Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. So watch yourselves. (Luke 17.1-3)
Howling for Help
In the US, 2011 opened with a week of sorrows that went from lamentable to tragic to horrifying. On Monday, the 112th Congress convened, with Republicans assuming leadership in the House of Representatives. The new majority swiftly dashed any hope it would comport itself in a manner befitting gracious victors by pegging repeal of healthcare reform as its first order of business. The bile that poisoned the last Congress and 2010 elections will spill into this session, it seems. The second go-‘round is all the more nauseating since it’s basically a juvenile stunt. The lower house’s bloviating and bluster won’t help the repeal clear Senate approval and Presidential veto hurdles, and those who concocted the scheme—gussied up as a “symbolic gesture”—know it. What they don’t get, what they’ve never got, however, is shelving healthcare to show contempt for the opposition reveals utter contempt for poor children. Tramping over them to kick the governing party’s shins is a sad, sorry sight indeed.
Contempt for children—and the fate befalling a society that abides it—became the week’s theme. On Wednesday, Bill Zeller, a 27-year-old doctoral student at Princeton who dazzled the world with his Web programming genius, killed himself. He left a 4,000-word note explaining what drove him to choose death over life. If you’ve not yet read the letter, which has been widely published, you must. (Honoring his request that it be presented entirely intact, you can find it here.) It’s one of the most painful accounts I’ve ever read, as Zeller relives unrelenting torment in the clutches of childhood abuse. Paragraph after paragraph documents symptoms and behaviors howling for help—all of them ignored or answered with contempt. At one point, he describes feeling an evil within compelling him to kill. Fear that he might take another’s life is the main reason for ending his. And while we tried to reconcile Zeller’s humanity with the fiendish inhumanity he endured, we had no idea 2400 miles away another young man was losing his battle with similar compulsions.
With little about his past available at present, we can’t say whether childhood abuse factors into the mental storm that descended on Jared Lee Loughner, the 22-year-old would-be assassin of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Yet this child—also adept at the computer keys—strung the Web with howls for help. Ten days ago, his MySpace page read, “I’m searching. Today! With every concern, my shot is now ready for aim. The hunt, a mighty thought of mine.” If anyone heard him, if anyone spotted madness in his youtube ramblings, no one cared about quelling his troubles. Media coverage of the murders he committed, including that of a nine-year-old girl, categorized Loughner as an oddball whose cryptic cries didn’t merit notice. Statements from far and wide reviled his actions, and rightly so. But it was startling how many explicitly called for him to be held in public contempt. The hideousness of his crime has masked the horror of his existence. There will be no help for Jared Lee Loughner.
The Lingering Question
Cases like Zeller’s and Loughner’s—as well as untold others, where contempt for innocence breeds horrific tragedy—inevitably raise the lingering question: how do we prevent these things from happening? The wisdom we’re searching for will never be found, though, because we’ll never be that wise. Our limited capacity should lead us to seek divine wisdom, which hides in plain sight in Luke 17, where Jesus candidly addresses this. But since His answer isn’t the one we’re looking for, we resist it. He says there is no solution to eradicate the abuse of innocents. “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come,” He explains. (v1) Forces that pervert politicians’ compassion, warp predators’ minds, and blunt attentiveness to pleas for help cannot be destroyed. They feed on deadly desires for power and profit. They’re seductively shortsighted and irrational, making easy prey of anyone vexed by fears of impermanence and insignificance. We don’t want to believe this, despite knowing it’s true.
The lingering question asks the wrong question. Jesus puts another question to us instead: are you watching yourselves? Are you taking every precaution against contempt for those liable to stumble? Are you serving your interests with no concern for theirs? Are you unwittingly abetting forces that prey on the weak and defenseless? “Woe to anyone through whom they come,” Jesus warns. “It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. So watch yourselves.” (v1-3) The answer isn’t prevention. It’s accountability. Jesus calls each of us to lives of vigilance that encompasses everything we can possibly do to strengthen the weak ones in our lives, to defend the powerless, and to help straighten the paths of those who’ve lost their way. Implicit in His warning that we not cause anyone to stumble is His mandate that we take them in our arms to steady their balance and secure their steps.
Under the Sea
The sea is never friendly when mentioned in Scripture—or, for that matter, any ancient text. It’s a mysterious, unforgiving entity that deceives the eye with a glistening surface that conceals riptides and squalls. Dangers inexplicably, suddenly arise at sea and it swallows everyone who falls into its depths, never to return. In many ways, the sea is to Jesus’s time what outer space is to ours. For all they know about it, they’re aware how little they actually understand it. So when Jesus tells the disciples causing an innocent to stumble is worse than being thrown into the sea with millstones tied to their necks, He describes a fate worse than inescapable death. Then, He takes a sharp turn to discuss forgiveness. “If someone sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them,” He says. (v3) All of it together—accountability for others, courage to confront those who wrong us, and grace to forgive them when they repent—overwhelms the disciples. But their response in verse 5 couldn’t be more perfect: “Increase our faith!”
Fulfilling our duties to protect innocents, rebuke wrongdoers, and forgive them when asked—regardless if they change their ways—is beyond our means. That’s why there’s no political argument or social uprising strong enough to defeat evil desires. Faith, the irrevocable belief that obedience to Christ’s commands has the power to change the world, is our only hope. It drives us to exceed what’s reasonable to achieve the impossible. We will never control the forces beyond our control. Yet by faith, we can keep those around us—and us—from buckling to evil. One shudders to imagine the millstones and suffocating shame worn by those who contemptuously tuned out Bill Zeller and Jared Lee Loughner’s howls for help. In a week marked by death, we’ve witnessed a fate worse than death. Yes, Lord, please increase our faith!
Contempt and indifference for those at risk of stumbling will end in agony that surpasses death by drowning.