Monday, January 22, 2024

Prayer, Non-Violence, and the Protection of Human Life

As Christians, our politics must be shaped by the non-violence of the Gospel, which fights against evil while also loving the perpetrators of evil as human persons, made in God’s image, sinners like us in need of experiencing an encounter with Jesus Christ. As I have indicated elsewhere, Christian non-violence is not incompatible with physical force used in necessary defense against violent crime or military aggression. It struggles, however, against the tendency of human adversarial relationships to be defined by the inherent dynamic of material power which seeks its “efficiency” in the reduction of human persons to things. The adversary, the “other,” in every battle against evil remains a person, who as such is worthy of love and our ardent desire that they might be converted and separated from the evils they are perpetrating.

This is a difficult, indeed a heroic disposition of our selves, rooted in the new life we receive through Christ in the Holy Spirit. It’s not a partial life that we can “set aside” when we engage in politics. Human political struggles in this world are inevitably “bent” toward violence because they absolutize the success of a political program even if it requires the degradation of human persons. In defending the common good against widespread injustice, we may sometimes conclude that it is necessary to work temporarily in coalition with political movements that are obscure or that fail in some ways to recognize the full measure of human dignity and instead prioritize the success of their faction. But in such circumstances, we must always be clear about who we are, and not allow our social presence to be reduced by the “logic” or the strategic machinations of any faction. We must resist being “caught up” in the enthusiasm of political idolatries of any kind. We must distinguish ourselves, we must make no compromises with violence, we must always be known by our love.

This in no way diminishes our active struggle, opposition, and resistance to the evils we fight against against in society, and our determination to build up structures that protect human life and human dignity. In today’s world there are abundant social injustices and evils that we cannot ignore. The Catholic Bishops of the United States, with good reason, draw our attention to the sin of abortion in our society. Objectively speaking, the violence of abortion is directed against the most invisible and defenseless of human persons, and it brings division to one of the most vulnerable and essential of human relationships: the relationship between mother and child.

This is why Pope Francis, speaking in particular about the dignity of unborn human persons, insists that "a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. Human beings are ends in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems. Once this conviction disappears, so do solid and lasting foundations for the defense of human rights, which would always be subject to the passing whims of the powers that be" (Pope Francis).

So we are invited to prayer and penance, today and every day. It is a good reminder for us of the fundamental significance of own interior life, of this hidden, grace-empowered dimension of our humanity.

Prayer and penance are the irreplaceable means that we possess, as sharers in Christ's royal priesthood through baptism, in the struggle against our own sins and the sins of the world. They are the means whereby Jesus's redeeming sacrifice "extends" its human proximity through all space and time, to transform the world. And these means are always available within that immediate and specific piece of the world—of history—that has been entrusted to us.

Through our prayer and sacrifice, God's love draws closer to the anguish and destruction of human violence, to initiate and nurture (often in unseen and unheralded ways) the process of conversion, of the change of hearts, of forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing. Here, then, is the soul of whatever other kind of political or social activism we judge to be prudent and necessary or helpful to build up the common good, to work toward protecting the dignity of every human person and healing the wounds of every kind of violence.

Prayer and sacrifice (which can be a voluntary penance or even the embrace, in faith and love, of the unavoidable sufferings of the present moment) are "activity" that anyone can carry out. They do not replace our specific social and personal responsibilities toward our brothers and sisters in justice and charity. Rather, prayer and sacrifice remain always the vivifying center of the love with which we carry out all our other actions—because we are thus united in our own hearts (which are the origin of our freedom and love) to Christ's crucified love.

We must not allow our actions and our hearts to lose this focus, because the love of Jesus is the only hope for humanity.

Prayer and sacrifice are also a kind of "power" that cannot be taken away from us, no matter how poor and oppressed we are, regardless of sickness, pain, or weakness, in whatever limitations we find ourselves.

This does not, however, give any excuse to those who hold human power to neglect their responsibilities toward those in need. Not only charity, but also justice and the proper use of political power are the concern of all of us and require our vigilance. We are all responsible for cultivating justice, peace, generosity, and community among the persons and in the places we find ourselves, within our particular circumstances with their demands and possibilities, and as members of a larger society. 
We must always do what we can to love those who have been entrusted to us, and each of us is responsible before God for discerning the concrete ways he calls us to be involved in the various levels of political and social life. Prayer is not a substitute for the more "external" work of seeking justice and mercy in human law and civil affairs, protecting the weak, or building up our families, communities, living environments, peoples, nations, and the international community. But prayer is what carries forward all these good works, and it is also what always remains possible even when no other kind of work is possible.

Prayer and sacrificial abandonment of ourselves to the transforming power of Christ are essential elements of the path of grace through which we fulfill our Christian vocation. They also constitute the foundation of Christian Non-violence as a “force” (the supernatural “soul force” of redeeming love) that can impact, change, and enliven from within the course of temporal structures and events according to God’s will. 

Prayer, of course, is more profound than the whole of this world. But because the Incarnation touches everything human, we can say in a sense that prayer is the most fundamental political action. It is also the most "democratic" in that it is always available to everyone, because the Spirit of Jesus is at work in every person's heart. Prayer has the highest aim, in that it directs itself to the One who can do all things, the God of mercy who loves us.