In the story of the blind man healed by Jesus in John 9, the story is introduced by the statement: “As he (Jesus) walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.” Jesus saw a man who elicited compassion and understanding.
On the other hand, his disciples saw a man rejected and condemned by God. “Who sinned,” they ask Jesus, “this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
The disciples are the ones who are blind. In the course of the conversations and interrogations that follow we also learn that the man’s neighbors, parents, and the religious leaders who investigate this Sabbath healing are also blind.
In May of 1968 two Roman Catholic priests, Daniel and Philip Berrigan (brothers), and seven of their Christian friends—two missionaries, a midwife, a nurse, a worker in race relations, and two others—walked into the draft board office in Catonsville, Maryland at the height of the Vietnam War. As an act of nonviolent protest and witness for peace, they took some draft files out of a filing cabinet, carried them out into the street, and burned them. They were, of course, arrested and charged with a federal crime.
In October of that year, they were placed on trial in federal court in
. “Why did you
do this?” said the prosecutor to Daniel Berrigan. “I did it,” he said, “because
I began to see the cost of being a Christian. When I saw the napalm kill
children, my senses were invaded; and I saw the power of death in the modern
At this point the judge interrupted: “Father Berrigan. This testimony is irrelevant. The war is not on trial, you are.” “Your Honor,” replied Daniel Berrigan, “I can only tell you what I see, and what I see is that right now we are standing before the living God.”
One of the attorneys said, “Mr. Berrigan, are you saying your religious convictions had something to do with this?” “Yes, yes, of course,” responded Berrigan, “my religious convictions had something to do with this. If it were not for my religious convictions, this would be eviscerated of meaning; and I should be committed for insanity.”
Another defendant, Mary Marlin, a nurse, stood up and said, “I did this because I have begun to see things as they are. This is what a Christian does when you see things.”
What do you see? And what do you do, when you begin to see things as they are?
Once we see Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God, a vision of a world of grace and goodness, of peace and equality, of mutual sharing and caring, we can never again settle for a selfish religion of personal prosperity and success, or for politics that cater to the powerful and wealthy, or for a Christian faith that settles for the status quo and conforms to conventional wisdom.
The more we are drawn into the light of Christ, the more we see how our false attachments and group idolatries, our biases and prejudices blind us and bind us, and how often, in our captivity to blindness, we have been complicit in injustice.
While the capacity to see is a gift—the work of the Spirit—it is always a struggle that requires courage, faith, and risk on our part.
Thomas Merton said that whenever a new monk came to the monastery they held an entrance ritual. It had nothing to do with patting the new monk on the back and saying, “Welcome, brother. We are so glad to have you.”
Instead, they would form a circle around the new monk and the Abbot would say, “What are you seeking?” And the answer was not, “I seek a happy life, or I seek a fulfilled life, or freedom from my anxieties, or even union with God.” The answer was, “I seek mercy, mercy, mercy.”
Merton writes, “All of the monks would know that this mercy was to be achieved only in a struggle. In a struggle with blindness, the blindness in the world as it is, and the blindness in us. Those who give up the struggle,” says Merton, “are those who are truly blind.”
As the story of the blind man unfolds, the religious leaders grow in their hostility, while the man healed of his blindness grows in spiritual illumination and understanding.
Jesus’ commentary on the story is significant: “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”
Our testimony is never: “I once was blind, but now I see clearly.” No one sees clearly. We always see through a glass dimly. And it’s always a struggle.