Refusing to be Scandalized

So there was this big Catholic news story a couple of weeks ago about the Vatican (the CDF) and the nuns (the LCWR). You might have been wondering why I haven’t said anything about it here.

I’ve been thinking.

Well, I’ve also been pretty intensely trying to finish up the research paper for my spring semester. Which has been very helpful, actually, as I’ve been immersed in a mimetic approach to theology — I’ve been reading this stuff for years, but this is the first time I’ve really wrestled with it on an academic level. Mimetic theory offers both an anthropological and a theological reading of human desires, relationships, and dynamics, including those involving conflict, scapegoating, envy, accusations, discord, coercion, victimization, sin, innocence… you see how this is relevant, right? So that’s been informing my reflections.

Mimetic theory also has a lot to say about scandal, and being scandalized, which I think is extremely relevant to this situation. So let’s start with that.

In Catholic-speak, and especially in Catholic church hierarchy-speak, “scandal” usually doesn’t have the ordinary colloquial meaning that it has in the newspapers. Scandal has a technical meaning, derived from the Greek term skandalon used in the New Testament, which means “stumbling block”, or “obstacle”. The general idea is that you don’t want to cause scandal especially to those who might be weaker in the faith, because that would be putting an obstacle, a stumbling block, in the way of their relationship with God. This is obviously a very serious issue for those who are sincerely concerned for their sisters and brothers in Christ.

Unfortunately, the most familiar example of this idea nowadays is probably the sex abuse scandal (where I use the word here in both the colloquial and technical terms). The justification offered by the bishops for covering up cases of sexual abuse by priests is that it would cause scandal among the faithful: priests are supposed to be holy, they represent both Christ and the church. If it became known among the faithful that a priest was sexually molesting children and teens, then people might be so scandalized (technical usage) that they would lose faith in the Church and turn away from the sacraments and the Church, both of which are instruments of grace that nurture our relationship with God.

(Of course, the tragic irony, the ironic tragedy, is that the coverup by the bishops has caused at least as much scandal (technical usage), and I strongly suspect more scandal, than the truth about the molesting priests would have caused.)

But mimetic theory offers a deeper and more particular reading of scandal. It’s not just any old thing that might harm someone’s faith. The skandalon is someone, or the words or actions of someone, that first of all provokes moral or religious outrage.

What makes that a stumbling block?

XKCD cartoon 'Duty Calls'

This cartoon is a perfect illustration of the skandalon! You’re reading this on the internet — you get this cartoon, you’ve been this guy, right? Somebody is wrong! You have to tell them they’re wrong! (If you haven’t yet, hover your mouse over the image and read the text that pops up.) You just have to. There’s something compulsive about it. Intense. Almost exhilarating, though you wouldn’t want to use such a positive word for it: but there sure is _something_ that keeps you there at the computer, hitting “reload” or “get mail”, checking to see if that jerk you were telling off has been thoroughly demolished by your brilliance yet, or has come back with some further moronic comment that you just *have* to reply to. (Wow, I can feel the adrenalin rush just typing this description.)

My sisters and my brothers, the Internet flamewar is the quintessential manifestation of the skandalon.

So what I’m talking about here, the thing I find powerful in this analysis, is not so much causing scandal, but being scandalized by others. It’s that compulsion, that fascination, that is the problem. Why? Because it sucks you in. It causes you to neglect the people around you because your attention is on the scandal. It entices you into worse and worse behavior. Every interaction escalates: your language gets less loving and more hateful. You entirely lose sight of the fact that there’s another human being at the other end of the internet who is a child of God, a sister, a brother, a neighbor that you are to love as you love yourself. You become more and more self-righteous, more and more convinced that you are RIGHT and they are WRONG and that it is TREMENDOUSLY IMPORTANT FOR THEM TO REALIZE THIS.

Is that any way for a Christian to behave?

Is that any way for Christians to behave to each other?

This compulsion, this fascination, this mesmerizing effect exerted by the skandalon is the glamour of evil that we promise to reject when we are baptized.

The church is so very polarized these days. Not just the Catholic church — many churches find that internal polarization has become a much more difficult and challenging conflict than inter-denominational disagreements. In part, this is because the ecumenical movement has been active for a century now, thoughtfully and faithfully and earnestly dialoguing across those denominational boundaries, and making real progress, thanks be to God.

And in part, this is because, let’s face it: there’s no fight like a family fight.

In the presence of such polarization, in the presence of so many difficult issues that create tension and pain and fear among the church, it is more important than ever that we should simply, resolutely, faithfully, refuse to be scandalized. If we are committed to the gospel, if we are inspired by the Holy Spirit, if we are imitators of Christ, then we must refuse to be scandalized.

If we are to engage in theological reflection, then we must refuse to be scandalized. Reflection of any kind requires time, it requires attention, and it requires a certain degree of internal stillness, none of which will have if we are scandalized; and theological reflection requires an attitude, an orientation towards God that we will not have if the skandalon, the stumbling block, trips up our feet.

