Then Christ will say to us, ‘Come you also! Come you drunkards! Come you weaklings! Come you depraved!’ And he will say to us, ‘Vile creatures, you in the image of the beast and you who bear his mark. All the same, you come too!’ And the wise and prudent will say, ‘Lord, why are you welcoming them? And he will say, ‘O wise and prudent, I am welcoming them because not one of them has ever judged himself worthy. And he will stretch out his arms to us, and we shall fall at his feet, and burst into sobs, and then we shall understand everything, everything! Lord, your kingdom come!
–Dostoevsky, CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
My sister-in-law let me borrow a book called “Within these Walls: Memoirs of a Death House Chaplain.” It’s author, Rev. Carroll Pickett, is an incredible individual. His drive to minister to the “unlovable” is both inspiring and very, very challenging. For fifteen years he daily descended, with fear and trembling, into depths of darkness few of us would or could have the stomach to endure. On a continuous basis throughout that decade and a half he prayed for the strength to squelch his feelings of judgment and outrage for the heinous crimes committed, and battled his internal disdain for the death penalty itself, in order to provide some measure of comfort to a broken human being in his last hours on earth:
One recurring thought enabled me to stay the course. Throughout my career as a minister, I held strongly to the belief that a person’s need for comfort is never so great as when he is forced to deal with the realities of death. If, in fact, God had provided me with a gift, it was to help those in their final hours. No one, I had long believed, should face dying alone. Not even a hardened criminal about to be executed.
Weighing the options, I knew that I could not lift my voice to a pitch that would reverse the decision of lawmakers. With or without me, the execution would proceed. Gradually my attitude turned from doubt to resignation, then finally a determination to make whatever positive contribution I could to the process.
I cannot even imagine how difficult that must have been.
Every Sunday before receiving the Eucharist we pray as a congregation, “…neither like Judas will I give Thee a kiss; but like the thief will I confess Thee: Remember me O Lord in Thy Kingdom.” Over and over again the Church draws us back to the example of that penitent criminal dying next to Jesus on the cross. It’s a check on my pride, identifying myself not with saints but a sinner who had nothing to offer but a fragment of raw and desperate hope that Christ might have compassion on even him.
The thief on the cross, the Publican, the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, this death house chaplain: they all refuse to let me rest on my own default “eye for an eye” suppositions. Christ came and obliterated the rules, controversially doling out mercy where it had never been doled out before, throwing the pharisees in a tizzy with His “first shall be last and last shall be first” way of dealing with sickness and reprobates. He got under the skin of law makers who had grown comfortable with their religious ideologies built on inflexible do’s and don’ts. The message of love Jesus spread to the world was all paradox and mystery, absorbed only by the contrite and the humble.
Remember, moral outrage is a form of confession. Because we hate most in others what we fear most in ourselves. Moral grief is not moral outrage. Moral grief is an expression of co-suffering love. Not howling, shrieking, screaming, waving arms and dancing around a stage, spewing hate and malice, as if in the name of God.
“Comfortable” is what I should never feel. Christ-like love, if pursued purely, will pinch and burn, and blow minds with its omnipresence. It will madden some with its stubborn lack of boundaries, and bring others to their knees in gratitude and awe. I will never understand it, but I believe it is possible to move mountains with it, to become utterly transformed by it. When in doubt on how to proceed, I must pray and pray and pray for humility, then lavish upon my neighbor the same degree of mercy I ache for God to lavish on me.
I would so much rather be wrong than unmerciful.