This is an American political essay that isn’t really about politics. It’s about monsters. Stay with me.
My country is dealing with several simultaneous natural disasters, while we haven’t yet recovered from the man-made disaster of a few weeks ago in Charlottesville. Nazis marched, people protested, and antifa terrorists joined that protest. Violent extremists from the far left fought back against violent extremists from the far right, and the nonviolent were beaten and killed, and then blamed for the violence. Then our president boldly stepped up to the podium and poured fuel on the flames.
A complicated situation quickly became incomprehensible. People don’t like incomprehensibility, so they made it simple. I saw friends allying themselves with populations they would have fled from in revulsion not a year ago, simply because it was easier than saying, “This is complicated.” I saw colleagues defending and making excuses for white supremacists and for terrorists. I saw previously careful, nuanced thinkers behave as if the evening news was a fairytale of good vs. evil; and I saw them condemning everyone who didn’t do the same.
Then a friend made a comment about all these debates and strife, and it clarified some things for me—not only about politics, but about strife and turmoil in general. She said:
Which should concern you more: white supremacists or antifa? I think the answer depends on where you stand on the political spectrum. If you’re broadly left-leaning, worry about antifa. If right-leaning, fret over white nationalists. Worry more about your own team’s monsters, and what needs to be done to control them.
That really is the only way to address tangles like the one we find ourselves in. Whether the two sides were, in fact, equal opposites doesn’t even matter. Most people simply made things easy on themselves by assigning all the blame to one side, making the remaining side blameless.
Well, there have only been two blameless people in the whole, entire history of people, and neither one of them turned up in Charlottesville last month. The rest of us need to do exactly what my friend suggested: Look to ourselves. Prod our own weak spots. Shore up our own faltering foundations. It’s true in politics, it’s true in culture wars, and it’s true within individual souls.
One of the side effects of becoming an extremist is that you assume everyone else is, too. Once you get that painful splinter in your eye, all you can see is the brightest of brights and the darkest of darks. And once you identify someone else as the problem, the source of darkness, it excuses you from even looking at yourself, much less changing yourself.
This kind of thinking is directly contrary to the Gospels. Like it or not, Jesus said again and again that we must look to our own souls first. There are no exceptions. If we refuse to convert our own hearts, then everything else we do is useless. It doesn’t matter how wrong everyone else is. Our business is ourselves.
Mother Teresa, whose feast day we just marked, knew a thing or two about changing the world said. Mother Teresa said: “If you want to change the world, go out home and love your family.” Likewise, if you want to root out evil from the world, go home and root it out of your own heart. Most of us are not in a position to change law, make policy, or codify doctrine. We simply aren’t. Most of us have more than enough to worry about in our own homes. Most of us need to worry more about our own team’s monsters.
Here’s how: If you’re against abortion, examine what pro-lifers are doing to make abortion unthinkable. If you’re anti gay marriage, examine what defenders of marriage are doing to show that marriage is worth defending. If you fear Islam, consider how well you follow the teachings of your own faith. If you preach tolerance and respect, review how well you tolerate and respect the rigid and the closed-minded. If you value mercy and forgiveness, ask yourself how ready you are to forgive the people who despise you.
All of this is straight from the Gospel. Look inside first. Control your own monsters. It is only on this that we will be judged by God.