There are so many angry, frustrated people on Facebook spewing their volatile rage these days that I try to avoid using it. But earlier this week I happened upon a particularly disturbing article that someone had re-posted.
The article is about something that happened four years ago. A woman set her husband on fire after she allegedly caught him molesting her 7-year-old daughter. (Her daughter was the husband’s stepchild.) While the event itself was disgusting and shocking, the comments that people made on the story were also horrifying. Many people responded by praising the mother’s actions, with phrases like “Good job” and “Great woman I applaud you.” But others were downright heartless and cruel, responding with “I would have given her the match” and “I hope he rots and all his burned skin falls off and leaves him a grisly mess.”
Out of the two hundred comments, both on Facebook and from the original article, only two people questioned the mother’s motives and actions. They opined that the woman shouldn’t have taken matters into her own hands. They said it should have been a matter for the justice system to handle.
What I found most heartbreaking was that a good many of the commentators also claimed to be Christians. And they were openly arguing with other commenters saying that the Bible talks about retribution and God’s wrath.
But none of the commenters mentioned that the Bible also talk’s about God’s infinite mercy. And no one noted that Jesus died for the sins of everyone, including the alleged pedophile. The man, guilty or not, was still a human being with God-given dignity. Even if no-one else recognized it, he still deserved justice, mercy, and forgiveness. But instead, the ‘good Christians’ devalued and depersonalized him. They used the article as an opportunity to spread anger, frustration, hatred, and wrath.
I am not defending this man for what he’s allegedly done. Child molestation and rape are wrong. People who do such things are committing grave sins that often times scar the victims for the rest of their lives. No person should ever have to endure such violations of their person or their dignity. Everyone needs to be treated with compassion and understanding.
At the same time, however, are we willing to extend compassion and understanding to the assailants as well? Are we willing to see them as maybe deeply troubled people with mental illnesses or disordered passions? Have we forgotten that Jesus has called us to forgive every person, regardless of their sins?
Mercy Instead of Rage
Let’s not forget what Jesus told the Pharisees in Matthew 9:13: “Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”
Clearly, what Jesus tells us in this passage is that we should be showing mercy to one another, regardless of our sins or the stigmas associated with those sins. But, there is still one last thing to question on this matter: How can we, as Catholic Christians, support and show justice that reflects God’s law and doesn’t devalue the person who has committed the crimes?
The Catechism is clear about this:
2266 “The efforts of the state to curb the spread of behavior harmful to people’s rights and to the basic rules of civil society correspond to the requirement of safeguarding the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation. Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting people’s safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party.”
Many Catholics who oppose the death penalty think the Church has already condemned capital punishment. This is not true. However, Pope St. John Paul II has said that the use of the death penalty is too often motivated by the victim’s (and a society’s) desire for revenge. The death penalty should only be used in extreme circumstances because it removes or limits the offender’s chance for conversion and penitence.
If we as Catholics truly want justice, we need to first examine the conditions of our hearts. We should be asking ourselves, why do we seek and want justice? Is it to preserve peace and safety? Or is it because we are hurting because we have been wronged and we want revenge? As difficult as it is to do sometimes, we should trust the officials of our judicial system to make sound judgments regarding the sins and actions of the criminal.
In Matthew 7:1-3, Jesus instructs us:
“Stop judging, that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you. Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye?”
How often do we hear or read this passage and cringe because we know we’ve unfairly judged someone? Do we remember Jesus’ words about not judging, but then ignore them as we make some careless remark about “so-and-so”? How many of us like to pride ourselves on being open-minded and accepting of others, until we see that one person we simply can’t stand at church, at work, or at an event?
Sure, we may not consciously say or do anything to them. But in our minds, maybe we’re already formulating what we would like to say or do if given the chance to be completely honest.
We need to remember that we’re called to love our neighbor as ourselves and be merciful, just as Jesus showed mercy towards all of us by taking on our sins and dying for each and every one of us.