Ash Wednesday, Year C
2 March 2022
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 or Isaiah 58:1-12
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
I always thought that empathy was one of my strengths. You know that my parents had an unhappy marriage and when I was a teenager I became the confident of them both. I didn’t choose to be but it’s what happened. And wanting them to be happy and be able to understand each other, I got years of training in listening as they shared their pain.
When I was twenty and spent a year with a monastic community in northern Germany, a woman who was a guest at the retreat centre the community ran said to me that I was the most feminine male she had ever met. She attributed this to my being vegetarian and not ingesting hormones found in meat. I did think she was a bit crazy, and truth be told, while being sensitive and empathetic are things to strive for, being the most feminine male someone had ever met isn’t exactly what a twenty year old man aspires to. And yet, it fit into my narrative of being sensitive and empathetic.
I have a facebook account on which I post from time to time. I don’t have any illusions that my posts will change the world but from time to time I post a contrary opinion, because I think it is views opposite to our own that make us think. They make us think because they make us rethink and defend our own position, and that in turn helps us see an issue from multiple sides, which helps us understand the other side.
And so this past Monday I posted a talk of a 2015 video by John Mearsheimer, political scientist at the University of Chicago. The talk was given after Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and is entitled “Why is Ukraine the West’s Fault?”
I admit that I believe Mearsheimer to be mostly correct in his analysis, and I did think his talk worth hearing because what seems to be missing amidst the shock at the attack on the Ukraine, of war in Europe, the fear of it to escalate, and the horror at the images and voices of the civilian victims are two things, a rational analysis of how we got here, and some serious introspection, for it is easy to blame someone whom we knew to be a villain before the war started. And I am not questioning that Putin is a villain.
Of course, facebook is no medium for serious debate and so I don’t usually receive any feedback on things I post that relate to politics. This time, however, I received a message from a former parishioner who took issue with the fact that the talk has a provocative title, that it seems to weigh into moral issues when it’s analysis is simply structural, and who questioned my timing in posting the piece.
My wife and I talked about it yesterday, not about the piece but about my friend’s criticism. She echoed the point that posting the piece at this time shows a lack of empathy for the victims. I will not defend myself against the charge, though I am tempted to. I will not defend myself because I think both are correct in their criticism. I am not as sensitive and empathetic as I thought, at least not in this regard.
When in our Gospel reading Jesus warns us of practising our piety before others Jesus is aiming his critique in the same direction. While Jesus certainly wants to encourage some of the practises we have come to associate with Lent in particular and the Christian life in general, alms giving, prayer, and fasting (we can fast from more than food), Jesus wants to correct our perception of ourselves as pretty good people (who no longer have moral goals for themselves but only for others). If only others were as virtuous as we are. We talked about this after the discovery of the children’s graves at the Kamloops residential school. We are not who we thought we were.
When Jesus speaks of us not being hypocrites, he is not accusing us of pretending something that is not true. Jesus is reminding us that our self-perception is lacking, for most hypocrites do not set out to be hypocrites but think of themselves as pretty decent people. Dostoyevsky says that lying to ourselves is more deeply ingrained than lying to others. Western society thinks of itself as virtuous, yet we lost our introspection when we won the cold war. We were too enamoured with ourselves to double down on becoming better, which would have been the right thing to do in the absence of ideological opposition.
All of us think of ourselves as pretty descent people as we take sides with the Ukrainians in this current war and wish their fighters well (forgetting about losses on the other side), and as we want to see Russia, or at least Putin punished. Or as it may be in my case, I want Western arrogance to be exposed. But wanting to expose Western arrogance to people who are emotionally suffering at the images they see is arrogant all on its own. All of these sentiments are understandable, but none of them are particularly virtuous.
It is a hard thing to be honest about ourselves, even when as a first step it only requires us to be honest with ourselves and with God, to be honest about our failings with others is another step.
And so it turns out that I am not as empathetic, sensitive, and virtuous as I thought I was.
Now, the way forward is the way that Jesus describes. Don’t seek attention, not even your own. “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” That means the way forward is not in dwelling on our failings and shortcomings, other than to acknowledge them. The way forward is to lift our eyes to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). Jesus will direct our eyes away from ourselves to the world God loves, and we can leave behind all clutter and distractions, and all pride.