Innocence

A Sermon by Rev. David Moffat

“Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. … But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matthew 18:3 & 6)

I don’t often watch the current affairs programmes commonly shown on Australian television. I don’t like the blood sport journalism that is all too common on such programmes. But a few weeks ago, I happened to turn the television on at the right time, and become interested in the interview being broadcast – a convicted paedophile, who claimed to have healed himself. His claim was that through a mix of meditation and religion, he no longer felt the desire to defile children.

Why does society reserve its most bitter anger and hatred towards the paedophile? It is allied to our idea of innocence. We rightly sense that innocence ought to be protected and valued. We instinctively recognise that only great evil can be so unaffected by innocence as to desire its destruction or corruption. Children manifest innocence in an external, visible way. That anyone can seek to harm them seems heinous – and so it is. Our reaction is, naturally, that such evil be eradicated. Many people would happily follow our Lord’s words literally, to hang a millstone around the offender’s neck and drown him in the depth of the sea.

What is “innocence”? When we say someone is “innocent” we typically mean that they are not guilty of committing a crime. This is an historical definition, taking one’s past into account. It is impossible to live up to. No one is “innocent” under that definition – everyone has, at one time or another, committed a sin. But there is another definition: the state of innocence in the present, in other words, a condition in which committing a crime or a sin is fundamentally against our present nature. We may well experience the opportunity, but would not even consider or entertain the idea. This is true innocence, an innocence in which we allow the Lord to hold us back from sin. Now, children exhibit this innocence, but only in an external way, as I have said. They are innocent, more because the idea does not present itself to the mind. In their hearts and minds, children can still be self-centred and worldly-focussed. Such innocence, which has no basis in the heart of the individual, is easily lost. But true innocence radiates out of the heart of the spiritually mature person, and cannot be corrupted in the same way. It is grounded in who we are. So it is possible to be guilty as we look at the past and yet innocent in the present. It’s just as well, or else none of us could aspire to innocence. This is a potential the Lord guards within each one of us.

But there is more to innocence than first meets the eye. It’s not just a nice quality to have. Innocence is quite literally our saving grace. “…unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” “… innocence constitutes that essentially human quality; indeed innocence is, so to speak, the basic attitude into which love and charity from the Lord can enter.” (Arcana Caelestia 4797.2) At a counselling workshop a few weeks ago, I was intrigued to learn about scientific evidence of such a claim.

In the 1950s, Harry Harlow set out to test Sigmund Freud’s theory of attachment – that our affection for others stems primarily from the satisfaction of bodily needs. In order to do this, he took young monkeys from their mothers and put them in cages with two surrogate mothers. One was an austere wire frame containing a milk bottle, the other a terry-towelling imitation of a monkey. The monkeys grew attached to the terry-towelling mother, challenging Freud’s idea. But after many months of similar trials, Harlow discovered that his monkeys had become mentally scarred. Returned to a colony of other monkeys, they became isolated and withdrawn and were rejected by the other “normal” monkeys. They were unable to establish and maintain relationships with the others in their colony and were unable to parent babies of their own.

Was it possible to reverse this damage? Yes. Harlow found that the “cure” was to place young monkeys with these older isolates. These younger monkeys had not been socialised to reject the strange behaviour of the isolated monkeys. To them, the isolates were merely another group of monkeys, with whom they wanted to play, and no amount of antisocial behaviour was going to put them off. Eventually the psychologically scarred monkeys gave up trying to drive the young ones away, and the result was that the younger monkeys socialised the older ones to the extent that they could be returned safely to the larger colony, functioning normally and accepted by the others.

In the years since Pam and I have had our children, I have often thought about the effect of children upon their parents in the same way. We have observed singles and young couples without children, and noticed that they function quite differently from couples with children. They don’t seem to sense others’ needs, because their world still revolves around them. Children mature their parents. Now, we’re not claiming to be any different. When we see this happen over and over again, it causes the occasional wince as we recall our own pre-child behaviour. I should also qualify the statement by saying that there are people who don’t seem to need children to the same extent as we have. I can recall a number of friends and acquaintances who have shown an innate generosity and consideration even though they were childless. Still, I think of them as the exception rather than the rule. For most of us, the presence of children in our family or in our lives will have a maturing effect, as we are touched by their innocence.

Now, we are not monkeys. It is certainly true that we are socialised to accept or reject certain behaviours. We do, on occasion, meet people who are mentally scarred, and our socialisation will encourage us to reject such people for their strange manner. But we are able to choose the manner of our reaction. We have within us the capacity to act from innocence, to accept another person because of their humanity rather than reject them because their habits and mannerisms don’t suit us. This potential is protected by the Lord. We can choose to live out that potential at any time.

This is one of the beneficial roles a church can play in the lives of the mentally ill, not to mention everyone who seeks some kind of spiritual development. When what is truly human in me connects with the truly human in you, there is hope of healing. We can be instrumental in the each other’s growth.

But let us also beware. It is possible to destroy or corrupt innocence, and the warning against such an action is dire: “…whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” How can we destroy innocence?

In his book, Spiritual Recovery, Grant Schnarr discusses the co-dependent, the person who is addicted to a sick relationship. He talks about the wife of the drunk who is so used to being the sober one, she finds her self worth in that role. He talks about how she lies for him, she even supplies his alcohol, keeping him in a drunken stupor. It seems unimaginable that you would do such a thing, that you would actively maintain such a miserable existence, but of course, there’s a pay off. She feels needed. Perhaps she is praised as a “saint” by exasperated friends – she certainly finds sympathy, comfort and support. The one thing which would topple her prefect world would be if her husband stopped drinking. Schnarr cites the number of marriages which end not in drink but in recovery. This woman is causing innocence to sin. She is burying it so deep that it has little chance of emerging. The result? Her heaven is really a hell.

The same might be true of depression or any other psychological ailment. Sometimes true love is tough, and when we avoid carrying that love through, we are corrupting innocence, slowly eroding what is truly human within.

But there are lots of subtle ways we can be guilty of this. Have you ever written someone off as “beyond help”? Our church teaches that no one is unredeemable, certainly not while they live in this world, so why do I tell myself such lies? Because I can’t be bothered to help them. I cannot see the point of making the effort. I may not do that person any lasting damage, but what happens to the innocence within me? What about the married couple who seem to struggle through their lives together? I may tell myself, “their marriage will never last, it’s just too sick” but am I justified in saying so?

The reality is that I am corrupting the innocence within me. I am not allowing what is of the Lord, what is truly human within me, to recognise the truly human within another person. I am creating my own hell. It may not feel like hell – after all, I tell myself how holy and righteous I am, how mature, what a great marriage I have … – but it is a hell nonetheless.

Back to my paedophile. Certainly, in corrupting youngsters, he is guilty of destroying innocence. But truly it is of the Lord within him that he can recognise the great evils he has committed. And it is also of the Lord that he should seek to change. And as society denounces those efforts and condemns him to any punishment we can dream up because he “IS” evil, society also destroys innocence. It may manage to destroy the innocence within the man, but it certainly destroys what is truly human in society. Afterall, if this man is incapable of real, lasting change, can I claim to be any better?

So I will leave you with this challenge. Be aware of your thinking. Notice when you put someone down, out loud or just within your own mind. Reject that thought. Recognise that you are looking at another human being. Recognise that buried deep within that person is something of the Lord. Recognise you could and should do that person some lasting good.

Amen.

Welcoming all people to be part of a living community serving the Lord and encouraging personal development