Martin Luther King, once stated in a sermon that we: “must see that force begets force, hate begets hate, toughness begets toughness. And it is all a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for all and everybody. Somebody must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and the chain of evil in the universe. And you do that by love.”
This is the message of today’s readings. A call to love, compassion, reconciliation and restoration.
What does it really mean to be a people of reconciliation and restoration?
The Church teaches that incidents of grave harm should be retributive, or they should have consequences to the offender. Remember Jesus’ teachings about the sheep and goats. Christianity is not a feel-good religion.
But the Church also teaches that the response to harm has to be restorative. This means we must seek to repair relationships and address the broader impacts of wrong-doing. We must recognize that we are responsible for one another’s well being and salvation. As we hear the religious leaders ask in Mark’s Gospel, “Why does he eat with the tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus responded, “I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”
In Matthew’s Gospel today, Jesus gave pretty specific instructions about resolving conflicts. First, you sit down and talk about it. And if there is no listening, you bring in someone else to sit down with you. This is very much in the spirit of restorative practices. Restorative practices mean listening to one another, coming to understand the hurt created by our actions and the actions of others and seeking repair, where possible. Restorative practices mean that rather than responding out of anger or vengeance, we seek to truly understand the circumstances and the impact of a wrong-doing on our individual relationships and the relationships around us. And with understanding, comes the opportunity for transformation – repentance by those who caused harm and healing for those harmed.
These practices are counter cultural.
We live in a retributive society that says, “Someone has to pay and when they
do, we walk away.” But walking away or avoiding a conflict
(though it sure is a lot easier!) is not restorative.
Making decisions in an arbitrary way (that creates winners or losers) rather than by consensus is not restorative. We all need to use restorative practices in our daily lives-- with our families, in our workplaces and especially in our churches. There are powerful examples.
Those who have walked the path toward
forgiveness despite having experienced some of the greatest hurt imaginable are
evidence of the way mercy can heal our hearts, our minds and strengthen our
I have the privilege of working with
the family members of murder victims. They cannot forget their deep
wounds, but they don’t attempt to ease their pain with vengeance. The families
of murder victims who work to end the use of the death penalty in this country,
talk about their great loss. They also tell you that they do not want to
inflict the same kind of loss on another family--the perpetrator’s
family. Vengeance does not bring back their loved one.
The families I work with, say that
forgiveness was not their immediate response. Understandably, it was
anger and hate. But with time, through prayer and God’s transformational
grace and love, they come to a place of forgiveness. Or at least a place where,
while demanding retribution, they do not demand vengeance. They
come to a place of peace and are able to live for the good. They are not
destroyed by hate. They are restored.
I have also heard people who have
committed great harm, after listening to how acts of violence like their own
have affected families and communities, begin to understand for the first time
the magnitude and scope of their offense. After learning that the families of
their victims do not want vengeance, many work to give back, and in time, to
forgive themselves. They too are restored.
The Eucharist is a reminder of how
forgiveness is the foundation of our faith. Kathleen Hughes
says it well. “Each time the community assembles for the celebration of the
Eucharist, it celebrates its own conversion journey as well, and it
acknowledges the paradox of the Christian life: that we are saved sinners,
liberated yet ever in need of deeper conversion. . . that as sinners we are
invited to trust in God’s mercy.”
We are all guests at the table. The Eucharist invites us to recognize not only our own sinfulness and seek forgiveness; but also our responsibility to do the same for our brothers and sisters who are also at the table.
“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt 19-20).
May God be praised.
Karen Clifton is the Executive Director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network. She began her work against the death penalty in 1996 in Houston, Texas, when her social justice and advocacy projects intersected with those of Sr. Helen Prejean, CSJ. In 2008, Karen spearheaded the formation of the Catholic Mobilizing Network (CMN).
Headquartered in Washington, DC, CMN seeks to apply the Church’s teaching on the dignity of human life in the areas of capital punishment and restorative justice.
Karen has been an organizer and advocate since 1990. Her work has been associated with the Catholic Worker, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the San Jose Clinic, AIDS ministry and she is the DC Coordinator for the Ignatian Spirituality Project. Karen holds a Masters in Divinity from University of St. Thomas, St. Mary’s School of Theology, and has worked in spiritual direction since 1996. She is the mother of five adult children and grandmother to seven grandchildren. Karen was awarded the 2011 Servitor Pacis Award by the Path to Peace Foundation, the Mission of the Vatican to the United Nations to promote peace.