“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” – Jesus Christ
Regardless of your political persuasion, I believe many of us who watched the first of the U.S. presidential debates were shocked and dismayed. It was hardly the kind of engagement citizens of a country hope to see between two potential leaders. It was a brutal bloodbath of rhetorical violence from both sides unprecedented in American political history.
However, I do not want to discuss the debates in detail. I want to offer one simple reason as to why we are seeing escalating violence, verbally and otherwise, in our country: The tests have given way. That is, we have no agreed upon moral, philosophical, ethical, or political framework anymore. We cannot agree even upon first principles any longer. And when there is no basis for rational discourse and debate founded upon a common ground of agreed upon first principles, the only alternative left is violence.
Whoever can shout louder, whoever can smash and loot more, whoever can inspire the most fear in their enemies wins. Power, not reason, becomes the arbiter of truth. It has become merely a contest of strength, as the battle over the Supreme Court evidences. No one really cares about the Constitution, the founding document of our nation, and what it says. No, we simply care about the number of justices on the bench who agree with our political views. Whoever has more on their side gets to determine the fate of the nation.
It may be difficult to believe, but while Americans have always disagreed politically, we at one time as a nation agreed upon Judeo-Christian moral truths like the Golden Rule, that we should treat our neighbor with respect, and that we must honor God above all. Despite our faults and failings, there was a time when no one would have questioned that we were a culturally Christian nation, and that we could at least agree on the first principles of ethics, morality, and the reality of truth, however we might disagree about their practical application.
Now, however, even our language has collapsed into an incoherent soup of slogans, jargon, and malleable truisms. We are bombarded with headlines, ads, and social media commentary all designed to subtly suggest and manipulate. Any hint of striving for objectivity has been abandoned for a full embracing of propagandistic mind-control.
The meaning of words such as liberty, freedom, democracy, goodness, and evil have become entirely relative and open to any number of interpretations. Anyone who dares suggest that these words have intrinsic meaning or that absolute values exist is laughed off as a relic of a benighted past. Strength alone rules the day. That is not to say these words are really relative in and of themselves. No Catholic could say such a thing. But at the level of popular discourse, they are essentially meaningless.
The Spiritual Meaning of Our Crisis
The collapse of any reasoned political discourse is only symptomatic of a deeper spiritual crisis we are facing. For the fundamental signs of satan’s activity are the spirits of enmity, hatred, division, and destruction (Gal. 5:20). The book of the Apocalypse speaks of the king of the Abyss being named Apollyon, or destroyer (ch. 9). Christ, too, speaks of the thief, that is Satan, coming only to kill, steal, and destroy (John 10:10). Suffice it to say that, regardless of the timing of his actual advent, the spirit of Antichrist, the spirit of moral and communal destruction and disintegration, is alive and well.
Yes, the spirit of enmity, of mutual hatred and desire for destruction, is tearing our country apart. But perhaps more alarming is that the same spirit has infiltrated the Catholic church. Brother has turned against brother, faction against faction. We have divided ourselves into warring camps, and we thrill at the idea of one another’s eternal destruction. Even the very definition of Catholicism or what it means to be a Catholic is hotly debated, with all sides claiming moral superiority and the authority of the magisterium. And I assure you, the devil delights to see it, sneering cruelly as we launch invectives heated with mutual hatred at one another.
One need only take a cursory glance at the epistles of the New Testament, not to mention the words of Christ himself, to realize that unity, peace, and mutual love are constantly pleaded for and commanded. As for those who despise their brothers and desire their destruction, Christ summarizes his teaching when he says, “you don’t know what spirit you are of” (Luke 9:55). Needless to say, it is not the spirit of Christ himself, who came not to condemn and destroy the world, but to save it (John 3:17).
Our Call as Catholics
So as concerned Catholics seeking to live by the teachings of Christ and his Gospel, what are we to do as we look around at the moral, political, and religious disintegration around us? Are we to throw up our hands in despair? Should we join in the fighting, name-calling, mudslinging, and mutual hatred in the name of righteous zeal? Should we retreat into passivity and avoid what is going on around us?
No. Instead, I would argue that we should follow the examples of the first Christians, the martyrs and saints of the early Church. They too lived in a time of moral disintegration and political upheaval. They faced constant fear of arrest, brutal persecution in the form of torture and murder, a corrupt, decadent, and wicked Roman government, and condemnation from the Jewish religious authorities of their day. Yet, no matter what they faced, they were joyfully radiant, and by their lives and deaths, they bore witness to a higher order, a kingdom not of this world and its eternal King, that was at once the source of their hope and the object of their intense longing.
They suffered and died for the kingdom of God because they knew Christ in a living way. It was their confidence in his reality, power, and love that inspired them to face the most hellish torments. They weren’t concerned with power, but with goodness. They wanted to be a city set on a hill, a radiant and blazing witness to our Lord and their love for him. To them, the world was but a passing shadow. Their eyes were set on eternity.
In a dark time, we must be lights that shine in the darkness. The world will not be persuaded by slogans, nor will it be converted by shouting and contention. The witness of our lives, our unity and brotherly love, our personal holiness, kindness, gentleness, our mutual concern for one another, and above all our unshakable faith in the reality of Christ—these are the only things to which the world will listen.
In short, seek to attract rather than detract. Seek to show love and sow peace rather than succumb to the spirit of antichrist, which is the spirit of destruction and conflict. This is not the easy way out. It will be tremendously hard. All those who seek to follow this path may suffer, as did our Lord when his enemies nailed him, Love incarnate, to the cross. But this is the way we must follow if we are to be true Christians, true followers of Christ. For where the spirit of the Lord is, there is always and everywhere peace, life, and goodness. Let us then take up our crosses and follow him.
Ubi Caritas, Paulinus of Aquileia, 796 a.d.