Crooks or gods
Amazing how judging someone can be such a tricky thing both for the judge and the judged.
Let’s take just one example – we Maltese and Paul of Tarsus. The judges were the natives of our tiny island. The judged was a shipwrecked prisoner seeking refuge. It was a time when there were no border patrols, passports or entry visas. Paul, prisoners and jailers were literally and symbolically all in the same boat… and the same storm. All ended up on our shores. All were foreigners. All ended up here ‘accidentally’. Malta was never their destination.
Those familiar with the Bible know the story. They were welcomed by the natives who “showed unusual kindness” (Acts 28:2). They did their best and offered what they had – some sticks to make a fire as well as the dangers of the local fauna, venomous snakes in particular. It seems that Paul could not enjoy the first without being bitten by the second.
What is striking is that, as long as the natives suspended their judgement, things went relatively well. For them, these were just people in need. There being no formalities and papers to define who these people were, it was perhaps easier for them to be received simply for who they were – people in need!
But this idyllic moment soon passed. The venom struck Paul. The judgement soon followed. He must be a crook. God may have missed His first strike to punish him by the storm. He surely cannot survive the second deadly punishment of God. And yet he did. He just shook off the snake, venom and judgement at one go, into the fire. Tough guy, this Paul. He was indeed a survivor, if ever there was one.
A second judgement quickly wiped out the first. Paul must be a god to survive such a double tragedy. “After seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god.” (v. 5)
Poor natives, wrong on both counts. Paul was neither a crook nor a god. He was indeed a murderer, killing Christians in the name of his God. Like all fundamentalists he mistook his own convictions for the absolute truth.
Who will help us reconnect, beyond judgements, prejudices, self-interest and manipulations, to our deepest but long forgotten identity?
The truth was that his crookedness was as real as his desire for holiness and godliness. That did not make him a crook or god. Paul discovered this on the day he was blinded to his own fanatical shortsightedness, by whom he saw: God who is also a human, in flesh and blood – Jesus, who identified himself to every victim of the religious fundamentalist.
What about the natives? Paul fell in love with their kindness whilst seeing his previous blindness in theirs. He could not hold back the light he had seen, the person he fell in love with – Jesus. These good-hearted people needed deliverance from the crude, prejudiced judgements that can only lock people up in black and white labels. He wanted to reconnect them to the inner goodness that came forward spontaneously from their heart on seeing ‘people in need’ rather than crooks or gods.
Their spontaneous kindness did not see crooks in ‘immigrants’, ‘blacks’, ‘foreigners’, ‘Muslim terrorists’ or ‘eastern European criminals’. Nor did they see gods in ‘tourists’, ‘big spenders’, ‘upmarket customers’, ‘stinking rich passport buyers’, ‘well-placed, powerful people’. They just saw ‘people in need’, and therefore free enough to be welcoming. It was only after their lower nature, conditioned by the survival instincts of fear or favour, turned Paul first into a crook deserving a double punishment and then a god who can overcome snake venom.
It was surely worth harnessing and exploiting this kind of power. After all, the natives too were needy themselves. So, after healing the father of the island’s top man, “the rest of the sick on the island came and were cured” (v. 9) Pure humanity in all its glory and all its weakness. We, the descendants of those natives, have inherited the glory and the weakness.
Who will help us reconnect, beyond judgements, prejudices, self-interest and manipulations, to our deepest but long forgotten identity – the instinctive goodness that makes us a people of “unusual kindness”?
Fr Paul Chetcuti is a member of the Society of Jesus.