“So instead of loving what you think is peace, love other men and love God above all. And instead of hating the people you think are warmakers, hate the appetites and the disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed—but hate these things in yourself, not in another.”
—Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation
There are days when my wife comes home from work utterly exhausted. Jobs—even a lack thereof—can be a source of great stress and exasperation: the deadlines coming too soon, bosses demanding more than you can give, customers behaving like children, co-workers who wear your nerves thin, and so on. But my wife’s exhaustion fits under none of these categories. Working on behalf of the impoverished, marginalized, and homeless populations of our city, frustration is no stranger to her. But her frustration is seldom directed toward the men and women she advocates for; instead, her frustration manifests because she walks with people through a system that seldom seems capable of showing compassion to those who have fallen through the cracks. From the mentally retarded adult homeless man refused by nearly every institution in town because he did not “fit criteria”, to the practically blind man who was refused housing because he was deemed incapable of evacuating during a fire alarm, the system which claims to help—and, yes, sometimes does—has, again and again, proven itself incapable when it comes to showing genuine compassion or humility toward those who need it most.
So on the nights when my wife comes home late—worn out by public meetings and tireless attempts at trying to carve compassion out of a compassionless system—I sit, I listen, and when she turns quiet, I stare at the wall and wonder about such disorder, such injustice. There are days, too, when I have no energy either and my listening unravels into anger. I picture myself standing before those who would not find the faith or courage to step out of their professional restrictions in order to show compassion to another person; I picture myself yelling, shouting, coming up with the perfect mix of holy anger and truth to put them in their place, to diminish them, to make they who so often consider themselves powerful to feel small.
There is perhaps something in such a desire that is justified. As Thomas Merton says in the quote above, “hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed.” And surely, to hate these things often means raising one’s literal voice in opposition. People who do the sort of wrong that affects other people in life-threatening ways ought to be told about it and instructed to stop. Indeed, this has been the vocation of many prophets throughout the ages: to call out perpetrators of injustice on their ill conduct and to envision a different way of doing things—and then to demand it of everyone who is willing to listen. From Isaiah to Amos, Jesus to James, Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr., those faithful enough to question the accepted order of things have condemned evil, envisioned another way, and then, in most cases, were killed for it. Indeed, the world does not much care for prophets when they arrive on the scene.
But there is more to being a prophet than telling people why their actions are the embodiment of evil. An important trait that links the truest of the prophets has to do not with the fire of their speeches, the fearlessness of their civil disobedience, or the intensity of their condemnation. On the contrary, what unifies the spirit of the prophets whose prophecy has made a lasting difference in the life of the world is the discipline of thorough self-examination and self-criticism. It is easy to catch the fault of another person—to trace its origin, its manifestation, and the inadequacies in the person which caused it—and to feel a sense of righteous removal from such behavior simply by having identified it. But the problem is, as a friend of mine once quipped, “if you spot it, you got it.” In other words, the reason I may be so adept at identifying a particular shortcoming in another person is because it is so much a part of who I am, so familiar to me that I didn’t even know I was guilty of it, too. If you spot it, chances are, you, too, have got it. This is one of the most bitter truths I’ve encountered. Who wants to look inward if it’s going to hurt? And yet, I am convinced that the world cannot do without more of us learning to admit that we, first, are the guilty ones.
At the root of all this is an acknowledgment of the presence of God, of love, in every person we ever encounter, no matter what they’ve done to offend our sensibilities or preferences. At the root of this is an acknowledgment of the reality that there is no measure of injustice or conflict that cannot be righted and reconciled by the spirit of God at work in the world. To demonize, to hate another person for their actions, to diminish them, to say I’ll have nothing to do with them, is to fail to see the world with God’s eyes. And the point at which I may learn to see the world with God’s eyes is in nurturing within myself the discipline of admitting my own faults, of confessing that I am no different from the worst perpetrators of injustice. To establish this is to leave open the possibility of civil interaction with people we have made our enemies, with people who we think are greedy, lazy, or simply bent on doing evil. This is the root of reconciliation, the root of unlearning hate: whenever we feel an accusation toward another rising to the tip of our tongues, to train our intellects to first look inward to check if we, too, are guilty of the same wrong. Then, and only then, it may be possible to address the wrong in a way that may actually leave open the possibility for it being made right.
It is never easy or comfortable to leave open the possibility of error in oneself, of being at fault, of acknowledging that the finger pointed at another is really a finger pointed at oneself. It is far easier to recognize the evil “out there” and to proceed with fiery condemnation. But the truth is this: the person who will bring about the most redemptive, lasting change in the world—change that nourishes the bodies and minds of other human beings—will always be the one who has looked inside themselves with a critical eye, a sort of healthy condemnation of the “appetites and disorder in [their] own soul.” Only then will they be capable of proceeding into an unjust world with a deep understanding that any one of us is capable of committing atrocious evil, that the wrong committed by another ought not give way to our diminishing their personhood into a caricature of pure evil. Such a diminishment fails to acknowledge the belovedness of every human being in the eyes of God.
Thomas Merton, ruminating elsewhere on the importance of interior examination for the life of the world, put it this way: “He who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity to love will not have anything to give others. He will communicate to them nothing but the contagion of his own obsessions, his aggressiveness, his ego-centered ambitions, his delusions about ends and means, his doctrinaire prejudices and ideas.” To put it another way, without hating the unjust, greedy, and malicious disorder of our own souls before hating it in the soul of another, we will never succeed in working toward a world where life overcomes death, love overcomes hate, and justice overcomes injustice. To bring about such a world, voices must be raised, unequivocal fingers must be pointed, and all sorts of wrong—personal and structural both—must be brought into the light. But these things, if they are to work in tandem with a spirit who has already initiated a redeemed world, must be preceded by the acknowledgment of the worst sort of evil: the evil of the world’s injustice, which grows like a weed in our own hearts, but which we have yet to identify or uproot. Holding our tongue which would accuse, taking a long look inside, and hating with a discerning, well-honed hate, the sickness that is there out of a deeper love, a longing for something better, is the first step. After that, the roots which would hold up a lasting peace, a lasting shalom, may begin to shoot into the depths of the ground on which we stand.
When my wife comes home tired and angry because so many people refuse to love those who have been pushed to the margins of our society, and when I join her in that frustration, I feel myself railing against it all. But only on the good days—the days when I remember to search for and uncover the same exact disorder in my own soul—does my anger do the world any good. So “if you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed—but hate these things in yourself, not in another.”
(from The Contributor, Issue 18, September 2009)