Remember your last days, set enmity aside;
remember death and decay, and cease from sin!
Force. The French philosopher Simone Weil claims that the actual subject, the very focus, of Homer’s famous poem the Iliad is force.
For Weil, force is, “that x that turns anyone subjected to it into a thing.” In the Iliad, a ferocious epic of battle and bloodshed, force literally turns subject after subject into a corpse.
Weil’s observation about force is as startling as it is true. The exercise of force makes people hollow, rendering them inhuman. Muting those instincts of compassion and what’s more, the Gospel’s teaching of mercy, force drives a stake in a weary heart. As Weil says, “force is as pitiless to the man who possesses it, or thinks he does, as it is to its victims.”
We might think it would be easier to wipe out our enemies. That by some brute exercise we could cleanse away those who disagree with us. A simple report on a colleague could end their career, and conveniently rid me of them … a new committee charged with enacting health and safety measures could in the name of health dispose of this or that activity members find irksome. The temptation to use force, to use power over another looms constant.
The Iliad is such an effective poem about force because its characters are not neatly divided between those who employ and those who suffer force. As Weil points out, everyone in the poem sooner or later bows their head to force.
Neither is the cast of our own life divided up so neatly. One moment’s victor is the next minute’s victim. The constant barrage of new media has only exaggerated and accelerated these experiences for many.
And what is the Christian response to such evil? What are we to do when we face the imposition of force, the brute exercise of ferocity and power in our lives?
We must be a people of forgiveness. We must eschew every desire, every temptation, every instinct for vengeance.
St. John Paul II reminds us,
Forgiveness is above all a personal choice, a decision of the heart to go against the natural instinct to pay back evil with evil. The measure of such a decision is the love of God who draws us to himself in spite of our sin. It has its perfect exemplar in the forgiveness of Christ, who on the Cross prayed: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34).
The true force of Christianity is the exercise of the power of the cross. Lowliness, humility, mercy, these are the hallmarks of our way of life.
Simone Weil’s commentary on the use of force in the Iliad is all the more striking because she penned those words after the fall of France in 1940. Weil speaks of the horror of war, describing every soul enslaved to war as “crying out for deliverance.”
The soul wedded to vengeance is similarly enslaved. We do not keep grudges; like force, they begin to possess us, until we are left emptied, lifeless.
Forgiveness gives life, by conforming us more closely to God. Again, as St. John Paul II puts it,
Forgiveness may seem like weakness, but it demands great spiritual strength and moral courage, both in granting it and in accepting it. It may seem in some way to diminish us, but in fact it leads us to a fuller and richer humanity, more radiant with the splendour of the Creator.
To forgive is to imitate God and His goodness. An exercise of such unparalleled and other-worldly creativity and freedom will ring much more clearly than any attempt at force.
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