A brother guilty of a graver fault is to be excluded from the common table and the oratory
Who is excommunication for?
Dealing with excommunication in a culture like ours is difficult to understand. The last two weeks reflections have been an exploration of the need for context; the first week, the context for St. Benedict and the second, our own context. The two are very different in both cultural norms and the inevitable difference between cloistered life and parish life. I don’t want to dismiss these chapters, however, just because the specifics are not applicable (or not easily so). It has made me consider how, in parish, we deal with grave faults and what do we deem grave faults.
Once I started asking myself what constituted ‘grave faults’ I was struck by the clear answer:
If a brother is found to be stubborn, disobedient, proud or a murmurer, or at odds with the Holy Rule, or scornful of his elders’ directions.
Some of these do not affect those of us outside monastic vows and a ‘Holy Rule’. There are some, however, that do and leaves us with a sour taste in our mouth, or it does for me anyway. For I am stubborn (at times), disobedient (at times), proud (a little more). I struggle with ‘murmuring’ and it has been known for me to allow my lack of understanding of directions to work out into action. Most of these failings are kept buried in the secret place of my heart and I assume the same must be true of at least some of the brothers in Benedict’s communities. There s some universality of these faults that make me ask whether there is something else to be considering here, rather than the generic struggle with sin.
Excommunication and admonitions are not about personal battle with sin or the continual work of the working out of our salvation but more about protecting a community from the out workings of that sin. The ‘penance’ is there to protect others from the necessary impact of sins control of us. It is one thing to be committed to one another in our weaknesses and quite another to be battered and bruised by another’s failure to control sin.
It if often said that there are extreme circumstances when one must leave the presence of another in order to love them. I’m thinking here of addiction, violent behaviour or temptations. If you are trying to stay clean from substance abuse but are in a relationship with someone who cannot control their own urges, to stay with them would put undue strain on yourself to resist. Step out from the situation and you may be stronger then to love and support them.
We live in an age where we pay too little attention to the interconnection between all things. We delude ourselves into thinking that what we do does not affect others or our environment. Our actions and sometimes our attitudes impact others who we don’t even know and therefore do not consider. This, for me, is the problem of the individualist elements of liberalism. We consider ourselves masters of our own happiness and are willing to concern ourselves with others up to the point of which our own freedom and rights are intact. Sacrifice and self denial seem to play little to no part in these forms of liberalism.
I have struggled with the ethical and moral conversation in our country because of this issue. I am pro equal rights but without a balanced and realistic anthropology we fall into self autonomous entities striving for personal gratification creating violence of the heart and action and great conflict. I won’t reiterate my personal view to adopt a Hauerwasian approach to social ethics but I recommend, if you’re interested, to read my most recent post on it and/or search this site for any mention of Stanley Hauerwas.
For me it seems apparent that all our actions and attitudes impact others and that is why personal sin is a corporate issue. If I steal it impacts others. If I abuse substances and cripple myself with addiction this impacts others. John Donne famously noted, ‘no man is an island’ and it remains true. The sin of one is the sin of all. In the blindness of our own individual pride we consider this unfair when we judge some faults to be graver than others and we compare others’ faults with our own.
I was sat with someone in Food Bank on Monday whose experience of humanity was not glowing to say the least. With a history of sexual abuse, neglect on both personal and social level and indoctrination by self justified criminals this person was now an unrepentant thief who saw it was only fair to steal from corporation and the rich as they are doing far worse without punishment. They did not care or give a second thought to the impact of their cations on others. They wanted to consider their actions morally justified but, unfortunately their actions impacted others in ways they were not willing to accept.
The social dynamic of excommunication becomes apparent with ‘graver faults’ for we still understand this form of punishment for these sorts of ‘crimes’. If someone is a sexual predator is right to impose sanctions which put no one else in risk whilst at the same time communicating to the offender that their actions are not healthy or appropriate in a social setting.
As excommunication relates to both admonition and protection of community it must be a last resort and must be managed by a superior. If it is used at every situation then love cannot be shown and the failed brother will feel overly condemned. This condemnation is neither just nor godly. I’m reminded of Paul’s assertion,
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1)
If too harsh a sentence is placed upon a brother then it may well lead them to succumb to sin even more. Here we return to the story of Cain and Abel. Cain already feels injustice has been done to him by God. God, in his next encounter with Cain, is clear when he expresses his love and care of Cain despite excommunicating him to Nod. Cain responds with pity and repentance and God forgives and protects him. The punishment is dealt for murder but even then God is bigger than sin and can forgive even the gravest of sins if we let him.
I’m reminded of a story Tony Campolo tells of a conference where he was invited to speak. It was just after Jim Bakker was exposed for his part in a sex scandal and before Campolo was introduced the moderator said,
We must learn to distance ourselves from the likes of Jim Bakker, lest the world out there think we are all like him.
This is not an appropriate understanding of excommunication for it does not leave room for repentance and forgiveness. Campolo goes on,
When I got up to speak, I said, “First of all, this is no time to distance ourselves from Jim Bakker. This is the time to embrace a Christian brother who is suffering. If we don’t do that, we negate what Jesus is all about and contradict all that we say about unconditional love. We should be embracing him, not establishing distance from him in his loneliness and time of need. Second, the only difference between Jim Bakker and the rest of us is that they haven’t found out about the rest of us yet. There is enough garbage in each of our lives that if all that was true about us was flashed up on a screen in the middle of a Sunday morning service, almost all of us would have to resign and run away and hide ourselves. Almost all of us have secrets, but we haven’t been exposed, so it does not befit any of us to condemn someone else who actually has been exposed.” (Tony Campolo in Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne, Red Letter Christianity: living the words of Jesus no matter the cost (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2012) p.28)
My immediate reaction to that was one of restraint,
But Tony, I haven’t been involved in deliberate financial fraud and sexual indecency!
And as the thought crossed my mind I realised that I am comparing my sins and judging them to be smaller or less significant to Bakker’s. God looks on all sin as the same and forgives them with the same weight and seriousness: sin is sin, to fail is to fail. We are all condemned but (and here’s the great news!) we are all forgiven.
“Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” (Luke 7:47)
How do we deal with faults in our communities and parishes? Do we push people out for ease of life? Do we jump too quickly to punishment and condemnation rather than seeking the best for both individuals to receive God’s just and righteous grace and the community to be defended against temptation?
I’m struck again by the need for an abbot to know each monk in his care, to judge the correct and wise approach to penance. This cannot be done with universal markers. This admonition must stem from relationship, without that then it will be faceless and broad condemnation rather than supportive loving guidance and direction. Our penal system remains faceless and it is only when people are listened to and understood for the uniqueness of their context, motives, etc. can they be restored and transformed. This is why I’m a big supporter of restorative justice.
Perfect Judge and Loving Father, I’m sorry for all my faults both conscious and unconscious. Forgive me in your great mercy and lead me to the right path by your grace. Help me to forgive those that hurt me and whose actions impact me. Defend me against evil and lead me not into temptation.
Come, Lord Jesus.