Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
Most of us modern Christians congratulate ourselves that we’re tolerant and not judgmental. All that Old Testament brimstone is old hat. We’ve advanced and evolved. We’re more forgiving than our ancestors.
But then a story like this catches our eye:
Shouting, "This is YouTube material!" a 27-year-old British man urinated on a dying woman who had collapsed on the street, the BBC and local Hartepool Mail and Northern Echo tell us. He also doused her with a bucket of water and covered her with shaving cream.
The woman, 50-year-old Christine Lakinski, died at the scene of pancreatic failure.
In a sad sign of the times, it was all recorded on a mobile phone.
Suddenly all those Old Testament curses come into focus. “May his name be blotted out in the second generation… and may his memory be cut off from the earth./For he did not remember to show kindness, but pursued the poor and needy and the brokenhearted to their death.” (Psalm 109)
Yeah, we think. Sounds about right! Everything in us revolts against this sheer outrage against human dignity. We recognize that some acts are so depraved and inhuman that it would be a sin not to be angered by them.
And all of a sudden our barbaric ancestors are revealed to be… people. People who felt exactly the way we feel when we see great evil done.
That’s important to see, because the reality is not that we are more forgiving: it’s that we are more excusing. We have created, for better or worse, a culture which excuses acts which our ancestors would have seen as appalling sin. We have figured out stratagems for avoiding feeling the sinfulness of sin. But when something does break through our comfortable numbness and cosmopolitan relativism, we are as ready to shout curses to the heavens as they were.
As Christians, of course, we cannot give our voice to such cursing. Jesus has very clearly told us that we must love our enemies and bless, not curse, those who despitefully use us. But that does not mean the Old Testament curses are bad or without value. In them, if we know what we are looking for, we see outrage at evil in chemical purity and know it as a gift of God. For righteous anger is not sin if we use it as God intended: as fuel for the engine of moral action. Anger only becomes a sin when we do not put it in the gas tank of action, but instead pour it on ourselves and others and set it on fire. Then it consumes us. The use of anger, like the use of gasoline, is not to bathe in it and drink it, but to turn its energy toward pursuing the redemptive, active love of God.
The staggering depravity that provoked the curses of our Jewish ancestors (and our own curses above) deserves cold, implacable hatred. It is the only decent response of a child of God. But our hatred must be directed at the sin, not the sinner. It must be founded on the fact that Jesus had just that icy relentless hatred for the sin that has so warped a man made in his image and likeness. He hated it so much that he gripped the slimy wriggling thing and did not care if the spike that pierced its heart went through his own hand as well, just so long as it would no longer have power over those he loved--including a 27-year-old British man who urinated on a dying woman while shouting, “This is YouTube material!”