Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Scandal: stumbling blocks to steppingstones

823 words, 4 min read

The term scandal has its origins in the Hebrew Bible, where in Leviticus 19:14 it says: “You shall not insult the deaf, or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but you shall fear your God.” This verse, where the Greek for stumbling block is skándalon (σκάνδαλον), is in the middle of an extended version of the ten commandments (including prohibitions of stealing, of bearing false witness, and even of excessively harvesting grapes or grains) and, at first sight it looks rather odd. Did the Chosen People widely practice the tripping up of the blind and did they do so by means of a dedicated gadget - the stumbling block?

Reading Rabbi Shlomo Itzhaki’s commentary from the 11th century, it can be seen that blindness here is to be read figuratively, and in any case, the Bible is already full of proscriptions about harming others, whether they are blind or not:

“Before a person who is “blind” regarding a matter, you shall not give advice that is improper for him. [For instance,] do not say to someone,“ Sell your field and buy a donkey [with the proceeds], ”while [in truth,] you plan to cheat him since you yourself will take it from him [by lending him money and taking the donkey as collateral. He will not be able to take the field because a previous creditor has a lien on it.]”

The skándalon that Leviticus warns against is therefore the scandal of taking advantage of the weak, rather than a new discipline in the Upperclass Twit of the Year competition. And it is this that Jesus himself has very strong words about: "Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe [in me] to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea." (Mark 9:42), where the Greek for "causing one to sin" is skandalisé. St. John also speaks about scandal, but in a positive way in that it's absence is a sign of love: “Whoever loves his brother remains in the light, and there is nothing in him to cause a fall.” (1 John 2:10), where "to cause a fall" is again skandalon.

Scandal, as far as Scripture is concerned is an act whose effect is to take advantage of another, to exploit them, or (and this is particularly prominent in Jesus' words) to lead them to sin. Jesus goes out of his way to discourage us from conduct that leads another to sin, i. e., that inhibits another person's ability to love. If I do something that triggers in another person a a giving in to temptation, a turning in on themselves, a putting themselves before others, then it is I too who will be held accountable.

Pope Francis has also spoken often and harshly about scandal and has particularly chided the scandal of hypocrisy, of divisions between Christians and of exploiting the poor.

Fundamentally, being warned about the risk of scandalizing others is a call to love, which is a being directed towards the good of others in a self-noughting, self-othering movement. While the immediate scope of love concerns my actions being directed towards what the other lacks, needs, enjoys, desires, the warning against scandal extends the scope of these considerations beyond the direct recipient of love to all others, on whom my actions may have a negative effect. If I behave in a hypocritical way, or if I act in a way that harms others, the result may be a skándalon, a stumbling block that leads to an impaired capacity for love in others, who may be mere bystanders and observers of my life. Yet Jesus calls me to loving them too, and he makes it clear that failing to do so is no trifle.

So far, so good. I need to pay close attention to the impact of my actions on all who witness them. However, there is another side to scandal that, I believe, needs to be borne in mind, which is its inherent asymmetry. I believe that it is as important to avoid causing scandal as it is to avoid being scandalized. Just like my causing scandal inhibits another's capacity to love, so my being scandalized inhibits my ability to love others. If I let myself be scandalised, a wall rises up between me and the person whose actions scandalize me and I become unable to love them. I see them as a danger to my holiness, instead of the brother or sister who they are. Just like Jesus shunned no one, even those who caused others great scandal, like tax collectors and prostitutes (cf. Mark 2:15), so I too need to develop His eyesight so that I may recognize the skandaloi that are in my way and transform them into steppingstones towards their owners instead.