By Ron Rolheiser, OMI
“There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in. ” Whatever else Leonard Cohen had in mind when he coined that phrase, it says something about how wisdom, compassion, and morality seep into our lives.
There is a crack in everything. Our culture, of course, is no exception. Despite great technological progress and even some genuine moral achievement, all is far from well with the world. People are falling through its cracks and it is these persons – the sick, the unattractive, the broken, the handicapped, the untalented, those with Alzheimer’s disease, the unborn, and the poor in general – who are the crack where the light is entering.
They give soul to our world. What does this mean?
In our culture there are some whose lives, for whatever reason, are considered inferior and deemed not worthwhile. Moreover we are convinced that we may on occasion even snuff out the heartbeat of these persons. Euthanasia, abortion, and various kinds of mercy killing are being promoted precisely in the name of compassion, open-mindedness, and human dignity. Those in favour of these things have, for the main part, been able to claim both the moral and intellectual high ground.
To support euthanasia, abortion, and mercy killing is to be seen as enlightened, to oppose them is to be seen as morally and intellectually backward. In Canada, for example, the reaction to the death of Tracy Latimer (a severely-handicapped, young girl who was killed by her own father) provides ample evidence of this. The intellectually elite, for the most part, contend that this was a morally enlightened act. Abortion is viewed similarly.
Thus, we are moving ever more towards a mindset that sincerely believes that wisdom, compassion, human dignity, and morality can be served by snuffing out the heartbeat of someone whose life is not deemed worthwhile or who is living in such pain that this is judged to be sufficient cause to warrant death as a mercy. Is this wisdom and moral progress? Hardly.
As Rene Girard puts it: What is anthropologically marginal is spiritually central. This is an academic expression for what scripture means when it says that the stone rejected by the builders is the cornerstone for the building. In simple terms, this tells us that those whom the culture marginalizes and sees as unimportant, those whom it deems disposable – the sick, the aged, the severely handicapped, the dying, the homeless, and the unborn – are in fact, spiritually, the most important people in the world. They are where the light gets in. How we value them is the true measure of our wisdom, compassion, and morality.
Imagine how soulless would be a world within which only the strong, the young, the healthy, the physically attractive, the intellectually bright, and the achievers have a place! Imagine how soulless would be a world that views the handicapped, the unborn fetus, the physically paralyzed, and the dying as having nothing to offer! Such a world would be able to recognize neither the birth nor the death of Jesus because, in both of these, compassion, morality, and wisdom seep in precisely through what is helpless and marginalized. Our present culture is drawing ever nearer this soullessness.
Too often, even in our churches, we no longer stand where Jesus stood, where the cross stood, namely with the helpless. We stand instead where vested interest stands, be that the vested interest of the business world, the academic world, or the pop culture.
A world that sincerely believes that killing someone, anyone – be it Tracy Latimer, an unborn fetus, or a criminal on death row – can be an act that enhances human dignity has let its compassion be coopted and commandeered by vested interests. We will never admit this of course, but it is true.
The reason we do not see value in the lives of the severely handicapped, the terminally ill, those plagued by Alzheimer’s disease, and many of the other poor in the world is that these people precisely stand in the way of someone’s comfort, someone’s efficiency, someone’s rationality, someone’s supposed enlightenment, and someone’s limited compassion. Better they should die than that this should be disturbed! In both the world and the church today we are becoming blind to one of the deepest truths that Jesus taught us in the crucifixion, namely, that what looks useless and meaningless has the deeper value. Inferiority builds soul.
Those who fall through the cracks of the culture are indeed the crack where the light gets in. If our world has any real soul left, if indeed we still even understand the words wisdom, compassion, and morality, then it is because someone who has no power in the culture, someone who has been marginalized and rejected, has shared a gift with us.