If we say that we are in union with God while we are living in darkness, we are lying because we are not living the truth. But if we live our lives in the light, as God is in the light, we are in union with one another and the blood of Jesus, God’s Son, purifies us from all sin.
1 John 1: 6-7
Today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents. The familiarity of the story can, unfortunately, shield us from the horror and barbarism it contains. How is it possible that Herod, in light of his own self-interest and addiction to power and control, can wantonly massacre “all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under”? And yet, we know that throughout the world and its history humanity shows itself repeatedly capable of such inhumane and barbarous acts.
Adrian van Kaam speaks of two ways of our living out our humanity. He terms these the distinctively human and the typically human. As typically human, we live and act in service to our pre-transcendent selves. Our dispositions and our acts are determined by our will to personal gratification and ambition, by the will to pleasure and the will to power. These drives in us become the source and the motivation of our behavior in the world and toward one another. When Herod perceives his power threatened, he does whatever is required to preserve it, mindless of his actions’ effects on others. The typically human perspective is narrow and insular. It reacts based solely on our own needs and desires. All else exists merely in service to those.
The distinctively human, on the other hand, is a way of living that is informed by the humanly distinctive capacity of spirit. As spirit, we know ourselves to be participants in a communion with all that is, to be sharers in the life of God who has created all in love. As distinctively human, we give form to our life and to our world in light of the inspiration and promptings of the Spirit in our spirit. We live and act in service to “the true, the good, and the beautiful.” “But if we live our lives in the light, as God is in the light, we are in union with one another and the blood of Jesus, God’s Son, purifies us from all sin.”
These distinctions are not distinctions between persons but within each of us. The great danger we always face is that while being in darkness ourselves we project the darkness onto others. “If we say that we are in union with God while we are living in darkness, we are lying because we are not living the truth.” In the United States we have just lived through, or, perhaps more honestly are still living through, one of the most debased and discouraging political campaigns of our history. In truth, however, our culture has been building toward this event for a very long time. Increasingly we have come to see every social and political issue as a binary choice. The goal of each side is to enhance its power and to bring down the other. It is to see itself as “the light” and the other as “the darkness.” So, to work together toward peace in the Middle East is not the primary goal; it is rather to keep the “other side” from accomplishing it. To reduce poverty, enhance equality, and improve access to equal justice is not the motivation, but rather it is to make sure the other fails so that our side can increase its own power and wealth.
As typically human, we shall always tend to the tribal and xenophobic. The greater our own darkness, the more we shall project that darkness onto the foreign and alien other. The first letter of John does not mince words. “If we say that we are in union with God while we are living in darkness, we are lying . . . .” We are lying to others, but mostly we are lying to ourselves and to God. In truth, the dispositions of Herod are not far from any of us.
Until being surpassed by China in the last year, the United States has for years been largely, and really primarily, responsible for the pollution of the earth’s atmosphere that is rapidly becoming a threat to life on the planet. The results, including the horrific effects on the lives of so many people, especially the poorest, are present and indisputable. Yet, our demand to sustain our present and growing levels of affluence and consumption continues to deter our seeing the effects of our way of life on others, and especially on our children and those still unborn. We still do not recognize adequately the pain that living out of our need for pleasure and power inflicts on God’s children throughout the world. We even seem mindless of the future of our own children and grandchildren and beyond.
We have adopted a relativistic way of living, speaking, and acting whereby we see any word or action as an equally valid opinion, a “given perspective.” The first letter of John from which we read today, however, challenges our relativism. It speaks of lying and the truth, of darkness and light, and of the deadliness of failing to recognize when we are living in darkness. We live in the dark every time we choose our own comfort over the well being of others and our earth. We live in the dark every time our own will to power dominates our will to service. We live in the dark every time we take God’s world and those who are in it to be mere objects of our control and manipulation, rather than recognize our “union with one another.” In every corner of the earth, in our day as in Jesus’ day, the Holy Innocents are suffering, in part at our own hand.
Perhaps the recognition that will lead to conversion for us must begin by weeping for our children. As Matthew’s gospel quotes the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, / sobbing and loud lamentation; / Rachel weeping for her children, / and she would not be consoled, / since they were no more.” (Matthew 2: 18) As distinctively human, we live our “union with one another” so that we know in our own very being the suffering of our children. As Pope Francis says, our care and active concern for what we leave our children is the very measure of our own worth and dignity as human beings. We shall not eliminate suffering. Yet, we need not, in our sin and darkness, contribute to it. In the new year, may we awaken to the darkness in us and repent of it. May we cease lying to ourselves and instead opt for the truth, however difficult that may be. It is painful to live in the awareness of our own darkness that living in the light brings, but it is in this light “that Jesus, God’s son, purifies us from all sin.” We fail to work together because in our will to pleasure and will to power we refuse to realize that we are not separate and in competition but rather one, all children of the same God. We suffer together and we prosper together. May we come to care more for living the truth and doing good than for our own power and pleasure.
What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up? This question not only concerns the environment in isolation; the issue cannot be approached piecemeal. When we ask ourselves what kind of world we want to leave behind, we think in the first place of its general direction, its meaning and its values. Unless we struggle with these deeper issues, I do not believe that our concern for ecology will produce significant results. But if these issues are courageously faced, we are led inexorably to ask other pointed questions: What is the purpose of our life in this world? Why are we here? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the earth have of us? It is no longer enough, then, simply to state that we should be concerned for future generations. We need to see that what is at stake is our own dignity. Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us. The issue is one which dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn.
Pope Francis, Laudato Si, #160