Art of fraternal correction
Brokenness, mistake, sin… are popular things in our human life. So correcting one another is also a common thing. Unfortunately, fraternal correction at times leads to more wounds because we don’t know how to do it well. Therefore, how to correct one another in order to regain peace and harmony is truly an art. I’d like to invite you to meditate today on “the art of fraternal correction”. First let’s look at some practical following cases. The question to help your meditation is: “Do you agree with the ways or manners practiced by these correctors?”
Case 1: At that time, while many people were present, she criticized him: “You are a catechist but you don’t behave yourself. Last week I saw you as drunk as a skunk.” He was dead embarrassed.
Case 2: A woman neighbor told P: “You are a daughter-in-law. You should not have been impertinent to your mother-in-law. You were supposed to be modest and gentle to her in your explanation about what had happened.”
“Ma’am, when did you see me behave that way?”
“I heard that rumor.”
“You heard it from whom?”
“Hmm, I don’t remember anymore.”
Case 3: Mr. R gave his friend advice: “Hey, don’t gamble anymore. You waste your money of your sweat and tears in those casinos. Be careful lest your children see your bad example and follow it.” His friend seemed to be not very happy about his advice. He then got angry and said: “Since you don’t listen to my sincere words, from now on, I will no longer bother with you.” Since then on, he did not have any connection with this friend to avoir bad reputation and complications.
Do you agree with the ways those correctors use?
Now let us learn one of the ways of fraternal correction practiced among the first Christian communities in the spirit of Jesus: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church…” (Mt 18:15-17)
There are three concrete steps here. The first step is to meet the wrongdoer in private. Meeting in private is something suitable and profitable for the human psychology because it can create a place for attentive listening and mutual understanding. One of the grave mistakes that lack both charity and skill is to hurryingly make known the fault of that person in front of others, which makes him/her ‘lose face’. When meeting in private, one thing to avoid is a judging attitude because it will shut all the doors of compassionate dialogue and force the person into a tendency of ‘self-defense’ instead of a calm reflection. And, one of the very useful questions that needs to be asked [before other questions] is: “Do you have any difficulty related to this matter that I may help you with?” This question will give the person an opportunity to share hidden difficulties behind the fault. Once he/she confides in us, we should guarantee that we will keep what has been shared confidential, and we will not tell anyone else without their permission. Our sincere and generous attitude is a good condition that helps facilitate the process of conversion. Only when the first step fails is the second step applied: invite one or two objective witnesses to discern with us in effort to find more solutions to help. We should avoid telling the story to some others and then asking them to join us in pressuring the sinning brother or sister. Therefore, these witnesses need to be the people who saw what happened objectively and who come here out of love for the person. The more loving hearts, the more creative solutions. If the second step should fail, the third step suggested here is to bring the case to the Church so that the Church can pray for him/her and find more ways to help. The reason to bring it to the Church is because the Church (in the just sense) is the source of fraternal charity, the place where every member cares for one another and helps one another live a good holy life. We see that from the first step up to this point is a long process with patience and love in order to ‘free’ the broken brother or sister from harm and evil. Now there is the fourth step, and this step is radical. Jesus says: “if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” (Mt 18:17b) This is the ‘last solution’ in the art of fraternal correction. When we first hear this teaching, with our judging habit, we may feel uneasy because it seems that Jesus is teaching us to ‘exclude’ the person from the community. How do you think?
Actually, the issue is very simple. To understand the nature of this teaching, we only need to answer one question: “How does Jesus treat a pagan, a tax collector or a sinner?” Has he ever rejected or excluded them? No, never. On the contrary, he loves them with all his heart. He comes to them, socializes with them, listens to them, helps them, and treats them with generosity, respect and compassion. He embraces them, cries with them and shares their pain. This fourth step well then turns out to be the climax of the art of fraternal correction. When all the efforts to correct the wrongdoer by words have failed, the greatest and most valuable correction is the enduring love for him/her. We can see that beneath all the actions is the unconditional compassion for that brother or sister, even when all our good intentions and efforts have been refused or denied.
You can pose a question here: “Is this last step feasible or is it just a nice theory?” A very practical question! I’d like to invite you to find the answer right in your own lived experience. Have you ever hardened your heart before the good words of Jesus? Have you ever remained untouched or unmoved by his wise teachings? If you have, you share one thing in common with me! But my dear friend, have you ever felt truly touched and transformed just because Jesus’ unfailing patience, acceptance and love for you, despite all the wrong you have done? If you have, you share another thing in common with me! It is this thing that affirms the validity and effectiveness of the fourth step above: When all the efforts to correct the person by words have failed, the greatest and most valuable fraternal correction is our enduring love for him/her.
Dear friend, the basic goal of fraternal correction is to help free the brother or sister from difficulties in life, not to cause more wounds to a broken soul. Let us ask Jesus to help us be more humble through our own mistakes and faults. Especially, let us ask him to help us be more sympathetic with the weaknesses of others. In case we need to give a fraternal correction, may it be an art of sincere love.
Joseph Viet, O.Carm.