It’s interesting that, when something goes wrong, we look for something or someone to blame. Who put an empty milk bottle back in the fridge? Whose fault is it that there is a hole in the road? Why have I not been paid yet? Whose fault is it that I’ve lost my job? Who is responsible for this terrorist attack?
What’s the real purpose of blame?
Ideally, the original purpose of blame is to prevent mistakes from recurring. If you find out that Tom put the empty milk bottle back in the fridge, then you can find a way to ask him not to do that in future. Do that the right way, and Tom remembers and is happy to oblige. Or, knowing that Tom is a bit forgetful, the fact that empty milk bottles appear in the fridge becomes an acceptable happening – something forgivable, perhaps even loveable because it’s just the way that Tom is.
The trouble is that human beings take blame a little further. Blame becomes an excuse to regard another with suspicion, disdain, or even hatred. Taxes have gone up again – blame the government! The doctors are on strike – blame Jeremy Hunt! If we live lives too simplistically, we fail to see that there are valid economic reasons for raising taxes, or that there may be good reasons for the new Junior Doctors’ contract. We may fundamentally oppose those reasons but, if we’ve considered them carefully, then we can at least appreciate that they have come from the reasoning of other human beings. If the Law is wrong, we should oppose it. An incompetent Lawmaker should be removed from office, but not hated for what they have done.
This is the problem. We can turn blame into hate so easily because we identify what we perceive to be error with the person who committed it. This is such a subtly automatic thing in society that we miss that we are doing it. At the present time, our actions become part of who we are. We’re told, “hate the sin but not the sinner,” but we this is getting far too difficult to do because somehow we have become very adept at trying to read another’s intentions after the deed has been committed.
Often too, we try to justify our mistakes after the fact even if this justification doesn’t match up with the intention we had when we made the mistake. Tom may have put the empty milk bottle back in the fridge simply by absentmindedness yet, when confronted, he might say that he deliberately put the milk bottle back into the fridge because there was nowhere else to put it. A lame excuse perhaps, but it does tempt us to question Tom’s intentions and thus his character.
Can we really separate our actions from our very selves? St Paul says that we can. “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.” The flaw is in our own selves which we have by virtue of being human and having free-will. God has limited Himself so that we can have space to be ourselves. Thus there is room for error and sin. With Our Lord Jesus Christ being the way to union with God, we can choose to repent and thereby disassociate ourselves with our sin.
If we try to justify our sin, then we go against God. We take up our own definition of right and wrong over and against the One Who defines right and wrong just by existing. If we accept that we have erred and strayed, then we disassociate ourselves from sin, and thus due to God’s love first and foremost of all, we do not allow our actions to dictate who we really are. We are given the grace of God with which to wash ourselves and clothe ourselves in the wedding garment that we all must wear at the wedding feast of the lamb.
This is how we begin to forgive others. Blame tempts us to identify the actions of others with that person. Forgiveness begins with the intention to separate the act from the agent. We separate Tom from his milk-bottle, we separate Jeremy from Junior Doctors’ contracts, we separate Hilary from Benghazi, we separate Hitler from the Holocaust.
Yes. That’s the scandal. That’s why forgiveness is tough, even offensive in the extreme. Notice that forgiveness does not actually deny the act happened. That would be just plain silly. Actions have consequences: the worse the act, the more difficult it is to see the human who committed the error and who needs to own that error. Forgiveness does not rule out due punishment nor correction. It does however rule out the degradation of the individual as a human being.
Human beings have no right to degrade another, for to do so is to claim an authority that we do not possess, namely that another person can cease to be a human being. That right belongs only to the Creator Who has every right to use us as He will and yet chooses to allow us some stewardship and pleasure in what He has created. Just as a man can call himself a woman, so we can call a foot-ball hooligan an animal, but neither are true.
We do have the right to correct and punish those who do wrong, but true forgiveness prevents “wrong-do-ers” from becoming “wrong-be-ers”. In our justice, there must always, always, always be room for mercy because that’s how God works and wants us to work. Mercy prevents Justice from becoming smug and self-satisfied. God may laugh to scorn the heathen who take counsel against the Lord and His anointed, but the laughter is at the sheer folly of their actions. He will still desire that they turn from their wickedness and live. His great forgiveness separates them from their actions. Until they do the same and recognise His authority, they only continue to identify themselves with sin and thus continue in their separation from God.
Blame needs to be used correctly and gently if it is to fulfil its objective of preventing the recurrence of error and the proliferation of sin. If we honestly cannot live with Tom’s empty milk bottle in the fridge, then we need to find a way of encouraging him to stop.
Or perhaps, we might realise that our insistence that the fridge should be free from empty milk-bottles is not the big deal that we make it. Let us pray for the grace to separate sin from sinner, no matter how great the sin may be and the strength to bear the consequences, trusting in the infinite capacity of God to sort out all the mess.