Tom Storck recently emailed me a copy of a drawing someone had done of him for The Distributist Review, a fine website to which he contributes. He asked me if I remembered a caricature I had done of him some years back, in the early ’90s. I did not, until he reminded me of the context. It was a cartoon of Tom hosting a TV show, “The Logical Hour”, and you probably have to know Tom, who is a Thomist, to appreciate the humor. A funny looking Tom is addressing the camera: “Welcome to The Logical Hour. Tonight’s question: Is it licit to torture a slave suspected of usury?”
Of course this was meant to be absurd, and we never dreamed as we laughed that in a few short years intelligent people, even Catholics, would be defending torture.
That is only one indication of how far we have fallen, of the darkening of the times.
It began on September 11, a date so traumatic that I do not have to say the year. After a brief moment of national unity and rare gravitas, fear and anger set in. Wars were launched, seemingly without much forethought, by men blinded by ideological visions. We would be welcomed with flowers, greeted as liberators. Victory would be easy and swift. We would remake the Middle East and initiate a Pax Americana.
Rarely has America’s messianic complex sparked such misguided wishful thinking.
Nor did national unity last. In little time the nation became badly divided, split into ideological camps that ascribe only the worst motives to their enemies.
There was a brief moment of hope, early in the Ron Paul campaign in the primaries leading up to the 2002 presidential election, when it seemed that a left/right populism was taking shape, embracing antiwar and pro-life forces. It was not to last, and after Dr Paul failed to do well in the primaries what remained of his movement was more enamoured of his misguided free market ideas than anything else. Out of the remnants of the Paul “Revolution” came the birth of the TEA Party, which quickly mutated (and was co-opted) into the confused and angry thing it is today.
Tea has replaced Kool-Aid as the drink of choice among the ranting Right, and the mad hatters of this particular party—Beck and Palin—are serving a strange brew indeed. While claiming to oppose federal spending, they are ardent supporters of the biggest and most expensive (and bloodiest) government program of all, the military and its endless wars. The cost of our long wars cannot be measured in deaths and dollars alone. We will be paying for the trauma inflicted on our soldiers by unprecedented multiple deployments for a very long time.
And if every TEA Party activist who collects Social Security, Medicare, and VA benefits left the movement, I suspect it would be tiny indeed. I see this daily in my job as a letter carrier: everyone—everyone—who receives a lot of right-wing mail also sends checks to organizations devoted to protecting Social Security and Medicare. These are strange libertarians, opposing all government programs except those from which they personally benefit or are devoted to war and empire.
None of this is a defense of the Obama administration. It may not be a “reign of terror,” as one political mailing I saw ridiculously claimed, and he may not be a Muslim/atheist/communist/fascist foreigner, as others have insinuated, but he has certainly failed to deliver on that whole “hope and change” thing he promised. Of course the bankers and industrialists got a big bail-out and the stock market is booming again even as more and more Americans collect food stamps and slip into poverty. The world, breathing a collective sigh of relief that the Bush/Cheney era had passed, gave Obama a Nobel Peace Prize before he had even done anything. I wonder if they will take it back.
So there is plenty of fuel for the TEA Party fire. I just wonder what will be left standing in the ashes.
All of which leaves those of us formed by Catholic social teaching and the Distributist tradition hopeless and homeless. There are no voices anywhere across the political spectrum that appear to have a clue to the situation we have found ourselves in. It’s the Evil Stupid Party vs the Stupid Evil Party, all over again.
Nor can one draw much comfort from the Teaching Church these days. So much credibility has been lost as evidence gradually emerges of the extent of hierarchical complicity in the crimes of priests over the decades that the Church’s stature has been diminished. This is a difficult time to be a Catholic, which has led to soul-searching among many of us, to the realization that the institutional Church is only one flawed and very human aspect of the Body of Christ. We must not let disappointment in the hierarchy cause us to lose sight of the deeper Mystery of the Church. None of the scandals was caused by fidelity to Jesus Christ. None came from immersion in the Divine Liturgy, or from living a sacramental life.
In my own case this has led to a deeper appreciation of the interior Jesus Prayer and of the beauty of the Litany of Peace, around which formal prayer in our home, standing before the icons alone or with the family, is structured. This is a long prayer from the Divine Liturgy built around repeated pleas for mercy, and it covers just about everyone and everything in the world. It is a great comfort, from the opening “In peace, let us pray to the Lord” to the final prayer that ends “Have mercy on us and save us, for You are good and love mankind.”
