We must reclaim today's 'custody of the eyes'

A woman looks at her cellphone during a Sept. 27, 2014, event in New York's Central Park. (CNS/Carlo Allegri, Reuters)

The first time I heard Matthew 5:29, it frightened me. If my eye causes me to sin, I should tear it out? But now when I hear Jesus' words about tearing out my eye, I wonder at his prescience.

How could the first-century man Jesus have known how the human eye would surrender to the electronic eye? How could he have known what the eye would become, as not just an avenue for, but a source of disease, disorder and cruelty? Because, like most of us, I live in such a way that my "eye," the eye through I which I view and comprehend the world, is a collection of screens. I still subscribe to print newspapers and magazines, but, increasingly, I absorb what's going on in the world, or what appears to be going on in the world, by watching: newscasts and videos and ads all seen through the eye of my computer, smartphone and TV. I hear Jesus' words in 2017 and know this isn't about a physical amputation. It's about shutting down and powering off. It's about regaining and reclaiming custody of the eyes.

I know. I say "custody of the eyes," and you say, "Is 'Nunsense' back at the dinner theater?" Because "custody of the eyes" has been relegated to a bit of Catholic nostalgia, one of those threats Sister hurled before she slapped you with the ruler. It supposes that all living Catholics went to parochial schools staffed by religious sisters in full habit — not true — and that "custody of the eyes" means, "You will go to hell if you look at the pictures in that Playboy magazine" — also not true.

What relinquishing custody of the eyes may mean is that you can't unsee or erase from your sight or your mind the image of an elderly man walking home from Easter dinner at his daughter's house, when he is stopped by a stranger who shoots and kills him, all the while recording the murder. Not being able to unsee a murder may be a form of hell, but that hell has nothing to do with the judgment of God. It has to do with our judgment. It has to do with the consequences of ignoring the wisdom borne out of thousands of years of lived experience.

Custody of the eyes simply means that your eyes are in your care, or custody. They are not owned and controlled by Facebook or YouTube or any of the thousands of advertisers and Internet sites that sow clickbait, among even stories worth reading or sites worth visiting. I say that our eyes are not owned or controlled by Facebook or YouTube, but that is not how we live. We do not live as free people, people whose eyes and mouths and words and action are in our custody. We've handed them over and offered them up as we sit watching whatever those who do have custody of our eyes decide to show us. And we've given it over cheap, because we bear all the costs of calloused hearts and polluted minds while they reap all the profits.

If you clicked on CNN's website on Easter Monday the story of the elderly murder victim was sure to pop up. You had to work not to open the video and see the Facebook version of a snuff film. I found myself looking away from the screen while I fumbled for the keys that would silence the sound and remove the images. I did not want to watch that film. For those few seconds, I exercised my rightful authority, and took back custody of my eyes.

There's the man who murders his child on camera, the teen who broadcasts her suicide, the spurned lover who posts revenge porn, the videos all gone viral. These people surely need help, but they do not need our gaze, our compliant click. The murderer, the victim of suicide, the revenge seeker — somewhere along the way they all lost custody of their lives. But losing custody is not the same as giving custody away. I'm not talking about squeamishness: refusing to look at the violence unfolding before you, closing the window as another Kitty Genovese screams in the courtyard below. Person to person we are called to act. But the electronic eye — because it is, by design, not person to person, but machine to machine — disallows action. We are never actors through the electronic eye. We are watchers, and, yes, voyeurs. A stranger's pain is our spectacle.

We use the word "judgment" to mean only condemnation. And we say of any personal choice, "Don't judge me." Don't judge what I do with my eyes, or any of the rest of the body over which God has given me custody. But mercy and clemency — reprieve — are also a part of judgment. To exercise judgment and turn off the electronic eye, to begin again to use our natural eyes, is a mercy we can claim, a clemency granted freely, a reprieve sending us back into our humanity. If only we will claim it.

[Melissa Musick Nussbaum's latest book, with co-author Anna Keating, is The Catholic Catalogue: A Field Guide to the Daily Acts That Make Up a Catholic Life.]

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