The Extent of Mercy

There has been a steady stream of sexual molestation accounts in the news reports for as long as I can remember. Commentary of coworkers and acquaintances follows each one - the main theme being "these monsters aren't fit to live." They use language to position the offenders as far away from the human race as possible, often calling for capital punishment. And this is all just.

But for some reason, over the past year the news reports and subsequent responses haven't just passed through my mind as ever-present tragedies. They've stuck and started to aggregate so that each new repercussion strikes a gong with all the horrors of the previous ones echoing together. In January, I watched Rachael Denhollander's victim impact statement which had a lot of circulation on social media. It was her contrasting note of justice joined with mercy that made me realize the weight of horrors is not just made up of the abuses, but of our culture's response. It is a justice completely stripped of mercy.

When I see an abuser, I do see someone who should receive, in Rachael Denhollander's words, "the greatest measure of justice available," but I also see a suffering human being. Only the most crushing emptiness drives a person to seek such violent stimulation. In no way does this excuse his sins or unpayable debts, but it's a reality the culture omits.

Visualize the whole life of the abuser. No one develops the capacity for such evil acts in a sudden moment. It's a process that begins with sins not so far removed from ours. He seeks compulsively to fill his emptiness with entertainment, pornography, masturbation. These gradually sink the poisoned teeth of addiction deeper and deeper. Older forms of escape no longer give satisfaction. New forms are needed to arouse and the addiction is a sickness that demands to be fed. Level by level, he descends by increments of violence too small to deter him. He is disgusted by himself, but addiction desensitizes the disgust enough to keep being fed.

In his descent, I see the pattern of my own sins. He's not some monster of a different class of creature. I was born with the same emptiness, the same compulsion to mask it with anything in my reach. I've fallen level by level into disgusting sins, and am only removed from the abuser by degrees. As Pope Francis says in The Name of God is Mercy, "Their fall could have been mine."

I know my weakness is such that I could become an abuser. Only because people around me have allowed the grace of God to work through them have I been protected and restrained. My emptiness was softened by the love I received, not by me. My conscience was well-formed, not by me. My circumstances were wisely hedged, not by me. Even with all these gifts and more, I fall repeatedly. It does no good to stand on this higher ground and claim superiority. The ground of grace is what holds me higher, not myself.

So with Rachael Denhollander, I look on these miserable, utterly evil child molesters with pity, not as "other," but as I might be. And I'm not afraid to proclaim that God's mercy reaches even so low.

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