Starting Point
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Issue Date:  October 22, 2004

Starting Point


During a temper tantrum, my 4-year-old son stood next to me beating on my leg. I thought of my father who would have spanked the child. Violence was not an option for me. I picked up my son, who continued to flail with his tiny fists, and I stroked his back. He stopped suddenly, put his head on my shoulder and began to suck on his thumb.

I realized that he had been trying to say that he hurt in some way and lacked the skill to communicate. I instantly saw -- in psychology we call this a gestalt switch and in spirituality an epiphany -- a connection between my son’s behavior and that of adults who are unable to communicate their bad feelings. They demonstrate those feelings by striking out at someone or something. Genuinely evil people probably exist in this world, but most people are not especially evil. When they hurt us or attempt to hurt us, they are expressing some hurt that may be totally unrelated to who and what we are. Such people are dangerous and need to be avoided or restrained. However, the appropriate response is compassion, not retribution. That is the lesson of the cross.

I think that while protecting ourselves from people who would hurt us, we are not called to do God’s work of reward and punishment. The thought raises the question of why we execute murderers when life in prison without parole will keep them from harming anyone else, while providing time for reconciliation between the murderer and the community.

I have never felt comfortable with the teaching that Jesus sacrificed himself for our sins, as though he were paying a price required by God. The prophet Hosea, speaking for God, says, “I desire compassion not sacrifice.” Furthermore, Jesus, by saying of those who crucified him, “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do,” showed us how we should act. His words contrast sharply with conventional wisdom, which holds that we must not let anyone get away with anything.

Because my son couldn’t say he hurt and instead demonstrated it, I now follow this rule: I don’t take personally what others do to me. Their hurt is directed out from themselves, not at me.

Frank Canatella writes from Gainesville, Fla.

National Catholic Reporter, October 22, 2004

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