We all want to look good, so we brush and floss our teeth and comb our hair. Many movie stars have teeth implants to improve their smiles. Sometimes we’re the last to realize what others see. Despite our best appearances, we still need family members or friends to point out the egg on our faces. As an old joke has it, an elderly person looks into the mirror, sees the creases of age, and asks, “How did that happen?” It’s difficult to assess how others see us or how God sees us.
Introspection is challenging, with our eyes that peer outward. Jesus warns: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Mt. 7:4) We quickly notice the sins of others but seem unable to assess our own sins with precision.
So consider this modest proposal: Install surveillance cameras to help with our daily examination of conscience.
The possibilities are exciting. A priest is aware that his external piety rests, in part, on the knowledge that his congregation is watching him. A body camera promises the same effect. With cameras, we can review our entire day. We can then focus on the events that have spiritual and moral consequences. We can check out the quality of our genuflections and the reverence of our gestures during Mass. We can evaluate every altercation and determine who is at fault. When our favorite NFL team wins an instant-replay challenge, we feel triumphant. The same can be true if we wear a bodycam, hoping we’re always on the winning side. Good luck.
Why stop there? Why not install security cameras everywhere, including in the privacy of our homes. The over-the-counter technology is cheap. Surveillance not only discourages terrorist attacks but also keeps us on our toes, on our best behavior. Periodically, a government “Commissar of Good Behavior” knocks on the door with a report card. When we go to Confession, we check the computer reports for updates. The priest saves valuable Confession time as he quickly reviews the reports, comparing the updates to prior confessions.
Relax. Just kidding. Beyond obvious absurdities, even a benign police state violates common sense and human dignity.
“The Lives of Others” is one of the most chilling movies ever made. The movie depicts East German Stasi surveillance of citizens before the breakup of the Soviet Union. Video and electronic surveillance replace freedom and responsibility with servile fear. As societies become more unstable and authoritarian, recourse to surveillance increases. At best, with Big Brother watching, we become the equivalent of highly trained border collies, keeping our masters happy and responsive to our masters’ treats. A totalitarian society becomes paranoid, duplicitous, and cynical.
Surveillance may monitor and reward compliant behavior, but it can only deform hearts. Jesus warns that the Pharisees “are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.” They “outwardly appear righteous to men, but within…are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.” (Mt. 23:27-28) With surveillance cameras monitoring our every move, our lives would all be on stage. We would become superficial narcissistic actors seeking the limelight to prove our loyalty, or else avoiding it for subversive purposes.
The spiritual life is not compatible with such surveillance. Our primary spiritual concern is not how others see us but how God sees us. Seeing ourselves in the context of His law requires a distinct form of self-surveillance—a “second set of eyes”—the eyes of faith. Faith expands our horizons to the spiritual and examines the hidden recesses of our hearts. We see the world with spiritual insights, hoping to grow in wisdom. An examination of conscience—with God’s grace and in faith—helps us to identify the external observances that disguise malice. The opening prayer of the priest in Confession expresses the same truth: “May God who has enlightened every heart help you to know your sins and trust in His mercy.”
With God’s grace and the eyes of faith, we ponder God’s law in the Scriptures and Church teaching, above all in the teachings of Jesus. We measure our motives, thoughts, words, and deeds by God’s law. We become aware of the ever-present surveillance of the good Lord Who warns: “And I say to you, that every careless word that men shall speak, they shall render account for it in the day of judgment.” (Mt. 12:36)
God’s surveillance does not diminish our freedom but rescues us from slavery to sin and directs us to salvation: “For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” (Jn. 3:17) With repentance, God forgives our sins and sets us free. “I am He who blots out your transgressions…and I will not remember your sins.” (Is. 43:25) God not only forgets our sins when we repent, but He also sanctifies us, perfects us with virtue and holiness, and beckons us to enter into communion with Him.
Nevertheless, it may be helpful to imagine what a body camera would reveal. Our excessive responses, sarcastic quips, and uncharitable remarks have dangerous ripple effects. It’s painful to realize how much damage we can inflict with even the most venial of sins: We impatiently cut someone off in traffic and ruin the other driver’s serenity. The driver returns home and unloads his anger on his wife and family. The vicious cycle of sin accelerates.
Mother Teresa identified the same solidarity of sin: “We are frightened of nuclear war, we are frightened of this new disease, but we are not frightened to kill a little child. Abortion has become the great destroyer of peace.”
Wonderfully old-fashioned mothers remind their children of the ever-present, loving, and watchful gaze of Jesus. A common embroidered sign in many dining rooms has words worth pondering: “Christ is the Head of this house; the Unseen Guest at every meal; the Silent Listener to every conversation.”
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