Spring is the time when the Christian churches remember the passion of Christ in an annual event called Lent. It represents an attempt to increase our empathy and awareness for the sufferings of a man who as the Light of the World had decided to follow God’s will on earth. We have our problems as human beings to be truly human and sympathize with foreign sorrow. With the passing of time our interest dwindles. The more time goes by the less can the victims of past events count on any recognition and attention for their sufferings caused by fellow man in the course of history.
In the beginning of his passion Jesus tried to make his disciples understand the reason and the consequences of his way. Yet in spite of being so close to him in time and space they did not understand. It went beyond their capacity to grasp what he wanted to teach them about God, man and creation. They did not see the light on his way as the Son of Man who was to become the Light of the World. From early on they failed to give him his due.
How often per day we use an “excuse me” or “beg your pardon”? It serves to show that even the same old routine of everyday life with all its major or minor incidents and accidents calls for the constant use of such phrases. It shows also a deep-felt fear to violate other people’s privacy. The underlying issue however is a basic need of all human beings not to be blamed for whatever may occur in life. This is why we can not afford to declare the story of Christ’s passion an old-fashioned religious relic of no relevance for modern man, because it touches upon one of the most profound human conditions: To be human implies to feel guilty for no obvious reason, hence the need to stay free of a guilty conscience and put the blame on someone else. But since all life participates in the unavoidable guilt to merely exist we stay in permanent need of excuse. Therefore can Lent serve as an invitation to consider this principal existential guilt in need of forgiveness. It is not the small coin of minor lapses and omissions; it is the heavy burden of historical dimension which affects the lives of the older generation in particular who have suffered from persecution, terror and war.
“Mea culpa” – “I plead guilty” says the venerable old man in charge of the Roman Catholic Church. Even when he is perceived as the voice of his church, does this voice express the responsibility of the whole church which was for more than a thousand years one of the most important and influential public institutions? The church has always spoken of guilt and sin and pardon. Yet it spoke rarely or only in veiled language about its own involvement and active role in the fabric of historical guilt. As depressing as the historical facts weighs the tendency to put the blame for the hostility of many Christians against the Jews upon fellow Christians who ultimately remain an anonymous entity instead of calling a spade a spade by admitting the structural role which the institutional church has played in this matter. The papal voice denounces all use of force that has been applied in past times “in the service of truth”. Too much of it has in fact been applied and too much cruelty committed against human beings. But ultimately it was done “in the service of truth” – which is a plea in favour of structural force: Terror against error.
It remains a fact that many of those who were persecuted, humiliated, tortured, physically and mentally broken, were closer related to the truth and the passion of Christ than those who accused them of error, heresy and superstition. They were destroyed because the representatives of the church themselves did not follow the words and example of Jesus but kept sniffing around in search of enemies. They did not love their fellow human beings; they did not respect them, nor forgave them or blessed them, instead kept hunting the sinners, in the name of a God who forgave sins as proclaimed by his son. The true sinners were those who in the name of a holy and clean church betrayed the holiness and truth of the words and commands of Christ.
Nobody can avoid the principal guilt of mere existence. But each of us can accept our involvement and lifelong participation in it. It has always been possible to recognize and listen to the voice of one’s own conscience.