Easter's image of compassion for abused and abusers

By Chris JohnstonEaster is often celebrated in difficult times. In the Catholic Church this year shame and sadness at the disclosures of sexual abuse in the European churches are part of the background to Easter. It would be easy to see the former as a distraction from Easter. But a central meditation of St Ignatius Loyola in the Spiritual Exercises suggests that the two need to be held together.

Ignatius invites retreatants imaginatively to join the three Persons of the Trinity as they look down on the earth at the panorama of people sinning and going to hell, and discuss how to rescue humanity.

This meditation asks for a realistic and unflinching view of the world, and of ourselves in it, which focuses on the selfishness so often characteristic of human relationships in commerce, war, family and politics, and on its lethal consequences. The prayer is not intended to evoke self-disgust or despair at such a flawed world. Our gaze is to mirrors God's gaze, which is not detached but compassionate, devising rescue for both the perpetrators and the victims of sin.

To understand what Christians celebrate at Easter we need this kind of perspective. A sensibility that softens the reality of sin, affirms human goodness in an unqualified way, and sees God as simply indulgent, cannot do justice to the stories of Easter. They include harrowing images of sin, of its murderous consequences, and surprising images of life and freedom won through death.

The calculation of those who wanted to kill Jesus, Judas' betrayal, Pilate's cowardice, the failure of the disciples to stand by Jesus, the casual brutality of the soldiers, and a death by crucifixion that was designed to dehumanise the condemned and to mock their pretensions, provide what seems to be a definitive demonstration of the power of sin over humanity.

The miracle of Easter is that the demonstration turns out not to be definitive, but is interrupted by Jesus' rising. Precisely the events that prove the power of sin turn out to be the source of life. God's gaze, and so the Christian's, takes in together the devastation made by sin of Jesus' life and the seeds of life that burst through sin.

This conjunction of sin and of life suggests that the stories of sexual abuse throughout the Catholic world are not a distraction from Easter. If we are to enter this Easter it is appropriate to attend in a sustained way to the complex patterns of sin that are involved in abuse and in its consequences. This kind of gaze resists the temptations to deny or to minimise the extent of sexual abuse and the harm done by it. Because the gaze also attends to the viewer's own sinfulness, it resists the group self-interest that removes from scrutiny church practices like clerical celibacy and the rituals of power and obedience. 

God's gaze is also compassionate. In Christian faith, Easter is the culmination of God's plan to rescue humanity by sharing it and entering fully into the vulnerability and pain of our condition as both sinners and victims of sin. To look through God's eyes on abuse means looking compassionately on the victims of abuse, and seeing the way in which the harm they suffered has affected their lives for many years after.

To look at the world through God's eyes also, challengingly but inescapably, means looking with compassion also on those who have abused people, without lessening our condemnation of what they have done. God sees us all, not as abusers, victims or bystanders, but as people who have abused, people who have suffered abuse and people who stand by. And God sees all of us as sinners for whom Christ died.  

Easter is the triumph of God's compassionate gaze over the harsh judgments we instinctively make when we look long and clearly at the horror of the world. The systematic crushing of Jesus' humanity and of his vision speak of defeat and of scorched earth. But his rising from the dead says that humanity can never be crushed, that life comes through the most terrible death, and that the last word is not of a scorched earth but of seeds growing.

This Easter our gaze on the dreadful things, like abuse and its covering up, which speak of death in the church, also uncovers the compassion of God for sinners, including ourselves, and the possibility of freedom and of life.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, abuse, church, priest, pope benedict, cover-up



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Existing comments

Over the many changes in my spiritual life I have found that I dont need a belief in God to come to the conclusion that life is not a scorched earth but indeed seeds growing.

When I believed in God it gave me no more hope or certainty than a belief in the human condition as my basis for hope and at times, despair.

Belief in God gave me no more certainty or comfort

GAJ | 01 April 2010

Thanks Andy for that encouraging reflection. It shows the Easter message is relevant even for the embittered, those who have lost hope or the atheist.I am encouraged to focus on the story of Jesus and not lose heart in the human flaws that happen all around. Even the historical facts that Jesus was brutally tortured to death for his radical lifestyle inspires me at the moment. Let alone the life after.
Sebastian | 01 April 2010

Thanks Andy. This is a most balanced response to the underlying sense of pain that is pervading our universal community at this time. I sometimes take time to view our home from the moon and imagine humanity striving to find meaning in this event we call life. Salvific use of our imaginations is a key to our survival. I believe if we do not deliberately employ one of our most powerful capacities (to dream/imagine), its under use grows it into another form. Ignatius is a true visionary.
Vic O'Callaghan | 01 April 2010

Makes sense of so much in life - thank you, Andy!
tfb | 01 April 2010

This issue like no other makes an enormous claim on the quality of our discipleship. Is forgiveness really possible? Is there a way back into the communion for those who have abused children? Andrew makes an excellent contribution to the discussion.

Disappointed though that he relies on atonement theology in his last few paragraphs to pull the argument together. Isn't also time to grow into a new understanding of what occurred on the cross?
Michael Elphick | 01 April 2010

I think the theology of atonement invoked in the ending of this timely reflection is most apt: atonement recognises and includes injustice, the need for repentance, reparation, forgiveness and reconciliation - all indispensable for a realistic grasp of and response to the human condition, and the wondrous enormity of what God has done for us in Christ.
JRK | 01 April 2010

I came home from a liturgy tonight,where there was no priest available.This parish has been through years of suffering by 2 priests,and there is a struggle to keep the faith.

Your words were similar to those spoken and I see the real message of new life and redemption coming from every faithful person having the grace to give healing and courage to all sinners.We must not ignore this chance to hear the real message: of seeds of love and healing found in destruction and death.Christ conquered these "deaths",and we must be prepared to suffer and find transformation and Life also.
catherine | 01 April 2010

I do not want to deny the catastrophic damage and horrendous, life-long trauma felt by children abused.These need the truth to be heard most importantly,and constant and reliable support for any healing. Every faith-filled person around them has the transformative power and healing in prayer and action.

Sinners are redeemable in Christ's eyes-this is something we must believe and hope for,otherwise we concede to all evil.
I feel we underestimate our faith and belief in real transformation -ressurection.
catherine | 02 April 2010

This was the prayer we added to the Intercessions for Good Friday and Easter Sunday in our parish.
"For the victims of sexual and other abuse by members of the clergy. The Church and its ministers are called to be an image of God’s love and care for all in the community, but this has been so sadly clouded by the evils of sexual and other abuse, especially of children, young adults and women, bringing pain and despair to the victims and to faithful members of the Church. (PAUSE for silent prayer)

May the leaders of the Church - bishops and priests, listen compassionately to these victims and assist them in the many ways that can bring healing and peace and an opportunity for recovery. Through Christ our Lord. Amen."

Thanks Fr Andrew for your true Easter reflection.

Melinda Tankard Reist, renowned commentator on the hyper-sexualisation of our Western society, is now on record as stating that we are now dealing with the "pornification of society."

Let's hope that the global media's breast-beating about the Catholic Church's 'complicity' in this leads them to the voluntary regulation of their industry which has also contributed to this illness.
Fr Mick Mac Andrew Bombala-Delegate NSW | 06 April 2010

Thanks for Trinity meditation -- a brilliant way of breaking out of the usual dualistic, either/or thinking we employ in crises. We need to hold opposites in our thinking if only briefly before jumping to one side or the other in a reactive manner.
Jim | 06 April 2010

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