In 2001, Al-Qaeda operatives hijacked four US commercial airliners. Thousands died that day and later, as a result of the attack. In October of that same year, the US staged a retaliatory invasion of Afghanistan. In 2003, the “war on terrorism” was expanded to include Iraq. As a result, uncounted more combatants have died. And then there are the “unintended consequences”: the individual Afghani’s and Iraqi’s who were killed or otherwise had their lives upended.
One writer, tracing the history of the United States, says the US has been at war for all but 21 years of her existence. The US has been warring for 224 out of 245 years. That’s 91%. Oh my.
Over the course of human history, there have been civil wars, religious wars, wars of liberation, cultural wars, territorial wars, and now cyber wars. The list is long. And, even when not in an actual war with another country, we use the language of war; the US continues to wage the war on drugs and the war on poverty.
And, it is not just actual shooting wars in which we engage.
Last week in Texas there was a 4-day march to the capital called the “Moral March.” The main focus of the march was to emphasize the need to protect our democracy by ensuring voting rights for all (against what is seen by some as the Texas legislature’s move to restrict voting rights). Famed civil rights advocate Jesse Jackson was involved as was someone from the “Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival” and an organization called “Repairers of the Breach.” The name of God was invoked to justify the march. The organizers also used powerful imagery from the US Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and even the biblical Old Testament story of Moses and the Red Sea. They use the language of war: “choose a side”; “stop attacks on democracy.” I’m sure their opponents use similar war language.
Wars, marches, programs, movements…many seem well intentioned to stamp out some real or perceived injustice in the world; they all have one thing in common: humans are involved. Sadly, it seems, we are the cause of the very injustice we seek to eradicate.
Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, while addressing the 1978 graduating class at Harvard, said this:
This tilt of freedom toward evil has come about gradually, but it evidently stems from a humanistic and benevolent concept according to which man—the master of the world—does not bear any evil within himself, and all the defects of life are caused by misguided social systems, which must therefore be corrected.
In his book, The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky’s Father Zossima says:
[T]hrowing your own indolence and impotence on others you will end by sharing the pride of Satan and murmuring against God. Of the pride of Satan what I think is this: it is hard for us on earth to comprehend it, and therefore it is so easy to fall into error and to share it, even imagining that we are doing something grand and fine.
What if the entire so-called “modern project,” which tells us that the evil is not in us, but that we must make social programs or governments better to improve all areas of our humanity is one of simply joining in the “pride of Satan.” What if Satan is simply encouraging us toward doing “grand and fine” things to fix humanity by such ways as wars of liberation, marches for morality, nationwide programs for the poor and afflicted, renewing urban areas, and on and on.
Perhaps there is a different way, a different sort of progress available to us.
Again, Father Zossima:
There is only one means of salvation, take yourself and make yourself responsible for all men’s sins, that is the truth, you know, friends, for as soon as you sincerely make yourself responsible for everything and for all men, you will see at once that it is really so, and that you are to blame for every one and for all things.
There is a popular story told of theologian G.K. Chesterton. According to the story, in the early 1900s, the London times asked Chesterton to contribute to a series of articles explaining what is wrong with the world. Chesterton is said to have replied on a post card with the words, “What is wrong with the world today: I am.”
Chesterton was not being contrite. The Christian Apostle James, writes:
Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures. (James 4:1-3)
I am the problem with the world.
That is a profoundly counter-cultural statement in a world that blames the ills of humanity on political and social systems (and their proponents). It is a statement that runs counter to my deeply-held belief that the world would be a better place if everyone were just more like me.
I am the problem with the world.
Returning to Solzhenitsyn, who said elsewhere:
Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts.
If the “modern project” is indeed really just a shell game and that the real need is not for better social programs or political systems, what can I do? If I am the world’s problem, then how now shall I live?
