Regarding the recent terrible events in Charlottesville, Virginia, Archbishop Charles Chaput wrote: “If we want a different kind of country in the future, we need to start today with a conversion in our own hearts, and an insistence on the same in others.” Part of that conversion requires not merely accepting, but embracing a central truth of Christianity: Loving God means loving others.
Scripture could not be clearer about this; in 1 John 4:20-21, we read:
If a man boasts of loving God, while he hates his own brother, he is a liar. He has seen his brother, and has no love for him; what love can he have for the God he has never seen? No, this is the divine command that has been given us; the man who loves God must be one who loves his brother as well.”
In 1 John 2:9, we also read: “He who claims enlightenment, and all the while hates his brother, is in darkness still. It is the man who loves his brother that lives in light; no fear of stumbling haunts him.”
When a man hates another, that hatred creates a haunting eclipse between a man and God. But Scripture also informs us that loving our brother removes obstacles between us and God, allowing us to experience the brilliant rays of God’s grace. It seems there is a grace given to those who truly love their brother—for those who treat everyone as their brother. It’s important to remember that as we consider Archbishop Chaput’s spiritual instruction.
Archbishop Chaput advises us to take two steps: first, work toward a “conversion in our own hearts,” and second, insist “on the same in others.” Too often, it is the second that proves much easier than the first. Many of us look at the world and wonder how great things might be if only others would change. No doubt, we need to work toward justice and promote charity; as Catholic citizens, we recognize a moral duty to work for justice for all. The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the several social encyclicals of the Church are clear and specific regarding the moral responsibilities of citizenship, with the goal of furthering society along the path of justice, especially concerning the poor and the oppressed.
But while the desire to change society seems almost universal among men, much rarer—and sometimes much more difficult—is the desire to change oneself.
“Changing society” can be an abstraction that might have little to do with how we conduct our personal lives. For years, I have been involved in the political process in some fashion, whether it has been studying Catholic political philosophy, attending political conventions, volunteering to make phone calls, or writing speeches. In doing all this, I hope that I have done some important work. But at times, while pursuing this work, I left some personal relationships un-nurtured and un-repaired. I haven’t forgiven others fast enough or completely enough, nor have I made myself terribly easy to forgive. I haven’t loved my brother enough; thus, I haven’t loved God enough. And so it strikes me that to answer one of Archbishop Chaput’s counsels without the other is incomplete and ultimately false.
Today in our world, the business of evil is lacking neither supply nor demand. As Christians, we need to face that evil and respond. As Romans 12:21 instructs us: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good,” and that process begins by loving others. When that seems very difficult to do, it is helpful to remember that those who try our patience or offend us are not only our brothers and sisters, but that they are—as C. S. Lewis here observes in The Weight of Glory—immortals:
You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations— these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit— immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously— no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner— no mere tolerance, or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses.