The excusable doesn’t need to be excused and the inexcusable cannot be excused.
Michael Buckley wrote those words commenting on Peter’s triple betrayal of Jesus. Here’s the context. Peter had betrayed Jesus in his most needy hour, not out of malice, simply out of weakness. Now, facing Jesus for the first time since that betrayal, Peter is understandably uncomfortable. What do you say after betraying someone?
Well, he didn’t need to say anything. Jesus took the initiative and, as Buckley highlights, he didn’t excuse Peter. Jesus didn’t say things like, it’s perfectly understandable to be afraid in a situation like that! You weren’t really yourself! I understand how that can happen! He didn’t even tell Peter that he still loves him. None of that. He simply asked Peter, “Do you love me?” and when Peter said yes, everything moved forward. No excuses were needed. The excusable doesn’t need to be excused and the inexcusable cannot be excused. Our humanity already explains why we are prone to betrayal; what needs to be spoken in its wake is a reaffirmation of love.
A couple I know had this happen in their marriage. They went to a party together one Friday night and the wife, partly through the influence of alcohol and drugs, left the party with another man. Her husband was unaware of this for a time but, upon finding out what had happened, was understandably very distraught. He went home alone and spent a sleepless night thinking, his thoughts moving through a series of vengeful fantasies to what (through grace) he eventually decided on.
He was sitting at the kitchen table midmorning the next day when his wife, sheepish and self-chastened, came home. She had her apologies rehearsed and was ready to face his justified anger and fury. She got something else. Her husband didn’t let her voice any apologies or excuses, nor did he explode in anger. Rather, calm and sad, he simply said this to her: “I’m going to move out of the house for a week, so you can think this through. You need to decide. Are you my wife or are you someone else?” He came back a week later to her apologies, but more importantly to her renewed, more radical commitment to their relationship. Their marriage has been solid and grace-filled since. She is now committed to a marriage in a way she never quite was before.
No doubt upon his return, this man’s wife did offer some tearful apologies and excuses. His refusal to let her voice them earlier may well have served a purpose long-term, but was admittedly somewhat cruel short-term. Even when something can’t be excused, we still need the opportunity to say we are sorry. Apologies are important, both for the person offering them and for the one receiving them. Until an explicit apology is made, there is always unfinished business. However, explicit contrition is not ultimately what moves things forward when a relationship has been wounded or fractured. What moves things forward is a renewed commitment to love, to a deeper fidelity.
The inexcusable cannot be excused. Strictly speaking, that’s true, though sometimes a deeper understanding of things somewhat excuses the inexcusable. Here’s an example.
Several years ago, this incident occurred in Australia. A Catholic school board had just finished building a new multimillion-dollar school. Not long after its opening, one of its students, a boy in high school, started a fire in his locker, unaware that the gas valves for the school’s heating system were right behind his locker. A huge fire started, and the whole school burned down. To his credit, the boy summoned his courage and owned up to what had happened. Then, of course, a never-ending series of questions ensued: Why would he ever do that? Why would anyone start a fire in his locker? What accounts for that kind of reckless stupidity? What can excuse the inexcusable?
I very much appreciated an answer given to these questions by one of the Australian bishops. Speaking to a questioning group of teachers and school administrators, his short answer said it all. Why would this young student do something like that? Because he is a boy! Young boys have been (for no explicable reason) starting fires long before gas valves ever appeared on the planet. Moreover, there’s no excuse for it, save human nature itself.
Often times, that’s the excuse for the inexcusable: Because we’re human! Indeed, this was the real excuse for the woman who under the influence of alcohol and drugs betrayed her husband, just as it was the real excuse for Peter when he betrayed Jesus.
But, this must be read correctly. This doesn’t give us permission to appeal to our morally inept human nature as an excuse for betrayal or stupidity. We’re human! Boys will be boys! The lesson rather is that whenever our moral ineptness has us fall into betrayal or stupidity, what ultimately moves things forward is not an apology or an excuse, but a renewed commitment in love.
Fr. Rolheiser, a member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, theologian, teacher, and award-winning author, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. Read more of his columns at his website: www.ronrolheiser.com.