Friday, August 1, 2014
Denial and the Roots of Violence
One of the most distressing realities in the world today is the prevalence of violence. News stories ranging from reports of local crimes to the atrocities of the drug lords to the tortures and executions among rebels and fanatics and dictatorial regimes in various parts of the world seem more and more extreme and almost unbelievable. The destruction of the unborn, perhaps the worst example of all, no longer even gets attention in the average mind. Where does this unbridled, ever increasing aggression, come from? The Word of God gives us some clues.
Jesus points to the heart, as do St. James, and St. Paul. "...out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander." (cf. Mt 15:18-20; also Mk 7:20-23). "What leads to war, what leads to quarreling among you? Is it not precisely the desires fighting inside your own selves?" (Jm 4: 1). "...you once nourished hostility in your hearts because of your evil deeds," (Col 1:21).
Whenever we sin we contract something of the contagion of the evil one. His primary disease is pride-induced rage against God. It spills over into a crazed hatred for everything that has its source in God, human beings in particular, and types him as a liar and "a murderer from the beginning." This kind of spirit can begin to contaminate, little by little, anyone of us.
How is it we become infected by this contagion? We are already born handicapped by the consequences of the sin of our first parents. Our own personal sin further weakens our spiritual immunities and compromises our spiritual health so that without regular infusions of grace from the Mass, sacraments, God's Word and prayer, opportunistic temptations begin to gain strength until at some particular moment our defenses are breached and we no longer have the strength to repulse the enemy.
Yet, there is a difference in what happens to a person who has never known The Lord, and one who has known The Lord intimately but then falls through continual carelessness or selfishness or the seduction of some idolatry.
It becomes especially frightening when an entire people who has once once known the Lord, forsakes Him for these reasons. For they become then capable of every evil imaginable, and worse yet, seeing and calling it good. Bishop Fulton Sheen noted that sin is not the greatest evil in the world, but rather the denial of sin is. It is what put Jesus on the Cross. Can there be a greater act of violence than the murder of God Himself, one which was justified by the religious leaders of the time as good for the nation?
In the readings for Thursday of the 16th week in ordinary time, the Prophet Isaiah, whom Jesus quotes, describes this condition: "Gross is the heart of this people, they will hardly hear with their ears, they have closed their eyes, lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their hearts and be converted and I heal them."
In the medical world the modern mind would understand this as a state of denial. In the spiritual life it's just as deadly as the state of one who denies symptoms of cancer or heart disease. Yet anyone who knows the workings of denial knows that a challenge to it can provoke vehement reaction.
When denial is firmly entrenched, one can no longer speak the truth directly. The person in denial cannot, chooses not to see it or hear it. They are unable to receive it in any unfiltered form. They become insensitive, and even, as Josef Pieper notes, "unable to search for truth because they become satisfied with a fictitious reality which has been created through the abuse of language." So Jesus often does not speak directly to the people. He uses another tactic. He speaks in parables. He intrigues. He touches the desire in man to solve mystery, to know secrets.
He acknowledges at the same time that those (his own disciples) who can know the truth directly are blessed. Sin has not deadened their sensitivities nor made them skeptics. Unrepented sin that is. For there is perhaps no one more sensitive to grace, more grateful, more humbly dependent on God's mercy and receptive to His communications of truth and love, than the repentant sinner.
But one steeped in sin, and more importantly, attached to it, becomes insensible to even the most spectacular graces, skeptical of God's miraculous power, which though without limit, never trespasses man's free will. Truth and grace must be chosen. Speaking truth directly without this can be dangerous, just as it was when Jesus spoke clearly in the synagogue and His own townspeople, in response, attempted to throw Him off a cliff. Denial is a tenacious animal. It can be vicious in protecting it's territory.
This explains the oftentimes unreasonable anger that a believer can encounter in an unbeliever. It's difficult to hold a genuine conversation when hostility surfaces quickly, as though truth itself is the trigger for visceral rejection and rebellion. It's pretty much impossible to approach someone with water, even life-giving waters, if they've been infected by the spiritual variant of rabies.
Which is another reason why Jesus was "not able" to perform many miracles in certain places, because of the lack of faith, of belief. Not because He couldn't but because He wouldn't impose Himself, or force Himself on an unbelieving lot, a people in denial.
This makes the man who prayed: "Lord I believe, help my unbelief," remarkable for his recognition of his own state and remarkable for his humility in asking for the right remedy. May we have his same courage to break free from the fetters of denial in our own lives, for the sake of our own healing, and our healing as a people whom God has chosen to be His own.