Tuesday, May 26, 2015

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

[John Paul] lived simply, by deliberate choice. He had neither a bank account nor personal funds, his needs being met by the archdiocese. If a priest or parishioner gave him a gift of money during a parish visitation, he wouldn’t even open the envelope, but gave it away the same day to someone in need –George Weigel*

Zealots on both sides of the Culture Wars believe the main way to transform culture is to get their hands on the levers of political power, or at least to get their hands on those who have political power. The question is, however, do you want power or authority? Do you want power to force your vision upon culture or authority to influence, inspire, and lead?  Power is both rooted in and informed by force. Authority is rooted in morality and informed by love. Power can be seized; authority can only be earned and bestowed. Power can force people to “live this way,” but it only produces slaves. As authority has no desire for slaves, only genuine “converts,” it seeks to persuade and convince, is supported by character and compassion, while maintaining the mindset that the right to influence others is earned.

We read of how John Paul was so instrumental in helping to overthrow communism in Poland and around the world and we think, wow, what a powerful man. Yet, we should remember that his astounding effectiveness did not come through passing down edicts but, rather, through winning people over by the magnetism of his character and by his vision of each human person being created in the image of God. People listened to his teachings because they sensed that there was a man transformed by love to be love.

In his book, “The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries,” sociologist Rodney Stark points out that, among other reasons, it was the care and compassion of the early Christians toward the suffering, diseased, displaced, and poor, that won the masses over to this new religion. These early believers read Christ’s words that in feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, and etc, they were doing so to Him, and took Him at His word. In other words, what helped to bring about the fall of paganism and Emperor Constantine’s embracing of this new faith (at least politically) in only a few centuries was the visible demonstration of God’s love through works of charity. (A quick summary of Stark’s thesis can be found here.)

People are far more prone to listening to and following the lead of those whom they see genuinely caring for them and others, then to those who treat them as pawns on a political chessboard or as mere subjects for propagandizing. This was the how-did-it-happen behind the authority given to the words of John Paul by millions of people around the world. He was “powerful” because he never sought to have power over others, only to be a witness in word and deed to God’s love for the world.

However, not only was he an individual of great kindness and deep compassion, he also organized the churches he led to be and do the same.

In 1950 the communist leadership in Poland banned the Church from any formal outreach via chartable institutions. In 1963, to get around this ban, John Paul II, had each parish establish a Parochial Charity Team, “that included permanent members called ‘parish guardians,’ and volunteers. Their task was to identify and care for the sick and needy … irrespective of religious affiliation; non-Catholics and non-believers were, [he] urged, part of the parish’s responsibility. The teams provided food, medicine, and clothing to the needy, nursed shut-ins in their homes, and carried out extensive home visitation programs.”

While the communist party in Poland exercised power over the people, it was the Christians and, more specifically, John Paul to whom the people listened and followed. Of course, had the impetuous behind the charity been the equivalent of getting-out-the-vote then such authority would never have been bestowed. Acts of charity as a means for attaining or maintaining political power is not “charity”: it is manipulation for the sake of power. Charity has nothing to do with power or propaganda. If true charity does have an agenda, it is only to become love in action.

Next Post: Lessons From a Combatant in the Culture Wars: John Paul II, T Power to Persuade

* 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

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