As I watch with apprehension the progressive Russian invasion of Crimea in the Ukraine, it moves my heart to journey inwards to gaze upon my own growth and failings. As we rest precipitously on the edge of another World War there hasn’t been a time more needful of the personal internal transformation that fosters love, peace, and respect.
Have you ever stared at a puzzle for hours, but couldn’t figure it out?
It is usually not until we take a break, return to the puzzle, and voila, the answer just pops out. It was there all along, but suddenly, as though emerging from the paper, the solution presents itself. It was in a similar fashion that the fogginess of my own egocentrism cleared away, and I began to see my roommates in a greater depth of understanding and love. I started my friendship with these men somewhat estranged because of ideological differences, but over time the flaws of this approach have become apparent and I have come to see my brothers without the distortion of our differences, but in clarity alongside compassion. I see more clearly their personhood, dignity, and beauty, before all else.
Ideology and religious belief has been the starting point of discord during humanity’s entire recorded history. This is not a condemnation of these necessary acts of the human will, but the basis of a more fundamental question: what is the true root of our conflict? Are some correct when they state that religion is a plague of the modern man’s mind, that it only fuels hatred of those who do not agree? Are strong political views only another reason for us to draw our weapons and re-enact the atrocities witnessed over the last century and further? They do not have to be.
Radical atheism tells us that religion breeds separation and absurdity, all the while fueling its own campaign of intolerance toward religious believers in the marketplace, the social sphere, and the educational system. Marx in his effort to spread communism called religion the “opium of the people;” the suffering caused by his followers, both throughout the past and continuing up until the present, has been so gruesome and comprehensive that it would be impossible to describe it all accurately in words. Many of those who claim to rule with God’s authority have done things so vile we can only shake our heads and ask, why? Fundamentalist Islam is the most poignant modern example. Still more, we have the ongoing list of violence, war, and death as a result of the jostling of different political factions vying for power, freedom, land, resources, and sometimes just plain vanity. The conflict between Russia and the Ukraine highlights this problem with great urgency.
So it appears that no matter which stance you take, you can find someone who used those beliefs for hatred. Is it best then to be non-committal? Is the only safe path to cast your vote in no direction, to live as an isolationist? Many simply dig their heads in the sand, give up, and spend their time in frivolous pursuits, but this is not what the human person is being called to.
Whether it be political, religious, artistic, or intellectual passion, to live our lives immersed in the pursuit of truth, beauty, and compassion, is the heart of what the human person longs for.
Passion can be unpredictable, can make us blurt things out we wish we never said, can cause us to take risks that lead to our embarrassment or rejection. Just as this is true, without passion there would be no great literature, no Micheangelos, no Mother Teresas, no Picassos, and no feminism or political change. The very advent of democracy in ancient Athens would never have come to pass without the flames of the desire for change. Neither passion nor belief can be cast aside, even though they may cause conflict, because they are not the problem: the perversion of these good things is what turns us upon one another.
The things in life which are the most beautiful, when corrupted, can become the most ugly. Passion ordered towards the good is glorious and inspiring, but when our passions become distorted and are used for evil, they become the most perverse thing of all. This raises one final and very important question: if passions can be perverted, how do we prevent it from happening?
One perplexing and uncomfortable word: humility.
God shows us the example of what humility is. Jesus, the Son of God, He who desires our acceptance, invites us so that we might come to understand Him. God’s humility is truly awesome. It defies human reason and logic about hierarchy and service.
The most powerful example of God’s gift to us is revealed when Christ washes the feet of the disciples. Peter, in understanding the amazing reversal of assumptions about relationships, protests, “Is it for You to wash my feet?” Again he attempts to stop Jesus saying, “I will never let You wash my feet.”
To this Jesus replies, “If I do not wash your feet, it means you have no companionship with Me.”
Peter understands, in part, and he replies, “…then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well.”
Humility means seeing the true source of our talents, capacities, and strengths. It means directing our talents towards washing the feet of our brothers and sisters. Any ideology or religious belief, if subjected to the one fundamental condition that it must be used to assist and serve the other, will become perfected through love and that which is lacking within it, will inevitably be cast aside. When our gifts are used for our own ends, for our own selfish desires, for our pursuit of pleasure or power, then passion becomes a slave master, driving us further from peace and truth.
Jesus’ response is initially perplexing, but holds profound meaning. It bears repeating: “If I do not wash your feet, it means you have no companionship with me.” The path to true humility means first having our feet cleansed by the King of the Universe. Only by allowing God to see our faults, to touch our feet, to be in contact with our skin, can we come to know the profound humility that pierces and overcomes all selfish desire.
It burdens my heart when I think of all the times I’ve used my knowledge, skills, or beliefs as weapons wielded against my roommates. Too often has this been the case, and in doing so I’ve made one clear statement: You wash my feet.
I am blessed always by the presence of my roommates. They have shown me time and time again the beauty which lies within them. They have taught me to grow, to be a stronger, bolder man; in effect, they have shown me, one step further, how to love with my whole heart. Most important of all, they have revealed to me the importance and dignity of every human being regardless of their ideological or religious background. Truly, we are human first, and then we act. Our dignity, beauty, and being is primary; this must be recognized if love is to permeate our actions and beliefs.