Monday, December 14, 2015

Doing good in a bad world by Fr. Stephen Freeman

Doing Good in a Bad World

fix itA bad man cannot make a good world.
“Something must be done!” If there were a possible slogan for the modern world, this would be it. It’s power lies in its truth. Some things are tragic and unjust, broken and dysfunctional. Any analysis that suggested that nothing should be done will fall on deaf ears – and should. However, this is where the great temptation of modernity begins. Something must be done. But what?
Modernity is filled with solutions and America is the land of solutions. Every American is a mechanic at heart. Our fiercest and most enduring arguments are about how to fix things: more of this, less of that or less of this and more of that.
The first great temptation of modernity is the illusion of power, effective power. The power to do one thing is not the power to do everything. For every exercise of power towards a particular end, a host of unexpected and unplanned new problems arise. Many times, we fix things only to discover that the solution is worse than the disease. We’re our own worst enemies.
The lure of control is almost irresistible. Every anxiety begs for the means to control the object of its fear. And though we can do many things, we can never do everything. Most often, our failures and catastrophes operate beyond our intentions and just outside our reach.
Christ’s own example stands as a contradiction to our controlling urges. For though, as God, He clearly could have done all things, He does very little. His entire ministry takes place within a radius of 100 miles. At its completion, He had amassed only a few hundred disciples. He was largely silent on the topic of Roman power, and said little to nothing about social structures. Though He healed a few, most of the sick remained sick. We hear the cry of the New York Daily News, “God Isn’t Fixing This!”
Of course, the underlying assumption of the Daily News (and most of the world) is that someone should. If God’s not going to do it, then we will! Others conclude that God could do it but that for some reason He wants us to do it instead. And others still will say God doesn’t do it because there is no God.
All of these responses are predicated on the belief that something can be done and that therefore something must be done (I am not thinking specifically about the problem of terrorism – the “this” that God isn’t fixing could be almost anything). None of the responses considers the possibility that God is, in fact, doing something, but something quite unexpected and unlooked for.
The Christian faith teaches that man himself is the problem. It does not teach that human beings are evil, but that we are broken, flawed and misdirected in our lives. The human project has gone astray. Christ Himself is the first answer: He is the New Man.
St. Seraphim of Sarov famously said, “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.” He cannot be accused of doing nothing. He poured his life out in prayer and fasting and acquired the Spirit of Peace. As such, he became the salvation of thousands of souls.
Christ once said to His disciples, “The poor you have with you always.” He could be taken (incorrectly) to mean, “There is nothing you can do about the poor.” But it is the case that more has been done for the poor in His name than for any other reason. But the poor remain. They remain because they live in the midst of the problem: broken, flawed and misdirected humanity. Were poverty to disappear in an instant, it would return quite swiftly. Its causes are not primarily economic: they are existential.
Christian living in the modern world is an art. Its heart rightly cares for the world and even broods over its problems. But that art is no greater than Christ. We cannot achieve as bad men what Christ Himself did not seek as the Good Man. For, in the end, perfection through control can only work through control. Absolute perfection means absolute control. This becomes the very heart of the demonic. It is, of course, true, that we seek only a relative improvement and not absolute perfection. This is something that we can, from time to time, actually do. But the greater its vision, the greater the need for control. The art of doing good requires humility.
This is equally true of treating evil. We cannot rid the world of evil, no matter its form. We will not destroy terrorism. We can seek to limit its scope and its effects. The drive to eradicate it completely would inevitably create either more terror, or consequences still unforeseen (just as the present terrorism has itself been an unforeseen consequence).
This is especially true in our personal lives. Many people in the contemporary world substitute opinions and sentiments about problems elsewhere for actual action anywhere. This is an imaginary existence in which we give ourselves over to nothingness. It is primarily driven by political rhetoric of the right and the left and is of very little consequence.
But true action is deeply important. Faith without works is dead.
True action is begotten with integrity. Modernity wants to make the world a better place. Christian action recognizes that I, myself, am the first of all problems. If nothing changes about me, then nothing true has happened. It is this that St. Seraphim describes as “acquiring the Spirit of Peace.” Christ describes it in this manner:
And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother,`Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Mat 7:3-5)
Many treat this saying as an admonition to avoid judging others. But it is also a description of true action. I can aid my brother with the speck in his eye, but only if I have dealt with the larger problem of my own plank. Sin begets sin. Only righteousness heals. The world needs healing, not fixing.
“Making the world a better place” is deeply arrogant speech from the unrighteous. A righteous elder once said, “I need go no further than my own heart to find the source of all violence in the world.”
It is there, in my own heart, that something must be done.
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