Just Desserts


I received a call this morning that someone had broken into the church.  The caller told me that the police CSI people were dusting for fingerprints and taking DNA samples from the blood that the thief left behind after breaking the security glass in three of the offices—including mine.  The person(s) stole a laptop from my office, as well as one of the security cameras and the hard drive that kept the security footage from the administrative secretary’s office.  It happened on Christmas day.

Today was Sunday, and I had the day off.  However, I came in just before worship let out to survey the damage.  As the parishioners filed out, they were roundly denouncing the display of insensitivity demonstrated by breaking into a church.  I commented that whoever broke in at least had the sensitivity not to vandalize the place.  That would have been much worse.  Then, channeling the priest from Les Miserables, I said what (I guess) sounded like the Christian thing to say: “I hope the person who stole our stuff needed the money for food.”

Nods of chastened agreement.

“Unfortunately,” I continued, “I suspect that the needs were more pharmaceutical than gustatory.”  (Actually, I didn’t say gustatory.  That’s a bit much—even for me.)

More nods of agreement.

It struck me later, however, that, though I had gotten past my initial response (anger), my secondary response was scarcely better.   Implicit in my righteous sounding sentiment was something I complain about when I hear it in the comments of others.  Basically, what I said was, “I might be able to summon up forgiveness, if I know the person really needs it.”  That is to say, I’m happy to forgive folks who can rightly claim mitigating circumstances.  (“Excuse me, but I seem to have run over your Bassett Hound.  Please forgive me; my brakes went out.”)  In other words, people who need to be understood, not forgiven.  But out and out no-goodniks?  To hell with them.

This need to dispense love, help, forgiveness only to those whom we think deserve it is a problem for people who work with folks in trouble.  We find ourselves wanting to help those in need, but we want assurances that we’re helping people who really need it.  And, for the most part, this is not a bad impulse.  Sometimes our attempts to help those who say they need it serve only to make matters worse. (Giving money to a substance abuser, for example, is like throwing gasoline on someone who’s already on fire.)  Nevertheless, as is often the case when my kids start a sentence with “Dad can I?” the first answer that comes out of my mouth is a preprogrammed no.

But my no to the need of others, starting with my children, probably ought to be more thoughtful.  While it is true that sometimes saying no is the most loving thing to do, saying no as a reflex action betrays the enormous yes that the Christian faith tells us Jesus offered all of us.  Whatever else Jesus said, he certainly didn’t hold out for loving, helping, forgiving only those who could muster a persuasive enough case to convince us they deserve it.  Those who claim to follow him need a much wider embrace, a much more nuanced account of love, help, and forgiveness than that.

None of this is to say that I believe we ought to turn a blind eye.  When it comes time to press this case legally, I will most likely support prosecution.  What I am saying, though, is that maybe I ought to be less concerned with what people deserve than with figuring out the most constructive way to love them—whether they deserve it or not.  Because, Lord knows, I could use a little of that myself.

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2 thoughts on “Just Desserts

  1. I listened to a Zencast podcast that mirrors very closely your observation here. They used the example of discussing generosity and our tendency to choose when to be generous, which tends to negate the sense of true generosity. You see a bum begging. You assume he’s going to use the money for booze, thereby exacerbating his alcoholic spiral, and you choose to not fund this downward slide. True generosity, though, suggests that you give to give, and that it is not your place to make value judgements.

    Sounds like you’re a Buddhist or Zencast is Christian, or these religious labels and rituals connote a fundamental humanity and compassion found in all the religious traditions (somewhere).

    • I’m terribly sympathetic to Buddhism.

      Generosity, as I’m using here, has to do with virute, and is therefore, about the disposition to action. Since each action unfolds within a particular context, I’m more interested in the process of deliberation about how to act. Giving without deliberation, which is to say, indiscriminately, is the other side of the coin. It can also be a reflex that has more to do with assuaging one’s own conscience than with loving another person.

      In this respect, I am a thoroughgoing Aristotelian, which requires one to be generous in the right place, in the right time, and in the right way.

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