When you think of yourself what do you think of? Most would reply with things that you have done, accomplishments you have made, what status you have in society, maybe even your style of dress. Would those people be right? Is that the totality of who you are? There is much more to you that happens internally that people may never know, but what do you think of when you think of yourself? In our more confident moments answers to these questions seem very obvious and ludicrous. In humbler times, we may hesitate to give ourselves more time to think.
Previously, I had discussed the parallels between our all-too-common circumstances and that of Dr. Frankenstein. The power of good fiction is the ability to create fantastical circumstances that force us to think about our very real and current situations. One does not want to commit the fallacy of reading our own story into everything we encounter, but, if a writer does well, one will find themselves connecting with a character. Quotations from Shelley’s classic illustrated not just Frankenstein’s conflict with his monster, but also our own conflict with sin; the creation of our monsters, how those around us react, and the life long struggle in ourselves.
Creation of Monsters
I found a connection between the average Christian and Dr. Frankenstein. In following our passions, we can overlook the normal warning signs and find ourselves in a situation in which we never expected. Passions unchecked lead to consequences unexpected. In Frankenstein’s quest to end the terrible entity known as death, he created an instrument that ushered the death of those he loved. In our own efforts of either trying to pursue something we love (things which should not be our first love) or trying to avoid consequences, we oft create worse consequences for ourselves. Frankenstein created a monster, and so do we.
We complicate our lives. When Christ said that his yoke was easy and his burden was light, I am fully convinced that he was not saying life was going to be any easier, but that the Christian life is a simple one. What God requires of man is painfully simple to comprehend but infinitely difficult to accomplish. This is why we need Christ, is it not? We could never accomplish what Christ had to do for us and through him we lay claim to righteousness. But time has continued after the resurrection of our Lord and Savior, and we are now pursued by the haunting question of “how now shall we act?” The creation of monsters is only the beginning in trying to understand the circumstances in which we find ourselves and what factors must be processed to come to an ethic of Christian living.
Perceptions of Those Around Us
As pointed out last time, our monsters do not exclusively wreak havoc in our lives, but they also affect those around us. Some are pulled into the conflict with our monsters directly, yet there exists a subtle and often more damaging effect. It is the change that happens in a society simply because of news being passed around—very much like poison dropped into a well.
In this discussion one must remember that we operate on many conclusions and assumptions that ultimately come down to perception. Very few have the insight of those directly involved in a situation, and even fewer have the maturity to go directly to the source. In light of this, how people act is dictated by the limited knowledge that they have. This is how we live most of the time. Who among the American people know all the factors that go into economy, diplomacy, and all other political matters that would inform them to pick the best political candidate? How many people have such comprehensive knowledge of the NFL and its current roster that they can predict even the general outcome of every game?
Not only do we operate on a semblance of certainty, but the farther we are from the subject, the less certain we become. For instance, if one remains ignorant about political policies, economics, or international affairs, he or she will naturally feel a sense of uncertainty in their choice of presidential candidate. If you are the type of person that knows nothing about football, please excuse me while I do not consider your opinions on who will win the game this week. The less one knows about the given situation, the less it is probable that they will be right about anything. It is like the telephone game. In this game one starts off with a message and then whispers it into the ear of the person next to them, but only once—the game is supposed to help kids communicate clearly and also listen attentively. The message continues until it gets to the last person, then he or she tells the whole group the message received. Usually it barely resembles the initial message and the kids laugh and wonder at how the message could have been misconstrued so terribly.
When concerning grave topics laughs are seldom heard at the end of the line. I know it is cliché to talk about how gossip can be disguised behind caring lips set to prayer, but one must be careful what they share and with whom they share it. We need to be especially careful when we are more and more distant from the source. It is unfortunate that, unlike the telephone game, we seldom attempt to ask the source; we hardly think of doing this. This is one aspect that Hollywood portrays well of the monster stories: the mob. The mob is almost always portrayed as an ignorant group of people that is set off by the smallest fraction of information. From the narrative perspective the mob takes its just anger and moves to unjust action to the point that it jeopardizes more than it realizes. In our case, it is not just the offending individual that is in danger, but the church itself.
At the same time the news is traveling through a community, there is another conflict rising—that within the Christian individual. I alluded earlier to the question that we as Christians have to wrestle with. This question only arrives because we have access to the knowledge that we are saved because of what Christ has done for us and have put our trust in him. What now is required of us morally? Nothing? Obviously not, we still have lives to live and have the option to sin. The apostle Paul makes it abundantly clear that we shall not sin despite being given grace, in fact we should not sin because of it. So what happens when the Christian sins? St. John brings harsh contrast in his first epistle by making a dichotomy of those who dwell in darkness and those who dwell in the light. Even if we understand 1 John 3:6 as “No one who abides in him keeps on sinning,” we still do not know exactly how that looks.