Yes, but how?

For this specific situation involving the CDF and the LCWR, I can offer this piece of advice:

…the Ignatian principle that one should read all Church documents in the best possible light – seeking to imagine a benevolent intention even where there may not be one. And this is not only for reasons of mental hygiene. It is because imagining and interpreting something positively is actually a creative act which tends to make it more likely that things develop that way.[1]

And in general,

One of the scribes, when he came forward and heard them disputing and saw how well he had answered them, asked him, “Which is the first of all the commandments?” Jesus replied, “The first is this: ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”[2]

The disorder of the skandalon is a disorder of desire. The remedy is to fix our desire on God — with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and with all our strength. And to love our neighbor — our neighbor who is at the other end of the keyboard, at the other end of the church, at the CDF, at the LCWR — to love that neighbor and desire good for that neighbor in the same way and with the same attachment that we desire our own good.

Refuse to be scandalized.

This is the work that has to be done before theological reflection can begin.

[1] James Alison

[2] Mk 12:28-31

[3] And a tip of the hat to Bruce Schneier, who has been exhorting people to refuse to be terrorized for years now, which inspired the title of this post.

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16 Responses to Refusing to be Scandalized

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  8. Katie Grimes says:

    Thanks for this. You have sincerely given me a lot to reflect upon (and I’m not just saying that to be polite or soften the blow of an impending critique.)

    So I ask this next question not as a rhetorical attack or a veiled critique but as a type of plea or request for guidance in my own life.

    How do you differentiate legitimate and positive anger (recognizing that not feeling enough anger is just as bad as feeling too much) and scandal? How do we know when we have passed over from appropriate anger to scandal?

    • It’s a good question – thanks for asking it.

      I don’t think that anger and scandal are on a spectrum, though, with legitimate anger over here and scandal over there. Scandal can be laced into or layered onto legitimate anger, as well as onto other things. Humans are scandalized very easily. My own experience is that I’m very quickly scandalized, and need to notice that I am, and work to disentangle myself from the scandal, before I can actually express or act on the legitimate anger underneath. (And then do it again, probably, and again.) So the fact that I’m caught up in scandal does not necessarily imply that I do not also have legitimate and positive cause for anger.

      The distinguishing marks of scandal, for me, are the self-righteous high, and the addictiveness. When I’m having arguments with people in my head and getting a rush from it, that’s scandal. When I’m emotionally wrapped up in being right or proving them wrong, that’s scandal. And especially, when I find myself bonding in self-righteousness with other people who are all trashing the same person/cause/movement that I am: that’s scandal.

      It’s about the quality of the feeling, and also about what it’s ordered towards. Scandal is ordered towards I’m right, you’re wrong, towards one-upsmanship and identity claims. “And he calls himself a Christian” is a classic example in church discourse.

      Anger… St Augustine said Hope has two daughters, courage and anger. Anger in this sense has eschatological roots, hope that things can be better. Anger is ordered towards solutions, towards justice (not vengeance, not retribution).

      Hm, maybe more concisely:
      Anger is about righting wrongs; scandal is about being right. (And proving other people are wrong.)

      And again, it’s really, really common to have both going on at the same time.

      (It’s also possible, and common, for people to be scandalized by things that don’t make them angry at all. Oh, did you hear what they did? Can you believe he said that? Did you see how she was dressed? Buzz, buzz, aren’t we better than that.)

  9. Katie Grimes says:

    also recognizing that often we decide what is a socially acceptable expression of anger in service of existing power imbalances, etc…

    • Right. Ironically, expressions of scandalized anger are much more socially acceptable than expressions of non-scandalized anger at existing power imbalances, because scandal is all about who’s in and who’s out.

  10. Amy says:

    I find I have difficulty getting angry without being scandalized because usually the only things I get angry about are injustices inflicted on me….Oops. How do we get angry when we don’t have a personal investment in the injustice except for love of justice and empathy with the oppressed, and not be scandalized when we are the one who is oppressed?

    • This is a difficult and delicate question, intertwined as it is with the question of appropriate Christian response to one’s own oppression. So I am hesitant in my reply. (Thus too my delay in answering.)

      For me, there is often a discernible difference between the anger at my oppression, and the ego-involvement with the question of whether or not I am right and my oppressors are wrong. The former is more about actions, wounds, and suffering; the latter is more about persons, right/wrong (not good/bad), and interpersonal rivalry. I identify the latter as scandal, from which I need to attempt to disentangle myself.

      I’m convinced that the oft-preached but infrequent practice of praying for our enemies is critical in that process, because it’s actually impossible to pray for someone without at least beginning to have some empathy for them: and empathy resists scandal.

      The first part of your question is easier for me: how do we get angry when we have no personal stake? I think we further cultivate that love of justice and empathy for the oppressed, to help it become more personal. Many of the psalms articulate that kind of anger, so praying them in solidarity with those who are oppressed can help with that.

      Thank you for the question!

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