You’ve probably heard the quote “to err is human, to forgive is divine.” It comes from Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism, and has worked its way into our culture’s collective consciousness to rationalize human failures and shortcomings.
After someone has committed some sin or indiscretion, we gloss over it by saying: “After all, he or she is only human… should we really expect more?” From a Christian perspective, the answer to this should be a definite ‘yes.’ We often read and hear about our universal call to holiness, our response to Jesus’ challenge that we be “perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
Unfortunately, we live in a world of sin and error since the time of our first parents at the beginning of the book of Genesis. There, we read how Adam and Eve were naked but not ashamed (Genesis 2:25), and that they knew the sound of both God walking near them (Genesis 3:8) and speaking clearly to them (Genesis 3:9-13). Among the many consequences of the fall we find ourselves living a very different reality: notably, the fact that God seems and sounds to be very far from us.
Writer Melinda Selmys explains this in the context of an old, worn-out vacuum cleaner. The suction isn’t a strong as it once was, the beater bar is worn down, and it just doesn’t function as well as it once did. Quite often as you use an old vacuum to go over some mess or another, it just doesn’t get the job done.
If this old broken down vacuum was your only experience of what we all use as a household appliance, you might rightly wonder why we even bother to use one in the first place. Selmys concludes: “If you wish to know how a vacuum cleaner is supposed to work, you would be best to look at the factory model: what did it look like when it was first made and was function precisely to the engineer’s specifications?” The same ought to be true when we consider what it means to be a human being. We’re living in the situation where life and relationships no longer function as our creator intended them to.
I’ve been thinking a lot about clichés and the book of Genesis as I’ve been watching the U.S. Senate deliberations regarding the appointment of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to their supreme court. This process took a dramatic turn, as Judge Kavanaugh has been accused of attempting to rape a 15-year-old girl when he was himself 17 and in high school, an accusation he vehemently denies. But it remains an accusation which must be taken seriously and unfortunately, has also brought forth some reactions that rationalize away the crime Kavanagh is alleged to have committed – and it isn’t the first time we’ve heard such a thing.
Over and over again men of every age who’ve assaulted others have their alleged crimes rationalized away because “after all… boys will be boys!” Various excuses are tossed out minimizing their responsibility: immaturity, lack of brain development, and drunkenness tend to be some of the most popular. But by minimizing their responsibility, these men/boys have often also received minimal punishment for their actions, and this is usually explained as being for the sake of their future jobs, sporting careers, and the like.
In her own recent posting on this topic, the writer and columnist Simcha Fisher asks us all to think hard about the consequences of this trend:
“(W)hen grown men tell teenage boys that a smattering of attempted rape is normal, expected, excusable behavior; that all boys do something like this because they’re still developing; and that it’s not worth worrying about because it was so long ago, then this is what they’re doing: they’re educating a whole new generation in the uses and abuses of the bodies and psyches of girls and women, for the sake of men…
Think about what you’re implying when you are willing to wave away accusations of attempted rape. Think about what you’re telling girls about what they’re for. Think about what you’re telling boys about what they’re for. Think about what you’re telling victims about what they’re worth. Think about how you’re talking about these things. Think about who is listening.
I have no idea if Judge Kavanaugh is guilty or not. And ultimately, the point of this column isn’t to make any sort of commentary on the circumstances surrounding either his appointment or the accusation levelled at him.
“Boys will be boys” isn’t the sort of message I want either for my daughters or for any other young woman out there to hear. They all deserve better – and it shows us just how far we’ve fallen from our creator’s original specifications in the book of Genesis.
This is made incredibly clear when you consider a later passage from the book of Genesis.
Genesis 34 tells of the rape of Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, and the subsequent vengeance undertaken by her brothers Simeon and Levi. If you’ve never read the text, it’s a particularly troubling story from start to finish. Dinah is violated by a man named Shechem, who later asks for her hand in marriage. Her brothers are incensed by this, and in the end, they kill Shechem in defence of the dignity of their sister.
Simeon and Levi’s actions are far from laudable: I’m not advocating for vigilante justice in place of rape. But when you consider that to them, the rape of their sister was no small matter to be dismissed simply because “boys will be boys,” perhaps there’s a lesson we seem to forget more and more the further away from Eden we get: the essential dignity of the human person.
It is imperative that accusations like this make us pause to examine our own hearts and actions surrounding the inherent dignity of others. We need to look first of all at the ways in which we may have fallen into error and do not live up to the original designs of our creator in our own relationships.
We need to be aware of the ways in which cultural influences – such as the scourge of pornography – have taught us that others (particularly women) are simply things that can be used and tossed away. We need to be aware of the ways in which we speak about others and about sexuality; that we choose to treasure all others as having been made in the image and likeness of God. And when accusations are brought forth we ought never dismiss them with a trite statement like “boys will be boys” or “to err is human.”
“God has entrusted to every man the dignity of every woman.” – St. John Paul II
-Mike Landry is the chaplain for Evergreen Catholic Schools. He is based in Spruce Grove, Alberta.