An Unquiet City

An Unquiet City January 26, 2020

I’m a member of a Facebook group devoted to St. Therese of Lisieux, and there were a couple of recent posts which were, or could be easily read as, partisan political posts.

Those posts quickly – and predictably – became a morass of accusations and assuming bad faith and all the rest, and I can’t imagine there is anyone reading this post that doesn’t know what I mean.

There are genuinely important and valid issues to discuss at this point in the history of the United States.

This post isn’t about those.

It is about the spiritual danger posed to those who participate too readily in the extreme, tribal polarization that besets our country – in fact, most of the Western world – at this moment.

It should be no secret to anyone who’s read my past posts on this blog that I’m interested in politics, and that I have written about politics seen through the lens of my faith.

There are, again, important, consequential things worth discussing there.

But, again, this post is not about that.

I’m more left than right politically, and I’ve read and been horrified by comment-box suggestions – sometimes joking, sometimes “joking” – on lefty political blogs that some degree of genocide might make defeating your opponents easier.

I believe that a significant factor in the current tribal warfare is a sort of collective egotism possessed by and within each tribe – a sense that you are either With Us or else are Comprehensively Wrong.

In David’s post last month, he wrote:

When compassion and love are absent, Merton insisted, actions that are superficially nonviolent tend to mask deep hostility, contempt and the desire to defeat and humiliate an opponent. As he wrote in one of his most profound and insightful letters:
“One of the problematic questions about nonviolence is the inevitable involvement of hidden aggressions and provocations. I think this is especially true when there are … elements that are not spiritually developed. It is an enormously subtle question, but we have to consider the fact that, in its provocative aspect, nonviolence may tend to harden opposition and confirm people in their righteous blindness. It may even in some cases separate men out and drive them in the other direction, away from us and away from peace. This of course may be (as it was with the prophets) part of God’s plan. A clear separation of antagonists…. [But we must] always direct our action toward opening people’s eyes to the truth, and if they are blinded, we must try to be sure we did nothing specifically to blind them.
“Yet there is that danger: the danger one observes subtly in tight groups like families and monastic communities, where the martyr for the right sometimes thrives on making his persecutors terribly and visibly wrong. He can drive them in desperation to be wrong, to seek refuge in the wrong, to seek refuge in violence…. In our acceptance of vulnerability … we play [on the guilt of the opponent]. There is no finer torment. This is one of the enormous problems of our time … all this guilt and nothing to do about it except finally to explode and blow it all out in hatreds — race hatreds, political hatreds, war hatreds. We, the righteous, are dangerous people in such a situation…. We have got to be aware of the awful sharpness of truth when it is used as a weapon, and since it can be the deadliest weapon, we must take care that we don’t kill more than falsehood with it. In fact, we must be careful how we “use” truth, for we are ideally the instruments of truth and not the other way around.”

Merton wrote elsewhere of where egotism and selfishness leads (if unrepented), and I believe it can be just as applicable to participants in our current tribal comflicts as to individual narcissists:

What is the “world” that Christ would not pray for, and of which He said that His disciples were in it but not of it? The world is the unquiet city of those who live for themselves and are therefore divided against one another in a struggle that cannot end, for it will go on eternally in hell. It is the city of those who are fighting for possession of limited things and for the monopoly of goods and pleasures that cannot be shared by all. There is only one true flight from the world; it is not an escape from conflict, anguish and suffering, but the flight from disunity and separation, to unity and peace in the love of other men.

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