Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Lessons From a Combatant in the Culture Wars: John Paul II and the Power of Indirect Witness

The confrontation between the Church and Poland’s communist masters was a constant war, not a sporadic set of skirmishes. It was always “we” and “they,” “us,” and “them,” for as Pope John Paul II later put it, “the communists tried to be accepted, not just as a political authority, but as a moral authority, as an expression of the Polish nation.” The principle obstacle to that was the Church, which “the regime tried to pretend … did not exist.” The confrontation could not be understood in conventional Western political terms. This was a non-adjudicable struggle. Somebody was going to win and somebody was going to lose. -- George Weigel*

Growing up under the Nazi occupation of Poland and, then, as a priest during the rule of Stalinism, John Paul II was familiar with being a combatant in culture wars. (From the age of 19 until he was 58 years old, he lived under totalitarian regimes.) Certainly, he knew that his battle was essentially a spiritual one. Yet he also understood that culture is an expression of a particular faith and, therefore, of religion. Accordingly, he adopted the tactic of resistance through culture. “This was not a man consumed by history. This was a man determined to shape history through culture.” This was part of his genius and one of the main reasons why he and the Polish Church were so successful in overthrowing communism.

As an artist—he was a poet, playwright, and stage actor—he knew the transformative power of words, symbols, and imagery. Not only did he write plays and poetry that indirectly but powerfully express his convictions regarding human dignity, the purpose of freedom, and the nature of God’s fatherhood, but also frequently met with artists of all mediums for conversation and mutual support. (He also maintained friendships and private correspondence with philosophers, scientists, and historians.)

Tyrants such as Hitler have always understood the power of art in subjugating a culture. He knew that humanity and art are inextricably wedded, so he destroyed museums, plundered private art collections, and ransacked libraries. Destroy the culture, erase the heritage, and the way is paved for domination. Resisting such a culture of death – not only negatively by “saving the art,” but, also, positively in supporting artists and sharing his own artistic creations – was something John Paul II saw as critical to his Christian witness and advocating Christian humanism.

His witness, however, extended beyond the arts, for, as Weigel noted, the bishop of Krakow also believed his calling included being a “custodian of a heritage” and as “the defender of the people of Krakow.” While the communist leaders saw this as so much twaddle, “For him, it was a living, breathing tradition in which he was immersed in his home and his cathedral. As he lived that tradition, he helped provide symbols for his people’s rising dissatisfaction with the status quo. Events and struggles, in other contexts, would have been mere matters of a zoning restriction or a parade permit—like the building of new churches, or the holding of public processions—became emblematic of a rising cultural resistance to the communist monopoly on political power, the communist expropriation of Polish history, and the communist ‘pulverization of the fundamental uniqueness of each human person.’”

“Resistance through culture.”
“Custodian of a heritage.”
“Defender of the people.”

I remember my initial experience of reading these descriptions and thinking not only how insightful and wise he was but also how applicable these metaphors are to all of us who wish to leave a legacy to our worlds: a legacy that pays appropriate honor to Goodness, Beauty, and Truth, to Faith, Hope, and Love, to the fundamental uniqueness of each human person, and to the heritage our nation’s Founders created and passed on. Consider how you, with your particular talents and opportunities, may both resist the culture of death and advocate a culture that is life affirming. Consider how and where you will defend people in your world, wherever their dignity is being denied.  

Culture Combatants quite often believe the only way to engage the advocates of the culture of death are through direct confrontation (aka, mouth-to-mouth combat). History is replete, however, with evidence that, quite often, a far more effective means of success is through what John Paul II referred to as our “indirect witness” via “the sanctification of all of life, which [can] not be divided neatly into containers labeled ‘religious’ and ‘other.’” It is the indirect “other” of individuals, families, laborers-professionals, artists, and educators, whose attitudes, deeds, words, and work, embody Goodness, Beauty, and the Love of God for all human persons, whose lights dispel the darkness.

Next post: Lessons From a Combatant in the Culture Wars: John Paul II and a Life of Charity

* All quotes from Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II, by George Weigel, Cliff Street Books, 1999

Copyright, Monte E Wilson, 2015 

Monte’s book, Legendary Leadership
For coaching, go here

No comments:

Post a Comment