Maintaining Christian Charity in Times of Upheaval
We live in a culture with a high ideological “hate quotient”—a noxious mix of contempt, unjust accusations, and volatile emotional reactions. But as Christians, we cannot give in to hatred and contempt, lest we place our souls at risk. “Every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire.” (Mt. 5:22)
How, with God’s grace, do we maintain Christian charity without slipping into the escapism of indifference and sentimentality?
When Jesus presents the coin with the image of Caesar and says, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Mt. 22:21), He knows the people despise the Romans. Yet Jesus reveals that even the hated Roman emperor has rights under God’s dominion, including the privileges that come with the minting and ownership of that money. There is even a faint echo from Genesis that God created everyone—including our enemies—in his image and likeness, with intrinsic dignity and human rights.
Caesar’s inscription also brings to mind the danger of graven images. In the Book of Exodus, God prohibits graven images promoting the worship of false gods because they are abhorrent to Him (Exodus 20:4-5). But a few passages later, God directs the artisans to carve angelic cherubim to decorate the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:18).
Sometimes God is the engraver. He engraved the tablet with the Ten Commandments. He engraves us on His palms: “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have graven you on the palms of my hands.” (Isaiah 49:15-16) So the moral value of a graven image depends upon the purpose of its representation.
When He created us, God bestowed upon us his image and likeness and certain unalienable rights (to use the endearing phrase from the Declaration of Independence). But our reflection should be an honest representation, accurately disclosing our fundamental Godly nature, a difficult and elusive lifelong task.
We cultivate our self-image from the clothes we wear to the way we comb our hair. In many respects, our clothes reveal a good deal about us and our attitudes: conventional, rich, poor, edgy, outrageous, respectful, careless, sloppy, or vain. We “dress for success.” We “come casual.” The phrase “putting on the Ritz” may be old-fashioned, but it is not yet hopelessly archaic, like the term “Sunday best.” (Just sayin’.)
Clothing also projects an image of virtue or vice—often depending upon the eye of the beholder. The Book of Daniel has an account that should give every young lady pause. “Now Susanna was a woman of great refinement, and beautiful in appearance. As she was veiled, the wicked men ordered her to be unveiled, that they might feed upon her beauty.” (Daniel 13: 31-33) Is there a better way to describe lust? In the Bible, the lecherous old men lose their heads for their crimes. But not all such tales have happy endings. If bad things can happen to a virtuous and modestly dressed young lady like Susanna, it’s far more dangerous to dress immodestly, deliberately provoking a sinful response. How praiseworthy it is for women (and men) to cultivate a virtuous image by living and dressing modestly.
(For the record, the culture no longer trusts teachers, especially men, to make corrections. So mothers and grandmothers, policing the immodest dress of young women is mostly up to you.)
The most pleasing and revealing images are often unconscious, developing naturally (for better or for worse). Mothers often have an uncultivated virtuous appearance that radiates generosity. Their beautiful image usually, but not always, elicits a warm response. But during a recent Senate confirmation hearing, a prominent US senator pinpointed the Catholic faith of the nominee, the mother of seven, and the image she projects. With an insult worthy of a line in the movie, The Exorcist, the senator snarled: “The dogma lives loudly within you!”
As outraged Catholics, it is easy to respond with sinful contempt for the hapless senator. But God also creates politicians (and doctors, and lawyers, and clergy) in his image. Without sentimentality, we must not forget the fundamental human dignity of our enemies, even as we reject their evil actions. Even the most offensive and hardened criminals were in infancy some mother’s innocent baby, the image of the love of a mom and dad.
We know more about the physical features of Caesar from those ancient coins in modern museums than we do about the visible characteristics of Jesus. Providence teases us with the Shroud of Turin, and the history of that artifact is persuasive. But ultimately the physical appearance of Jesus is elusive, and for a good reason. We become images of Jesus not by imitating his facial appearance, but by accepting his Word. Christian virtue polishes that image, and evil behavior tarnishes it.
Nevertheless, God also wants us to see the appearance of Jesus in every human face, or at least recognize the shadow of his likeness behind the sinful blemishes. So this simple (and slightly sophomoric) spiritual exercise may help us cultivate a generous spirit and extinguish resentments and contempt:
Consider while spending time in an airport or shopping mall—or watching and reading the news—and, with noble intentions and purity of heart, think of the people you see as images of God. Express delight with this image of God. Now, there goes a rather peculiar image of God. Pray that the police will arrest that image of God. Plan to vote for this pro-life image of God, but never for that pro-abortion image of God. Indeed, viewing others as images of God gives Christians opportunities to find some humor—and even flashes of joy—amidst the sorrows and resentments of life.
Call it “Image of God Therapy” and count it among the many Christian remedies for both hatred and harmful sentimentality.
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