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  • Father David M. Knight

Crime and Punishment, Sin and Conversion

Every day that we listen to the news our hearts echo the question from Habakkuk (chapters one and two):

Too pure are your eyes to look upon evil,

and the sight of misery you cannot endure.

Why, then, do you gaze on the faithless in silence

while the wicked man devours

one more just than himself?

In one country after another, the pitiless are persecuting the powerless; driving them from their homes, blowing them up in schools, hospitals and market places, starving and slaughtering innocent men, women and children. If indeed God “cannot endure the sight of misery,” why does he continue to “gaze on the faithless in silence?”

Why does he let the horror of child abuse continue?

If God won’t do anything, our first reaction is to think we should. Why don’t the United Nations arrest the leaders of all the countries and groups guilty of oppression, put them on trial at The Hague, and condemn them for crimes against humanity as (going back in history) they condemned Charles Taylor, Liberia's former President, to a 50-year jail sentence for instigating civil war in Sierra Leone? Or as the Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Commission* in Malaysia, following the regulations drawn up by the Nuremberg courts and the International Criminal Courts, tried in absentia and condemned George W. Bush and seven key members of his administration for war crimes committed in Iraq and Afghanistan? The Bush administration’s preemptive strike against Iraq (which the Church officially declared an “unjust war”) opened a Pandora’s box of horrors that are still spilling out to this day.

Why don’t the United Nations use force to stop and punish criminal countries the way countries use force to stop and punish their criminal citizens?

Why don’t the Bishops lobby to have child abusers imprisoned for life?

The reason is that when we exorcise the demon by force, it comes back with “seven other spirits more evil than itself, and the last state is worse than the first” (Matthew 12:45). Force provokes more force; war begets more wars; violence serves only to perpetuate violence. This is not philosophy; it is a fact of history.

So what does God do?

This is a dilemma for me. On the one hand, I have a hard time believing God ever sends anyone to Hell for all eternity. I think that somehow his mercy finds a way to save everyone, eventually. On the other hand, I can’t accept that cruel, unfeeling, ruthless violence should go unpunished. So if it is not punished on earth—which, more often than not, is the case—then it must be punished after death. But how?

Is “Purgatory” the answer?

Most of what we learned about “Purgatory” was a permitted but false interpretation of Catholic doctrine. But when we strip away the assumptions and imaginative imagery, this much remains: no one gets into heaven who is not able to “fit in” to the life there. If we are not ready to do this when we die, we have to be made ready before we get there. And to “fit in” to life in heaven we have to be “made perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.” The purification, which we misleadingly call Purgatory, is nothing but a conversion to pure faith, pure hope and pure love.

So where is the punishment?

There is no punishment worse than conversion.

I learned this from a contemplative nun in a monastery who told me she was going to “get revenge” against another sister who had mistreated her.

I naturally told her, “Sister, you can’t be serious! No Christian is allowed to seek revenge.”

“I am serious, and I mean it. I am going to get revenge.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I am going to pray for that person’s conversion!”

Then I understood. There is no torture worse than a real understanding of how bad you have been. Repentance leads to joy but it begins with horror. Those who “reap with shouts of joy” first have to “sow in tears.” We have no real appreciation of the pain involved in unbuffered, naked self-knowledge. When we see ourselves totally and clearly as we are, we will “say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us’; and to the hills, ‘Cover us’” (Luke 23:30). If we have really been cruel and heartless to others, we won’t be able to stand it.

That is the only “punishment” for sin. And there is nothing worse.

How long does it endure? Only until we “convert.” As soon as we face our true selves, drop our rationalizations, reject our self-idolatry and false values, and accept the Way opened up before our eyes, the Truth revealed, and the Life that is offered us, we are home.

The only pain in our purification is that which comes from our resistance to change. We are “in Purgatory” only until we freely walk out.

If there are any who are so insistent on blindness, so immune to the appeal of goodness, so enslaved to self-deception and immersed in the idolatry of their own self-image that they will not accept the Truth with faith, follow the Way with hope, and embrace the Life of God with love, their “purification” will be without progress and without end. They are damned.

But it is by their own free choice.

Are there such people on earth? We cannot know and we cannot judge. The frightening thing is that, if there are, the first place we should look for them is not among the obviously evil, but among the apparently upright and religious. In the time of Jesus, the only ones obdurately closed to his truth and goodness were the “chief priests, the scribes and the Pharisees.” Pontius Pilate would have released Jesus. Even Herod, lost in debauchery as he was, “feared John [the Baptizer], knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.” Herod delivered John to death, and sent Jesus back to Pilate after mocking him, but there is some hope that he repented.

The Gospels hold out the least hope for the hierarchy (the chief priests), for the “approved” religion teachers (the scribes), and for the most law-observant believers in Israel (the Pharisees). According to the Gospels, these were the most resistant to Jesus. We can presume this holds true for the same three categories in the Church today! This is not to say there is no hope, just that it is only to be found in the measure people are open to change. And nothing makes people more resistant to change than what the Jews in the three categories above in Jesus’s day—and the Christians in ours—had in common: position, power and prestige.

These are the real enemy, wherever they are found. Position, power and prestige. We overcome them by using the only two weapons Jesus used to overcome evil: truth and love. In the strength of our baptismal consecration as “prophets” we speak truth to power. In the gentleness of our baptismal anointing as “priests in the Priest” and “victims in the Victim,” we “present our bodies” in ministry as a “living sacrifice” to others in love. And as “stewards of the kingship” we share with Jesus as members of his body on earth, we continue to work for peace and justice with a perseverance based on the absolute assurance of “hoping against hope” (Romans 4:18; 5:5).

When the Mass reading ends, Habakkuk continues:

Then the LORD answered me and said… There is still a vision for the appointed time… if it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come... the just one who is righteous because of faith shall live…

Wealth is treacherous; the arrogant do not endure…

The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea…

To the question: “Why, then, do you gaze on in silence while the wicked man devours the just?” Habakkuk answers by calling us to silence:

“The LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!”

* The Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Commission (KLWCT), also known as the Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Tribunal, is a Malaysian organisation established in 2007 by Mahathir Mohamad to investigate war crimes. The KLWCC was instigated as an alternative to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which Mahathir accused of bias in its selection of cases to cover. The tribunal does not have United Nations recognition and its verdicts are only symbolic.

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