sins may be different from ours, but we should not think that difference makes us superior. The deadliest sin is the mortal sin that sends us to hell. If we do not commit adultery, but instead we commit calumny, we endanger our souls just as much as the divorced and remarried we rage against.
We need to remember that we need salvation and we have a warning—that God will forgive us to the extent that we forgive those who wrong us. If we are determined to savage each other, how will we forgive each other. And if we won’t forgive each other, how will God forgive us?
Pope Francis has made it the mission of his pontificate to spread Mercy throughout the world. This means both making God’s mercy known to the world—urging them to accept it—and it means giving it to others if it we would receive it. But too often we think we will give mercy when they are as good as us, not before. Thus we become a scandal that prevents others from entering the Kingdom of Heaven while refusing to enter ourselves.
Perhaps it is time to ask ourselves how we got here. How did we go from loving others to treating them as scum to be destroyed? I think each person will find the path to be different. But I suspect the path will show we allowed ourselves to forget the other person is a person first, no matter how abhorrent their views might be to us. I think we allow our revulsion with wrong views to become revulsion towards a person.
But once we do reach that stage, we tend to think the obligation to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44) can be set aside. We accuse (or imply) they knowingly holding evil positions out of malice. We don’t consider the possibility of the other being sincerely in error and needing gentle correction, or of being faithful but simply disagreeing with us (not the Church) on how to best be faithful Catholics. Unfortunately that leads to the hurling of mutual anathemas against each other on Facebook, and people divide into irreconcilable factions, each convinced the other is going to hell, and never considering our own possibility of winding up there.
Just as each of us forged our own path to get to this point, each of us will have to overcome individual obstacles (with God’s grace of course) to get back. We’ll have to consider what sets us off, what weaknesses we have, and keep them in mind when we deal with things that offend us. We should consider the fact that, if we cannot even forgive someone who slights us, how will we be able to emulate the martyrs who forgave their killers? And if we cannot forgive those who trespass against us, how can we expect God to forgive us?