The Betrayal of Charity: An Excerpt

It is one thing to urge others to understand these sins and avoid them; it is another thing to avoid them oneself. If we imagine ourselves as the primary agent of our charitable formation, we lose contact with the giver and become graspers-with the predictable result of joyless and restless hatred, envy, sloth, discord, contention, schism, war, strife, sedition, and scandal. What happens, however, when we know that God can heal us and elevate us into charitable communion with God and neighbor, and yet we freely sin against charity anyway?

Consider the justification offered by Peter Bamm, a German army physician in World War II who knew but did nothing about the killing of the Jews in Sevastopol by S.S. units, as quoted by Hannah Arendt:

The totalitarian state lets its opponents disappear in silent anonymity. It is certain that anyone who had dared to suffer death rather than silently tolerate the crime would have sacrificed his life in vain. This is not to say that such a sacrifice would have been morally meaningless. It would only have been practically useless. None of us had a conviction so deeply rooted that we could have taken upon ourselves a practically useless sacrifice for the sake of a higher moral meaning.[v]

Jesus teaches that the life of charity means taking up one's cross and following him, even to the point of death (Matt 16:24-26). As he puts it in the gospel of John, "If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you" (John 15:18). When we suppose that charity is not difficult for fallen people in a fallen world, we can slip into the sins against charity almost unconsciously, out of concern for our own lives and for our families who depend on us: in our jobs, our communities, our culture, why undertake "a practically useless sacrifice for the sake of a higher moral meaning"? This is what Arendt puts her finger on through her phrase "the banality of evil."

On the other hand, sins against charity often do not slip up upon us; we may act against charity in a more obviously direct manner. After King David has sexual intercourse with Uriah's wife Bathsheba, David calls back Uriah from the siege at Rabbah in order to entice Uriah to have intercourse with Bathsheba so that he will suppose that Bathsheba's child is his own. David is unsuccessful, and he then conceives a hatred toward Uriah's existence. He instructs his general, Joab, to orchestrate the siege in a manner that will result in Uriah's death, and Joab carries out these orders.

The prophet Nathan informs David of the violence that will come upon David's family as a result of his sin. Speaking on behalf of God, Nathan says, "Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have slain him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house" (2 Sam 12:9-10). How can we respond to such crushing awareness that we, knowing better and filled with God's gifts, have deliberately sinned against charity and caused irredeemable harm?

David's response to the prophet Nathan, who risked his own life to correct David on behalf of God, is instructive. David says simply, "I have sinned against the Lord" (2 Sam 12:13). He repents. He does not thereby avoid punishment, but he avoids the deadly punishment of separating himself from God, the giver of all goodness. As Jesus exhorts us, "Repent, and believe in the Gospel" (Mark 1:14). God wants to give us his gifts, beginning with the gift of repentance. To repent we must acknowledge, terrible though it be, that "I have sinned against the Lord."[vi]

As Walter Brueggemann writes in commenting upon 2 Samuel 12, "Passive verbs are wonderful. They describe the action but without suggesting there is an agent who must answer. Kings, presidents, and prime ministers love to speak with passive verbs: 'At 1100 hours the bomb was dropped.'"[vii] Brueggemann is right to express surprise that David managed, at this critical juncture in his life, to avoid passive verbs. As Brueggemann observes, "Who would have thought him capable of that?"[viii] The answer is God. Discussing Aquinas' moral theology, Paul Wadell states, "A God of perfect love wants what is best for us, but only a God of such stunning goodness can make it possible for us. Our radical need is never overcome. From first to last we depend on God to offer us what we cannot give ourselves."[ix]

8/1/2011 4:00:00 AM