And I have been pondering Our Lord’s words about the love of enemies: “Love your enemies. Do good to those who harm you. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” There is a tendency for Christians to treat these words as hyperbolic, like Christ telling us to cut off our hands or poke out our eyes if they cause us to sin. Clearly this is a poetic device to make a point (none of the Apostles was self-blinded or maimed). But the command to love one’s enemies is not poetry. It is marching orders. Christ summarized the whole law in the commandments to love God and to love our neighbor, and he clarified in the parable of the Good Samaritan that our “neighbor” includes those we perceive as enemies, as the Jews and Samaritans perceived each other.
I have had a chance to exercise this command in the last year or so, when I found myself working for the worst supervisor I have ever had. The whole office suffered, but he singled me out for hostile treatment. For a long while I woke up every morning hating the fact that I had to go to work (and I usually enjoy my job).
Oppression and injustice have always provoked outrage in me. When I am the victim my natural reaction is burning anger, and I learned from this experience how much more difficult it is to love one’s enemies when there is an actual enemy, not just an abstraction, in the picture. It is far easier to respond to mistreatment with hatred. But I forced—forced—myself to pray for him in the words of the Litany of Peace: “For N., for his health, safety and salvation, let us pray to the Lord. Lord have mercy. That he may be delivered from all affliction, wrath and need, Lord have mercy.” Every time I would feel anger I would repeat this blessing. Don’t get me wrong. This was not easy. I am not a virtuous person at all. My initial reactions to things are usually sinful. I can be fierce. And I certainly didn’t “feel” any loving feelings while I did this. But the locus of sin and virtue is the will, not the emotions, and by grace I persevered, and in doing so I experienced a little victory, a real liberation from resisting the cycle of bitterness that conflict engenders. It is not easy, but it is easier than being consumed by hatred and rage (these are the worst kinds of sins, the ones that don’t even feel good!)
What would love of enemies look like if it was practiced in the wider world? Even professing Christians think this command would only be obeyed by the naive. So what we see instead is Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and Catholics defending (or redefining) torture and in general bowing to the Moloch that is nationalism.
Oddly, we have to look to the Muslim world to see something like love of enemies.
Saudi Arabia, as the center of Wahhabism, bears much responsibility for the spread of militant jihadism. In a sort of devil’s bargain the corrupt Saudi princes threw money at the radical Wahhabi clerics for decades. They in turn funded mosques and madrassahs throughout the world and refrained from criticizing the Saudi government. The deal broke down when the Saudis allowed the American military onto their soil during the first Gulf War. Osama bin Ladin issued a fatwa declaring war on the Saudi government. There were a series of subsequent terrorist attacks within Saudi Arabia. That is when the Saudis were face to face with the monster they had helped create. But the way they dealt with the problem was uncharacteristic of a nation noted for its harsh desert justice. Rather than cruel treatment, accused terrorists are humanely housed and well fed. Learned Muslim clerics are brought in to argue, from the Koran, against the heretical doctrines the militants have adopted: declaring Christians, Jews and even fellow Muslims to be infidels, the legitimacy of attacking non-combatants, the morality of suicide attacks, all of which contradict traditional Islam.
Sexual frustration is a seldom commented-on but consistent element in the lives of suicide bombers. Time after time, when the last days of terrorists are reconstructed, they are found to have spent time at strip clubs or watching pornography. Unemployment is widespread in the Arab world, and marriage long postponed. These frustrated young men, promised sensual gratification in the afterlife, spend their final days in sensory indulgence, their guilt assuaged by the promise that “martyrdom” will cleanse their souls of sin and bring sexual pleasure in paradise. Recognizing this, the Saudis (and the Yemenis as well) offer job training and placement and even arrange marriages for captured militants. Few erstwhile terrorists given such treatment return to jihad; most settle happily into productive married life.
Don’t get me wrong; I hold Saudi Arabia largely responsible for the wave of Islamic terrorism that has swept the world in the last decades, and think the American alliance with the Saudis highly problematic and hypocritical, but in this one instance we would be wise to heed their example.
Contrast this gentle reform of terrorists with prisoners treated harshly, even tortured by Americans. Whether originally guilty or not they will bear hatred for their abusers for life. Many return to, or become terrorists if released. And other Muslims, watching TV or reading papers, are radicalized by the abuse and humiliation of their fellow Muslims. Hate begets hate begets hate in and endless cycle. Only love breaks the circle. So it turns out that far from being naive, love of enemies is in the long run the most practical response to hate.
Our Lord, in His ethical teaching, turns human reasoning upside down. But He does so only to set us aright. We may not be able to effect the wider world in any tangible way, but every soul who refuses to hate, who prays for his or her enemies and wishes their “health, safety and salvation” has constructed a little outpost of the Kingdom of God and experiences the liberating power of love. We can plant seeds of supernatural life, of mercy, grace and peace to the glory of God, Amen.