Moral Outrage does Not Change People’s Behavior

During my first year in seminary, I regularly commuted with a classmate to our shared ministry site, a Masonic Home for Senior Citizens, a twenty-minute drive away. She was gifted and committed, and as it turned out, deeply troubled. She made a couple of suicide gestures in her dorm, which concerned her dormmates and raised the attention of the Dean’s office. After the third attempt, the seminary asked her to leave. I was indignant. How could it be that a seminary community, which prided itself on its Christian foundation, abandon someone who was so talented – and so much in need? I had just returned from a two-year stint in Japan, where Christianity was mostly regarded as a curiosity. When I came to Yale Divinity School, I expected that everyone would be embraced and nurtured by an intentional Christian community. I was soon disappointed.

I took my indignation to the Dean. I presented my opinions, trying to mask my moral outrage. My memory of that conversation, some forty-five years ago, is that he mumbled or spoke in double talk. In retrospect, I don’t think he said much of anything except to toe the party line. He was certainly uncomfortable with me – and I couldn’t tell if he was uncomfortable with the decision the school had made. In my adrenaline-fed arrogance and indignation, I found his response unsatisfactory.

In some desperation, I took my concerns to Henri Nouwen, who lived in a basement apartment in the same dorm where my classmate resided. Henri was becoming a nationally, if not internationally known spiritual giant, but somehow he always made himself available to students. He agreed to meet with me.

I told him the story about my classmate’s removal. He said he didn’t know much, if anything, about the particulars of the case. When I finished my litany of complaint, I fully expected him to tell me that I had figured the place out, that Christian community was fiction if not a sham, – and that I should get out and go to law school , and be done with the whole business. Instead, he looked at me straight in the eye, and said, “what do you expect?”

More than this, I said. Actually, I am not sure I said anything, because I was too stunned by his response. He went on: people do the best they can, and often it isn’t very good. People hurt one another, even when – and often when -, they don’t intend to. What he didn’t say, but certainly implied, was ‘– get over it.’ Not the presumed injustice of the situation, but the fact that people don’t behave very well with one another. Get over it, because when you are able to see people in their vulnerability and with their flaws, it becomes paradoxically easier to see people as being imbued with at least a modicum of God’s grace. And It also cuts down on the ego-driven moral indignation, so that you can deal with the situation with better perspective.

I have told the story about my meeting with Henri dozens of times over the years partly because, no, mainly because, I am trying to get over the fact that people do dark things to one another. And realizing that reality has, over the ensuing years, lowered my ego temperature so I can see injustice more clearly and challenge it more effectively.

Most people, particularly those in 12- step groups, are familiar with the Serenity Prayer: “God give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” What I didn’t know until recently, is that Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous prayer continues: “Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardship as a pathway to peace; taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that you will make all things right if I surrender to your will; so that I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with You forever in the next.”

Taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it. That takes a lot of work – and the work is letting go in order to see what is. Letting go of the expectation that the world be free of darkness. Letting go of our indignation that the darkness exists. The darkness is there; we have to live in it, deal with it, and see the light in the midst of darkness.

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