Once in a while you’ll get together with some friends, and an hour into it, the conversation takes a weird turn. At the end of the evening someone says, Wow! Wish we’d had a tape recorder! We could write a book!
This happened recently and I wish you, the reader, had been there to form your own opinions and conclusions…and even throw a spitball or two. We were at a little Greek restaurant with a couple of friends who are unabashedly a lot more religious than we are. Six or seven times a week is not unusual for them to attend church and Audrey often confides that she’s praying for me. I usually say, Thanks! though I’m pretty sure she thinks I’m missing her point.
On this particular night, I confessed to Audrey that there’s been a question that’s plagued me since the olden days of F&M, the halcyon afternoons spent discussing nuanced shadings of morality. Audrey assured me she could quickly clear things up for me. Not sure whether that was comforting or not.
The question on the table was a basic cornerstone of morality as well as religion: Put bluntly: If you commit a crime, can another person assume your moral responsibility….or are you the one who owns that responsibility? Let’s dip our toe in the water with an example:
Your next door neighbor’s son gets into trouble…a lot. So far, the father has managed to solve things by writing checks. One afternoon, however, you look out your window to see your neighbor’s son…spray-painting obscenities all over your car. You open the door and yell, “What the HELL???” The kid looks over and ceases spraying. But then he gives you the finger as he walks back to his own yard. You call your neighbor and he sighs. He says, “Send me the bill.”
At this point, Audrey’s husband, Tom chimes in, “And I’d suggest you pad the bill a little because of the hassle he put you through.” I look at Audrey and she seems content with the reply. I say, “But, what about the kid? He’s the one who destroyed my car, gave me the finger. Does his father’s writing a check clear the slate?” Audrey only says, “There’s not a lot you can do, Henry.”
I take that at face value and move on to the next somewhat grittier example: “Okay… a week goes by and I come home to see my wife lying in the kitchen. She’s been severely beaten and the bodies of my three dogs have been stuffed into a garbage can. I call an ambulance and ride to the hospital with my wife who is semi-conscious. She looks at me and manages to get one word out: “Malcolm” (our neighbor’s son). At the hospital, I get a call from my neighbor. He is now very concerned, very apologetic. He wants to know if there’s anything he can do. But, before I have a chance to speak, he adds, “I’m prepared to pay for all the medical expenses and… I’m writing out a check for fifty thousand dollars right now. I want this whole thing go away.”
My brain short-circuits for a moment, though I manage to say, “This isn’t about you and it isn’t about your bank account. Your kid just killed my pups and beat my wife nearly to death. You can’t write a check and you can’t step in front of your kid and take responsibility for what he did. He is responsible for what he did, not you.”
I look over at Audrey and Tom and I notice their expressions don’t match each other. Tom is nodding in agreement with what I just said. Audrey, however, is now glaring at me. I continue. I say, “But what about someone high-up in the Catholic church? Could a cardinal absolve the kid for killing my dogs and beating my wife?” Tom snickers at this. He says, “Henry, no one can take responsibility for what that kid did. Not even you. Not even if you wanted to. Every person must be responsible for his own actions.”
I look at Audrey. She is furious now, but I say, “Tom, you just put your finger on a fundamental question of humanity. Can a person remove the guilt of another? To get right to the bone of the argument, I might be able to forgive someone who did something bad to me…scarred my face, chopped off a finger, broke my legs. I might say, well, he was having a bad day, or he was raised in a different way, something like that. I might be able to forgive that…but it doesn’t mean that he didn’t do it, that he now has a clean moral slate. It just means that I am personally moving on. If that same person chopped off my fingers, in my mind, it would be impossible for a third person to absolve him of the sin of what he just did. It doesn’t seem logical, or common-sensical, or even vaguely ethical.
I ask the question, though I don’t profess to have the answer, or any answer for that matter. But this is precisely what I wanted to discuss, and it’s a question I’ve had for decades now. Can you scoop-up or carve-away the sin or the crime of one individual and place it on to another individual? That is the huge question here and it has grave implications. Let’s go back in history.
Going back to The Old Testament, the term, scapegoat, was used and it was used with deadly seriousness. (Leviticus 16.1- 34) In Israel once a year, a goat was chosen as a scapegoat. A red ribbon was tied to it, and then the holy man of the village gathered up all of the sins and placed them upon the goat, at which point the goat was set out to wander in the desert.
Once done, the people of the village were then blameless (without sin) for their sins of the preceding year. A scapegoat, as the term came to be known, is a person, or animal who has been chosen to be sacrificed by having all of the sins of the village or society scooped-up and then placed upon him. Once the scapegoat is sacrificed (killed) all the sins of the village disappear and all are forgiven. Today and for me, common sense tells me that putting a ribbon on a goat and then putting it outside, has, pretty much nothing to do with what my neighbor’s son did to my wife and pups.
If you look to the spirit of the term, the highest authority of all, God, chose His own son, placed the sins of the world on him, and then sacrificed him so the rest of the world would be without sin. The term, as historically unappetizing as it unfortunately is….is a perfect match. A person was chosen, the sins of the many scooped up and placed on the individual, and then that individual was sacrificed. Does it sound any more logical this way than placing the sins of the village on a goat?
I don’t intend to answer that for you. That’s something each person has to reason out for himself or herself. It’s a question that has followed me for many years. I hope you take it as seriously as I have. The parables are simplistic. The results of our beliefs are monumental and far-reaching.
The Confessional: The confessional is used, not only by Catholics, but by Lutherans and Anglicans as well. For anyone who’s been sleeping under a rock for the past 50 years, a confessional is a small enclosed booth, usually separated into two sections, one for the sinner or confessor and the other for the priest, where the Sacrament of Penance (or confession) is performed.
It usually begins with the following statement, “Bless me Father for I have sinned. It has been (a number of days) since my last confession,” at which point the sinner confessed exactly how he has sinned. At that point, the priest usually engages in some brief conversation, pointed at helping the sinner to…not do that again. Then, the priest gives the sinner a duty to perform, usually in the form of a number of “Hail Marys” or something else at the priest’s discretion.
At that point, something really wonderful occurs: The priest blesses the sinner and absolves him of all the sins the sinner has just confessed to. Now, here is where, depending on how religious, or just how Catholic you are, we can very easily wander into the huge minefield of sarcasm and snarkiness.
As a point of fact, I have a neighbor who is Creationist Catholic and he explained the confession to me in what seemed like crude terms. …His words, not mine, he said, “It’s sorta like that Get Outta Jail Free Card. Let’s say I screw up. I accidentally get an extra fifty dollar bill stuck in my change at the diner. I take it home, buy some beer. I know that I committed the sin of stealing. But on Sunday morning, I go in, confess to the father, and I’m pardoned. I am absolved from my sins. All in all, I think that’s a pretty good deal.”
Though I’m not a Catholic, part of me suspects that this isn’t the way things are supposed to work. But how many people interpret it just as my neighbor does? It’s a fascinating topic for discussion. To an outsider, it seems that, human nature being what it is, this could be a huge loophole. Do what you want all week, all month, all year, all your life….and then go to confession, back up your truckload of sins and yank the dump-handle.
Going back to that kid who beats up your wife and slits the throats of your pups, does it make sense…better yet, does it seem ethical or moral for the perpetrator to solemnly whisper a paragraph or two and be absolved from sin? If that were true and something to stand behind, where does anyone draw the line? Jeffrey Dahmer? Charles Manson? Ted Bundy? Adolph Hitler? It quickly becomes grotesquely absurd. Just the physical whispering a sentence or confession is easy for anyone to do. How can anyone know if the confession sincere or even true?