As a kid, I often overheard conversations or snatches of news about the great fracas which seemed to have broken out inside our television about something called “civil rights.” Now, growing up in a town like Everett, Washington in the Sixties, surrounded by Olsons and Andersons as far as the eye could see, I could not understand what the big deal was. Jerry Brown, the one black kid in my elementary school was a nice enough guy and we were friends. So when I looked at TV and saw Watts Riots and water hoses and Black Panthers and demonstrations, I had not the slightest idea what it was all about. In my nine-year-old brain, I formed the vague notion that somebody named “Dr. King” was going around “starting riots” and I thought that was bad, but I also wondered why it seemed so easy to start riots. As far as I could tell everybody just seemed to be yelling and I was most glad it was happening far away from Everett. As near as I could make out “civil rights” and “trouble-making” were synonymous.
I emphatically deny that this was due to some latent racism. It was due to the fact that watching surging masses of people bloody each other, smash glass, get attacked by dogs and get dragged off to jail is something that frightens young boys. But it prepared me, as time progressed, to understand that looks can deceive and to realize that sometimes the people who make us uncomfortable have a right to be heard. For, of course, as I got older I realized that the civil rights marchers were simply right and that the injustices Dr. King and others were protesting should be protested. They were not making trouble: they were challenging trouble and a long legacy of racism to which I had been oblivious since, in my small world, there was only one race. The anguish of the civil rights movement was the pain of blood returning to a limb long numb to an injustice that could no longer be ignored.
You can see much the same pattern in the Old Testament. The prophets were perpetual pebbles in the shoes of comfortable people. And as comfortable people are wont to do, the corrupt kings of both Israel and Judah thought they had solved the problem by surrounding themselves with prophets-for-hire-men who would deliver the best ethics money could buy and not bother them with challenges to their sin. The trouble was, from time to time, God would send prophets anyway. One of these was a man named Micaiah, and King Ahab whined about him that he “never prophesies good concerning me, but evil” (1 Kings 22:8). It made the poor monarch suffer from low self-esteem and resent that God did not affirm him in his okayness.
One day, Ahab decided to go to war, but instead of asking Micaiah if this was a good idea, he consulted his personal cohort of prophetic Yes Men. As you might guess, they all thought it was a great idea. But, as people do sometimes when somebody stick in their craw, Ahab also asked Micaiah’s opinion. Micaiah told the king that if he went into battle he’d die. Ahab, incensed at his impertinence, decided to show him: he went into battle disguised as a common soldier and give his royal robes to somebody else. An enemy soldier took him for a common soldier and shot him at random with his bow Micaiah turns out to have been the only one who cared about Ahab and tried to keep him from his self-chosen destiny.
I think of these things when a Catholic gripes that the sacrament of confession “makes me feel guilty.” Paul summarizes the illogic of this in Galatians 2:17-18:
[I]f in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we ourselves were found to be sinners, is Christ than an agent of sin? Certainly not! But if I build up again those things which I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor.
If Christ (or Dr. King or Micaiah) shows us we are sinners who need to receive the sacrament of reconciliation and embrace his mercy, that does not mean he is the cause of our sin. It means that he is shining a spotlight on a festering place that needs attention. We might as well blame the MRI for causing the tumor it discovered. Similarly, the fact we need to “build up those things we tore down” by our sin is not a guilt trip. It is a simple reality that we repair the damage we have done through our own most grievous fault. The sacrament of reconciliation, so far from being a guilt trip or an attack on our self-esteem, is the doorway out of self-delusion and into the daylight of health, sanity and common sense.