Imagine spending less time anxious over “causes for humanity” and more time trying to acquire the fullness of the Holy Spirt of the Christian God so that I might better love God and my neighbor. What if I were to primarily focus on doing the next good thing that confronts me, not for “humanity,” but for the human being standing before me. For my neighbor. One Orthodox saint said that we love God only as well as we love our neighbor. Another says that a good Christian life consists of helping 5 or 6 people you encounter. Neither of these saints, nor does Jesus, speak to helping “humanity”; rather, they talk about helping and loving humans. Loving formless, faceless “humanity” is easy; loving a single human being is very hard work.
This kind of life and love is only truly possible with help from God. Acquiring this help, the help of the Holy Spirit, is the main goal of our lives. In his book, On Acquisition of the Holy Spirit, Orthodox St. Seraphim of Sarov says:
Acquiring the Spirit of God is the true aim of our Christian life, while prayer, fasting, almsgiving and other good works done for Christ’s sake are merely means for acquiring the Spirit of God.
Working to acquire the Holy Spirit is a way to begin to quiet the passions raging within my own soul, the passions that cause so much trouble for me, for those around me, and for the world; it is the way toward gaining that peace that passes understanding that the Apostle Paul writes about.
Returning to the 9/11 attacks back in 2001. Rather than starting another war, the “war on terrorism,” I have often wondered what would have happened had the US simply turned the other cheek.
If you want to join a war, a movement, or a cause, here is the place to start: fight the battle within, the one we each face against our own disordered passions. Ask God to help. He is faithful.
A final work from St Seraphim:
Aquire the peace of the Holy Spirit and a thousand souls around you will be saved.
Very good, Mike, as always. You stir so many thoughts…
I remember while reading Solzhenitsyn‘s Gulag that while his oft-quoted ‘line between good and evil running through every heart’ faces the mirror directly at his reader (me!), he was also pretty explicit in his condemnation of institutions of all persuasions. But those institutions are comprised of individuals, and thereby the focus remains on my own personal response.
Your final (maybe penultimate) comment about the US turning the other cheek after 9/11 resonates. I read an article many years ago (Phillip Yancy, perhaps?) which speculated about what might have happened if the American colonies hadn’t revolted against England. If instead of the American Revolution, our founders had submitted to the existing authority and worked for peaceful change? Speculation, certainly, but the author suggests that it is possible that slavery might have been abolished earlier and without a civil war, and that later, with the ‘colonies’ not an independent US but rather a semi-autonomous entity of the UK (like Canada and Australia), this could have led to a much stronger England and resulted in a much different WW1 and WW2. Possibly, those might have been completely avoided.
Interesting how we glorify our revolution and how we cherry-pick our history to make this God’s perfect plan. But before I condemn our founding fathers and our historians, perhaps I should examine how blindly I justify my own choices as being those of God.
(I am also reminded of Tolstoy’s ‘The Kingdom of God Is Within You’, which argues pretty forcefully for pacifism and steps onto a lot of theological and patriotic toes.)
I am rambling on too much; I would do better to read and contemplate more, respond less. But definitely appreciate you and your thoughts, Mike.
Hi Stuart. I so enjoy your thoughts! I have wondered, too, about the Revolutionary War. We like to call ourselves a Christian nation; however, we have flags that say, “Don’t Tread On Me,” and “Come and Take It.” In many of our churches we encourage parishioners to carry guns to protect ourselves from the bad guys (the Orthodox church does not allow guns; I know not all churches encourage this). As American Christians, we (I) seem so contrary to Christ’s humble self-emptying.
And, I also wonder how the comfort of my non-persecuted lifestyle influences my thinking when I think nationally. Then there are local issues: What about a home invasion? What if someone attacked my wife? How much force would I respond with…
Could I actually be worried about the soul of the attacker? If they die during the attack, they no longer have a chance to repent. Would I be willing to die to allow them to live and perhaps repent to God? Could I love my attacker that much? (Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.) Thinking and living beyond our material worldview and present culture is difficult.
I recently read a book entitled, The 21. It is about 21 Coptic Egyptians (actually, 20 plus one from another country) who were murdered by ISIS while working in Libya. The author looks at their lives in Egypt and the faith-related systematic persecution they endure without complaint. They essentially have no “rights” as we think of them. They rely on God in a way that we (I) have lost.
These seem to be necessary things for me to ponder…