These questions and more arise in the introspective Christian sinner. In a small way, it creates an identity crisis. The danger of studying theology is the more you learn about God, the more you understand the separation the sin creates. This is helpful when we return to the realization that Christ died for our sins and closed that gap, but the struggle still remains. Christ may have killed the monster before God, but what of our monsters in the eyes of man?
Integration of Our Monsters, Society, and the Sinner
This is where everything comes together. We acknowledge that we create monsters and that it has significant effect to society as well as within the individual responsible. We also realize that, in a spiritual sense, the monsters are of no consequence. What is to be done in light of the Christian sinner in the church? The world has the easy way out. If there is a repeat offender, there is no obligation to attempt reconciliation. A person is seen as insane if they continue to accept someone who repeatedly brings harm. The world even sees certain acts as so severe that there are no second chances.
The Church has more of a burden. There are multiple examples in the Scriptures of this simple principle: since we have been forgiven, we should forgive. We have Jesus’ parable of the King who forgave a debt and the servant who neglected to do the same. Paul tells the church in Corinth that, as Christians, we are in the ministry of reconciliation. He tells the church in Galatia more directly, “brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.”
What does restoration and reconciliation look like? I think we all realize that restoration and reconciliation between people is easier said than done. When we are moved to attempt restoring a person back to the church, how far will we allow ourselves to go?
Two initial reactions appear in response to the last question. The first is the answer of the idealist. The idealist will say that since we are forgiven completely that we should forgive completely. They may use language of trying to bring God’s kingdom or heaven to earth because in heaven we will all be equal. They see it noble to extend a hand of grace to the lowest and put their hope that a brother or sister will fall again. They are moved by stories like Les Misérables where the criminal is able find peace again in society, despite being pursued by those who remember his past. This first reaction is experienced by those reflecting on their own offense.
This type of thought has the same problems and oversights that most utilitarian thinkers commit. The obvious questions from the extreme are raised such as, “What do we doabout sex offenders, murderers, or embezzlers?” Especially if these people committed the act in the church (contrary to committing the offense before coming into the church), can we fully restore them? These questions usually come from second reaction, that of the realist. The realist grounds their thought and practice in the knowledge that, while we are reconciled to God, we are still human and not yet glorified; thus, we will continue to struggle with sin and need restrictions and safeguards. This seems reasonable, keeps the greater good safe, and most of the time the person is able to earn back trust. This is the reaction experienced mostly by those offended.
There is a side of this realist position that goes overlooked, however. At times, the restrictions, safeguards, policies, and the process of discipline do not restore or reconcile. Instead they serve more as ghosts reminding the person of something that they have done and that cannot be undone. This situation arises when the tension within the Christian offender meets the reactions of the offended body. Often, decisions and actions that inevitably “change” life forever occur, supposedly being a part of the emotional recovery process for the sinner. But, these “changes,” sadly, are not the product of true transformation, but the product of social and systemic pressure.
So what does justice require in these instances? We do not want to err into a vulnerable, naive idealism, but also we do not want to be chained to our old self by inflexible realism. I do not mean to purport an exact system that is objective enough to count for every type situation but flexible enough for all instances, but to begin to ask the questions of what justice looks like in the ministry of reconciliation on earth, in our churches. How far can we restore someone back into society, even the sexual offenders, murderers, and embezzlers?
If we use these questions, search into the common practices of the day, and realize that we are just in our current state, then so be it. I wrote this article because I have been asking these questions neither finding sufficient answers, nor those who have reflected on these issues enough. As an offender, I hope that I would be able to find a place where I am not looked down upon for things that are no more. As an offended, I want to protect those I can and establish a healthy level of expectation for those around me.
Our monsters do not just terrorize ourselves, but those around us, and that is why restoration and reconciliation must be an effort made by the community. In doing this we must know the truth of the human state but hope in the work of Christ in each person. To bring my part of this discussion full circle let me end with a famous quote from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein:
We rest; a dream has power to poison sleep. We rise; one wand’ring thought pollutes the day. We feel, conceive, or reason; laugh or weep, embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away; It is the same: for, be it joy or sorrow, the path of its departure still is free. Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow; Nought may endure but mutability!
1. Galatians 6:1 ESV, Italics added
2. Shelley, Chapter 10, Kindle edition