Boys and Hero’s
Boys grow up wanting to be superhero’s who love good and hate evil. They look up to men who stand up to the bad guys and who bravely defend the little guy. However, when they grow up, they begin to realize that Spiderman, Batman and Superman are no where to be found in real life. As these superhero’s fade into the background of the imagination, boys begin to look elsewhere for men to imitate.
Regardless of where they look, there is a virtue that merits the admiration of every boy; a virtue that most boys want to emulate. And that virtue is tough love. This kind of love takes the blows of the “bad” guy with patience and kindness but it is also one that strikes down evil out of love for God and neighbor! It can be severe, it can be confrontational and it can be intense. This expression of love is every bit as Christian as a love that turns the other cheek. We know this because Jesus, the Apostles, and the Saints exercised it. To be sure, tough love inspires the young, protects the weak and glorifies God. But, like every good thing, it does have its counterfeit.
When it comes to love and hate, there are two counterfeits: The first is what may be called bigotry. The bigot begins by hating the sin (so far so good) but ends up transferring his hatred to the sinner (not good). The other extreme is what some call liberalism. The liberal begins by loving the sinner (so far so good) but ends up loving the sin along with the sinner (not good). Christ gives us something better: he teaches us to love the sinner but hate the sin. The problem is we end up loving or hating the wrong thing. Especially today, many have forgotten that hating sin is a true expression of love. And if sin is not hated, then we fail in our spiritual growth and we fail to win souls for Christ.
Absence of Tough Love
Pope Benedict XVI spoke to this when he addressed the Austrian and German bishops in 2005. Repeating the concern of his predecessor Pope Benedict XV , he said that those entrusted with preaching are shying away from addressing the demands of the Gospel and avoiding those doctrines that are countercultural. Conventional wisdom is that this accommodating approach attracts people. But he went on to say that the exact opposite is true: When the fullness of the Gospel is preached- even the difficult sayings of the New Testament –then, and only then, are people turned on! To be sure, people love a challenge!!
In the absence of tough love, Christianity softens and it becomes lukewarm; it ceases to attract the young. Pope Benedict XVI went on to recount that Germany and Austria have become missionary countries. In other words, priestly vocations are so low they have to import foreign priests to serve the people. And as for church attendance, the beautiful cathedrals and shrines have become more like museums for people to look at rather than houses of prayer to worship in.
Part II: The Two Sides of Love
Tough Love Exemplified
Bishop Fulton Sheen described tough love in the following passage: “Christian love bears evil, but it does not tolerate it. It does penance for the sins of others, but it is not broadminded about sin. Real love involves real hatred: whoever has lost the power of moral indignation and the urge to drive the buyers and sellers from the temples has also lost a living, fervent love of Truth.”
To be sure, Christ taught us about a kind of love that requires us to absorb evil; to take the blows and to bless those who persecute us. This sacrificial and merciful love is ultimately what saved us on Calvary. It is characterized by what Christ said on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” In the same spirit, many martyrs went to their death forgiving their executors. Who can forget St. Maximillian Kolbe or St. Thomas Moore?
But there is another side to love which appeals to the superhero imagination of boys. It is exemplified in St. John the Baptist when he told Herod that marrying his brother’s wife was unlawful. St. John was too concerned about Herod’s moral health to let it slide. Out of love for the king, he told him a difficult truth; a truth that he needed to hear. Ironically, Herod respected him for this and was reluctant to kill him as a result.
St. Paul exemplified tough love by debating his critics in the synagogue and the public square. Furthermore, when writing to the Christian communities which he himself established, there were times when he had to admonish, to threaten with punishment and to express his displeasure. For instance, St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians saying that “We punish every disobedience.” He told St. Timothy to publicly reprimand so that others would be afraid to sin. He published the names of blasphemers. He handed over a man who was guilty of “sleeping with his father’s wife” to Satan for the “destruction of his own flesh.” He used combative language in saying that “we are capable of destroying fortresses and arguments.” All of these things are manifestations of tough love.
As for Jesus, he knew that in order to form his disciples into his own image and make them “fishers of men,” he had to love them by repeatedly contradicting their will. When his apostles talked about being the greatest, Jesus talked about being the last. When a man wanted to bury his dad, Jesus said “let the dead bury the dead.” To the rich man, he said go and sell everything. To the comfortable, he said he would come like a thief in the night. When Peter bade him to avoid the cross, Jesus said “Satan, get behind me!” And when he witnessed his Father’s temple being desecrated by the greedy merchants, he over turned the tables. Afterwards his disciples recalled the words of Psalm 69: “Zeal for your house consumes me.” Zeal is also a manifestation of tough love.
At times Jesus avoided confrontation. At other times, however, he provoked it. In Mark 2, when the paralytic was being lowered through the roof, Jesus was well aware that the Scribes were hypersensitive to the slightest infraction of the Sabbath law; which included healing the infirmed. Moreover, Jesus knew that any reference to his divinity would provoke indignation. Despite this, Jesus healed the paralytic and forgave his sins. He did this, not for the sake of offending his critics, but for the sake of doing good to a man in need. Indeed, healing the paralytic offended the Scribes; but he healed him anyways!
This deed was “tough” because this kind of provocation eventually led to his death. But it was also an act of “love” because the paralytic and those present witnessed the mercy of God. Truly, in the person of Christ, toughness and love were perfectly blended. As such, thousands, including boys and young men, were inspired to follow him even to their death.
Characteristics of Tough Love
Tough love is born from recognizing that if the soul is not saved, nothing is saved. Jesus asked what good would it do if you would gain the whole world but lose your own soul. Our spiritual welfare, then, takes top priority. And as for those things that undermine our spiritual welfare, a firm but charitable correction is entirely appropriate.
Tough love takes into consideration ones feelings. But tough love also recognizes that in speaking the truth, feelings may get hurt. Conventional wisdom has it that error and sin should be borne in silence. “Thou shall not judge” is usually taken to mean that we should not admonish or correct our neighbor. But Jesus did not say, “Never mind the speck in your brother’s eye.” Rather, he said that “before you take the speck out of your brother’s eye, first take the plank out of your own.”
Through out the New Testament, correcting our neighbor with prudence is seen as an act of charity. Sometimes, silence can be a disservice to our neighbor; especially when we know he can benefit from the spoken truth.
Tough love also recognizes that to have one’s will contradicted is an essential part of becoming good or becoming a saint. Desires of the flesh want what they want. But a soul aspiring to serve God must not confuse pleasure with what is morally right and confuse pain with what is morally wrong. If so, this kind of materialism will prevent us from seeing the value of short term sacrifices for long term gains. We sometimes forget that great things are only achieved through sacrifice. When people cease acting on sound moral principles- which many times require sacrifice -and instead rely on impulses, it is then that the common good is compromised.
Boys may outgrow their fascination with animated superheros, but they never outgrow their need for heroes. And real heroes are those who imitate Christ and his Saints. To be holy requires that we do tough things. Perhaps, it is speaking the truth when nobody in the room agrees with you; or saying what needs to be said or doing what needs to be done for the good of another even when opposition is anticipated. One pope said that “Christians are born for combat.” Many times Christians do well to avoid conflict, but when the honor of God and the salvation of souls are at stake, then it is our duty to act. This is what St. Paul calls the “good fight.” And when engaged courageously and lovingly, boys will find that the Christian heroes of today are far better than the animated superheroes of yesterday.