At the height of my struggles with scrupulosity and self-accusation, my dad often attempted to console me by telling me that I wasn’t as bad as I thought—after all, I was “not killing anybody.” This was a thoughtful gesture, but looking back, it was theologically incorrect. One only needs to turn to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel to understand that God has higher expectations for us. The reality of hell (and the possibility of ending up there) is also made abundantly clear, with Our Lord warning us that plucking our eyes out or chopping our hands off (should they cause us to sin) are preferable to going to hell with sight and body intact (Mt 5:29-30).
I previously wrote about St. Irenaeus, and one of the most profound sections of his magnum opus Against Heresies covers the Sermon on the Mount. We are all familiar with the line: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Mt 5:17). But do we truly understand it?
Sometimes when I read Christ’s words, I wonder how we can reconcile the continuity of Jesus’s teachings with the commandments given by Moses. For example, at one point, Jesus says “You have heard that it was said ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:43-44). But in Against Heresies (3, IV), Irenaeus explains that Christ has “extended” the law. While we are still prohibited from committing murder, this is now extended so that we are now also prohibited from being wrathful and insulting one another (Mt 5:21-22). Adultery is still prohibited, but now we are instructed to avoid even the desire to commit adultery through lust (Mt 5:27-28). And while we are still obliged to love our neighbors, we now have the additional commandment to share that neighborly love with even our enemies.
These 2,000-year-old words have been especially relevant since the start of the pandemic. After the murders of Ahmed Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor within the span of four months, the Black Lives Matter movement rose to prominence as Americans sought to confront the parts of its racist past that continue to linger in our culture. And as with any social movement, there is opposition. Opponents of BLM and critics of Critical Race Theory accuse their supporters of making things even worse by causing everyone to focus on race. Some go even further and say it will cause White people to hate themselves. Some have even ludicrously claimed that it is racist to state that People of Color suffer from oppression and need help to remove their burdens, arguing that it suggests that People of Color “are physically and intellectually incapable of helping themselves”.
These folks might even claim that they are just as opposed to racism as the rest of us, if not more. However, when you dig down deeper into their beliefs and understanding of race, it becomes clear that to them, what counts as racist behavior and rhetoric is so narrow that only avowed white nationalists and Ku Klux Klan members qualify. Anything short of that isn’t that bad, in their eyes.
Reflecting on that type of rhetoric reminded me of my dad’s attempts to console me during my period of scrupulosity. Pointing out the obvious lingering effects of systemic racism (police brutality, disparity in homeownership, or poverty) is flat-out blasphemy to this crowd; in their eyes racism was over after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. After all, we had a Black president who was elected to two terms, what problems could we have in society today?
Hearkening back to Our Lord’s commandments, holiness is not achieved by simply avoiding the most obvious sins, but we must also be holy in our hearts and minds. This might be unconvincing to a secular crowd who denies this reality, but it is blasphemous when Christians—especially those who proudly profess their orthodoxy and defense of the faith—suggest that all that’s needed is to change the rules, and then deny the need to convert in heart and mind.
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