Moral Reform and Christ

Twenty-fifth Sunday B

Beloved: Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice. … Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from?
Is it not from your passions that make war within your members
? (James 3:16, 4:1)

What precisely are the roots of disorder and all the “foul practices” in any human society? The Apostle James does not hesitate to identify the true roots of all such disorder and evil in human society as jealousy, selfishness, ambition, unbridled human passions, covetousness, and envy in the human heart. In other words, the roots of the evil in every human society are found not primarily in institutions themselves but in the hearts of its people. Economic, governmental, and social institutions may indeed contribute to such evils, but that is because they themselves are corrupted by the sins and sinful attitudes that flow from human hearts. This is the deep wisdom of the Church as expressed by the Apostle James, St. Peter, St. Paul, and the fathers and doctors of the Church, all based upon the teaching of their divine Master.

For instance, recall the profound moral teaching of Jesus that all external evils or sins, – violence, lust, murder etc. – actually begin in the human heart: “For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person…” [Matt. 15:19]  Now this teaching of Jesus is a challenge to any view of morality that focuses primarily or solely on the external act itself or on the external institutional causes that may prompt the evil act. The roots of all external evils in our world, Jesus insists, are found ultimately in the human heart, in man’s uncontrolled and disordered passions and desires. And there is no remedy for such evils simply in reforming laws or treaties or making better institutions, as important as these may be for reforming society.

In truth, laws do not make men good, not even the divine Law revealed by God, for the law at best can only point us to what is good and what makes us good, and condemn acts that are evil and make us evil. Treaties, for instance, are only as good as the intentions of governmental leaders and the self-control of the citizens of the nations and their leaders make them. The same is true of all institutions set up by man, such as governments, economic systems and social systems. The only true remedy for evil found in these institutions is conversion in the heart of man brought about by the Grace and truth of God. We have volumes of good laws on the books today, and yet we still have tremendous crime and violence in our society. We have an abundance of treaties and civil institutions which have been created to secure peace and justice, and yet our world is still plagued with wars and tremendous injustices.

Indeed James underlines the source of evil even as regards the causes of wars:

Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from?
Is it not from your passions that make war within your members?
You covet but do not possess. You kill and envy but you cannot obtain;
you fight and wage war

Of course, James is speaking here directly about the “wars” that rage in the human heart (passions that make war within your members), but then he also moves outward to the life of society (You covet but do not possess. You kill and envy but you cannot obtain), and finally he seems to extend this analysis to the evil that affects the world at large (you fight and wage war). Individuals lose control of their passions, but through them so do societies; individuals covet and envy but through them so do nations, coveting the goods of other nations and envying the well being of other nations. So in summary, evil has its roots in individual human hearts, then extends its tentacles to the broader society, and it ends up setting people against people thus causing the waging of wars.

One may wonder why Jesus Himself seemed to avoid any involvement with or direct confrontation with the political order of his day. We know that His Church has not been spared this involvement down the ages.  The Church is itself an institution in this world and is necessarily involved with other institutions and worldly powers. The Church, at a minimum, must necessarily dialogue with the powers of this world. For instance, the Church must defend not simply her own legal standing and freedom in society, but she must defend the human rights of all God’s children, the rights to life, to religious freedom, to participate in the basic human goods necessary for a dignified existence in this world. etc.

However, Jesus Himself carefully avoided all such confrontations and entanglements, but He did so to make absolutely clear that His personal mission was not directly connected with changing the political or economic orders or with reforming other worldly institutions. His mission was to redeem mankind and to change human hearts, that is, to reform minds and hearts, so they in turn could help reform human institutions and thus secure the common good of man so necessary for his human development.

The mission of Christ and His Church is first and always the interior renewal of men, the destruction of the roots of sin that generate the evils in human actions and the evils those action produce in society and its institutions. Only morally and spiritually reformed men and women can make a real difference in this world, can become capable of reforming their society in any lasting and authentic manner.

So Christians have a duty to become involved in the political, social and economic processes precisely to make them what they need to be in order to truly serve man’s true wellbeing and avoid doing harm to mankind. But Christians absolutely must first understand what is required above all for them to make any genuine contribution to their society. Christians must themselves undergo the purification and conversion of their own souls, and this process always entails participation in the Cross of Jesus. Interior renewal simply cannot take place without suffering, and that is what is meant by our taking up the Cross. As James indicates, we Christians must, with God’s grace and by embracing the cross, root out our own sinful tendencies, our own jealousies, our own selfish ambitions, our own envy, our own covetous desires, our own lust – those things we call the capital sins or roots of sin.

Thus, if a Christian is motivated by selfish ambition or pride in entering political office or service in an economic enterprise or whatever form of public service, then the Christian will end up being part of the problem, not part of the solution to the ills that affect our society. Christians must above all avoid the trap of identifying the primary roots of evil in manmade institutions, which always ends up on the path of revolution and further disorder. Such misunderstandings of the roots of evil ultimately imply that it is not our free wills that are the fundamental source of evil in this world, but rather other things or institutions beyond any freely willed reform, and thus transformable only by destructive revolutions which have plagued man for the last two centuries.

Now this same principle or truth can also be applied at that level of the human society that we call the family. If personal ambition or coveting more and more material goods is the chief motive behind the work of a parent, rather than service of his or her family, then the family is in deep trouble. If jealousy and envy get in between spouses, the marriage is in trouble. If self-centeredness is not corrected, first of all in the parents, then the whole family suffers. If lust is not put to death, the marriage cannot grow, fidelity will not survive and the family will not survive. Family breakup, a tremendous social problem in our society is not simply the result of bad laws or bad economic times, or whatever material causes. The roots are found in the human heart, not simply in external factors.

All this means that thus the greatest need that the world has today, as always, is faith in Jesus Christ, in the truth of His Gospel, and in the grace He communicates to us through the Spirit and His sacraments. Christ is the only genuine hope for true and lasting peace, as the verses of a century old hymn states beautifully:

Christ is the world’s peace, He and none other

     No man can serve him and despise his brother

Christ, and none other, is the source of true and lasting peace in this world which is plagued by mankind’s sins. That is the truth, and Christians must be unswerving in proclaiming this to the world. In the last century, there was great loss of faith in God and His Son, the Prince of Peace. As result another prince arose, the prince of darkness. That prince inspired godless political ideologies that exterminated the lives of hundreds of millions, and destroyed a Christian civilization that had lasted a thousand years plus. That same loss of faith is destroying hundreds of millions of unborn children as well as marriage and the family in our own day.

So, our critical mission today is two-fold. First to reform our own minds and hearts in the image of Christ’s mind and heart. Secondly, we must o incessantly and publicly affirm that Christ alone is the world’s peace, because He alone is the source of genuine interior conversion, that true change of heart that leads man to respect for all human life, and forbids hatred of any human being. So for a hope for peace, we Christians need to proclaim that in Christ and none other do we find salvation and peace, for in Him we find God our brother, and God our Father, and God our Spirit. It is the true God who alone can make us one, no longer enemies, but brothers and sisters in the Lord. May Jesus help us to bear witness to Him in our world, in the sure hope that with faith in Christ our world can always find both salvation and peace.


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