Mercy in Anxious Times
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
These are anxious times. We have witnessed orchestrated acts of terror so senseless it boggles the mind. Nearly 65 million people are displaced worldwide and there seems to exist no will or agreement to resettle them. Mass shootings driven by hatred, despair, or mental instability seem to have become more commonplace. A U.S. Supreme Court driven by abortion ideology has thrown-out decades of legal precedent. Never before have the presumptive nominees for president been so disliked by the American public. Christians and other religious minorities continue to face persecution and martyrdom around the world. Ideologically zealous bureaucracies are forcing people to embrace “gender philosophies” contrary to their religious beliefs and common sense. Some political candidates seek a return of the use of torture. Others support the use of drone strikes on civilians.
It is enough to think that we are living in W.B. Yeats’ The Second Coming:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
But we’ve been here before. And we will be here again.
Yeats wrote his poem immediately after World War I, a war so violent, deadly, senseless, and sudden that it shook the Western world to its core. A mere twenty years later we experienced another world war.
How do we, as Christians, respond when troubling and chaotic times? Do we withdraw from the world, judging it irredeemable? Do we embrace the changes, gradually or quickly, “going with the flow” enough so we can still make a difference elsewhere? Do we let our anxieties and passions overtake us and join a worldly movement fighting in reaction to the changes and chaos? Do we let our resistance become hatred of this world?
St. Paul instructs us to “have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.” (Phil. 4:6) This does not mean, however, that we should withdraw from society and only pray. We are social creatures created to serve God and others. We serve others not only through individual acts of charity, but also through social and government institutions.
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church has this to say about times of trouble:
“When human authority goes beyond the limits willed by God, it makes itself a deity and demands absolute submission; it becomes the Beast of the Apocalypse, an image of the power of the imperial persecutor “drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” (Rev 17:6). The Beast is served by the “false prophet” (Rev 19:20), who, with beguiling signs, induces people to adore it. This vision is a prophetic indication of the snares used by Satan to rule men, stealing his way into their spirit with lies. But Christ is the Victorious Lamb who, down the course of human history, overcomes every power that would make it absolute. Before such a power, Saint John suggests the resistance of the martyrs; in this way, believers bear witness that corrupt and satanic power is defeated, because it no longer has any authority over them.” (382)
Three points come to mind when reading this passage. First, it relies heavily on the Book of Revelation, which was written during a time when persecuted Christians were tempted to lose hope. Second, the Beast of the Apocalypse, is not necessarily a ruler or world government. It could be a human-made ideology, like many of the false ideologies from the left and the right popular today. Third, the lesson is that, by the cross and resurrection, Christ is victorious and overcomes every contrary power.
The Compendium goes on to note that we humans must perceive these truths and seek to fulfill, in social life, “truth, justice, freedom and solidarity that bring peace.” We cannot withdraw. Nor can we succumb to false man-made “solutions.” Finally, we cannot be overcome by anxiety or despair. Mercy is not served by any of those reactions.
Ten years after Yeats’ Second Coming, T.S. Eliot wrote Ash Wednesday. A passage of the poem expresses this Christian idea of being in the world, caring for the world, but not being of the world, all the while embracing St. Paul’s call to prayer. He wrote:
Teach us to care and not to care Teach us to sit still.
Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.