Shortly after September 11, 2001, a friend told me something that sounded to me like this: that John Paul II had remarked that whenever we are confronted with evil and recognize it as such, it is a call from God to personal conversion. Try as I might, I can't find where or in what context he said it (and it is possible that I misheard or misunderstood my friend, who has since passed away), but this insight struck me, and still strikes me, as something profound and powerful. When I am confronted with an instance of injustice, cruelty, heartlessness, or even petty unkindness, I sometimes (sometimes eventually) remember that whatever feelings have been called up in me are a concrete sign that there is something in me that needs to be examined.
Often what bothers or frightens me most, or even calls up revulsion in me, makes a powerful impression because somehow I recognize that it is calling out to a shortcoming in myself, some evil in me. So, in front of the attacks of September 11, I tried to ask myself what it was that I needed to face about myself. For me, personally, I saw that I needed to be more open to the great mystery of life and also to the great mystery of other people's needs, even if they seem inscrutable to me.
Now, what about this icky feeling I have as I read the accounts of immigrants who have had their lives and their families torn apart? And how about the sense of painful recognition when I read about the diminished voice of Catholics in the public sphere?
Jesus didn't give us a handbook of practical approaches to solving social and political problems. Perhaps his most explicit pronouncement on a political question was, "Render unto God...and render unto Caesar...," an answer that provokes more questions. When confronted with the greatest injustice ever perpetrated, Peter jumped to Jesus' defense, only to be rebuked by him: "Put your sword into its scabbard..." (in John).
If I am reading these scriptures correctly, then it seems possible to say that there is something worse than political injustice, the oppression of the weak, slavery, or even outright murder. There is a sort of dream of personal efficacy and success that could lead me slowly away from the mystery of the cross and all it demands of me. I sometimes imagine that if I could only cogitate with enough determination and stamina, I could see my way through to a victory over the designs of evil men whose thoughts are all destruction. Then, either my determination or my stamina fails me. And that's truly the best possible outcome!
We depend on God for everything. So what are we supposed to render unto him? What can we possibly render? I think there is only one thing we have that we can truly say is ours to give: our freedom. Our freedom is the source and product of our fecundity in this world. It is the talent of gold that can actually multiply or remain buried, depending on our poverty of spirit. It is a birthright that we could squander in a distant land before landing among the pigs.
Or, consider Mary and Joseph's circumstances when Caesar Augustus decreed that "the whole world" should be enrolled. Luke's Gospel says simply, "And Joseph too went up from Galilee..." What Caesar decreed was evil, and to obey this decree was to participate in humiliation and unjust taxation by a cruel foreign power. There had to have been Jews who grumbled, who resisted, but Joseph and Mary did not. And it was precisely through this unjust decree that a great prophecy was fulfilled and Christ was thus born in the city of David. Why should it have happened this way and not some other way? God has his reasons, and I want to attend to them.
So, the plight of the displaced who have found their way to this country, and the fact that the public sphere is closed to certain voices leads me right back to where I was standing after September 11: I need to be more open to the great mystery of life and the great mystery of others' needs.