Saturday, March 26, 2011

Pace and Pacem

I've been reading Mark Twain's autobiography, in which he strives to be fearlessly frank in his representations of the people and practices of his era. I just read this morning about the new phenomenon in his day of "author readings," generally whole afternoons given to a steady flow of authors reading from their recent works. Twain describes it the way a citizen of London might some forty years hence describe the German blitzkrieg--unrelenting, ferocious, merciless, with nonstop droning as a sonic accompaniment.


It's taking me significantly longer than I anticipated to make my way through Twain's autobiography. I like it, but I must admit I'm a bit flummoxed by the pace of it. I can't, of course, blame the author; nor am I particularly inclined to blame myself. No, instead I blame society.

In the hundred years that passed between Twain's death and his autobiography's publication, things around these here parts have changed quite a bit. Reading is no longer the dominant entertainment; it's been replaced by radio, then film, then television, then angry birds. The nonfiction we read offers a takeaway per page spread or suffers our wrath; the fiction we read offers explosions or neck bites every other pericope or we move on to something more titillating. Even Twain's lovely daughter Susy - who is frozen forever in our cultural memory as an eleven-year-old devotee of her father and, her writing pedigree and aspirations notwithstanding, couldn't spell to save her life - would be aghast at how impatient we've all become. That's right, I said it: nineteenth-century junior highers were more centered and at peace than today's typical adult.

And while I would not be so naively nostalgic as to suggest that the nineteenth century (which gave us the U.S. Civil War, among other bloodbaths) was a period of peace, I would suggest that our hyperactivity in the present does not lend itself to the calm, reasoned settling of disputes, at the local or the geopolitical level. I read this morning of a fellow who murdered his neighbor because the neighbor's dog had pooped on his lawn. (I don't know the details because I didn't bother to read the whole article. The headline held my attention only for a moment.) We don't have time to be patient; we are too hot-blooded for peace. As Pope John XXIII put it in his encyclical Pacem in Terris, " One would think that the relationships that bind men together could only be governed by force."


Pacem in Terris was issued in 1963 as an appeal to peace in the face of conflicts across the world, from anticolonial revolutions in Africa and Southeast Asia to the Cold War conflict among the superpowers. It was published five days before Martin Luther King wrote his letter from the Birmingham jail to white clergy who wanted him to calm down and shut up. The themes of the two documents are pretty similar, actually: they assert rights and call for a sense of duty commensurate with those rights. I've quoted King's letter here and here; here's more from the Pope:

The right to live involves the duty to preserve one's life; the right to a decent standard of living, the duty to live in a becoming fashion; the right to be free to seek out the truth, the duty to devote oneself to an ever deeper and wider search for it.

The twentieth century - particularly its last several decades - wound up being primarily about rights. We're generally better off for it, with whole countries and very nearly continents shaking off the shackles of oppression, with whole races finally having their voices heard and their humanity dignified. But along the way we seem to have lost sight of duty - the duty that attends to the gift of rights we are given by birth, the duty that an assumption of equal rights for all commits us to by default. By the end of the twentieth century, we saw no irony in singing at the top of our lungs, "You gotta fight for your right to party!" Pope John was prescient when he reminded the world,

Human society, as We here picture it, demands that men be guided by justice, respect the rights of others and do their duty. It demands, too, that they be animated by such love as will make them feel the needs of others as their own, and induce them to share their goods with others, and to strive in the world to make all men alike heirs to the noblest of intellectual and spiritual values. Nor is this enough; for human society thrives on freedom, namely, on the use of means which are consistent with the dignity of its individual members, who, being endowed with reason, assume responsibility for their own actions.

And so, dearest sons and brothers, we must think of human society as being primarily a spiritual reality.

So we have the duty to actively pursue the rights of our neighbors. And yet even that isn't enough; we also have the duty to be patient, to find a sustainable pace. John quotes Pope Pius XII:

Hotheadedness was never constructive; it has always destroyed everything. It has inflamed passions, but never assuaged them. It sows no seeds but those of hatred and destruction. Far from bringing about the reconciliation of contending parties, it reduces men and political parties to the necessity of laboriously redoing the work of the past, building on the ruins that disharmony has left in its wake."

John approaches his conclusion with the importance of resting in peace, by which we become channels of God's peace:

The world will never be the dwellingplace of peace, till peace has found a home in the heart of each and every man, till every man preserves in himself the order ordained by God to be preserved.

I never read John's encyclical when I was a kid. I did, of course, read the more impatient-friendly bumper sticker penned by Pope Paul VI: "If you want peace, work for justice." I also later read the less magisterial but still fast-paced bumper sticker "No Jesus, No Peace. Know Jesus, Know Peace." (See what they did there?) Given how elusive peace has become, both within us and among us, I think we might be due for another aphorism to chew on:

If you want world peace, work for inner peace.
If you want inner peace, work for world peace.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This was (dare I say it?) profound. This boy must have good genes.