If we say, “We are without sin,” we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing. If we say, “We have not sinned,” we make him a liar and his word is not in us.1 John 1: 8-10
When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the magi, he became furious. He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi.Matthew 2: 16
Over the years, the gospel for this Feast of the Holy Innocents has never quite penetrated into my consciousness in a personally formative way. It has not been for me a “mirror” into my own soul. One reason for this is the horror of the crime presented. The rashness and absurdity of the actions of Herod have not been something with which I have been able to identify, and so the gospel story has remained merely a story of an evil beyond my understanding.
One of the struggles that I personally experience from our Christian faith and form tradition is its description of light and darkness as mutually exclusive. As we read in 1 John today: “God is light and in God there is no darkness at all. If we say, “We have fellowship with God,” while we continue to walk in darkness, we lie and do not act in truth. But if we walk in the light as he is in the light, then we have fellowship with one another, and the Blood of his son Jesus cleanses us from all sin.” It is clear from the entire text that “walking in the light” does not mean we are no longer sinful. And yet, through the corruption of the tradition and its catechesis over time, at least I developed the sense that to be in the light means that the darkness must be outside, that there are those in the light and those in the darkness. Many years ago, a new Archbishop was appointed for the Archdiocese of Boston, a place that became the epicenter of the ever-expanding scandal of clerical sexual abuse. In retrospect, there is a special irony to words this Archbishop spoke at the time of his consecration. He said, “To live in the light we must name the darkness.” The “darkness” he named was abortion. His suggestion, however, was that from the place of “light” he occupied, or maybe possessed, he was in a position to name the darkness that was external to himself. Such is always the temptation to self-righteousness in us, a self-righteousness that can be buttressed by a misreading of the tradition that some of its writings make possible.
So, when I would read of the pride, arrogance, and violence of Herod, I could never readily see myself in him. It seemed that it was only in a primitive and benighted time long ago that such a creature could have risen to such a place of power that such mass murder could even be possible. Yet, in the last century we witnessed levels of evil greatly beyond Herod’s that were wrought by those for whom personal power was the primary value. And in our time, we have become aware in the soul death inflicted on countless children by our own religious figures that no human beings should ever have the degree of power, materially or spiritually, that leaders in the Roman Church had come to appropriate by some sense of Divine right. And so, this year as I read of the slaughter of the Holy Innocents by Herod, I am challenged to recognize a universal human darkness that makes any power or influence over others dangerous for us. I must admit that in those places and in relationship to those persons over whom I have had authority and power that I frequently exercised that power without the proper respect for those others and without adequate fear and trembling of my own sinfulness.
Our need for recognition and our fear of our own insignificance leads us to aspire to positions and places of influence and power. It is typical of us that we crave a sense of self-esteem that comes from others’ recognition of our competence, influence, and power. When the toxic combination of a potential leader’s unconscious need for such confirmation and the unconscious desire of a populace to be delivered from their self-responsibility for their personal and social lives by such a powerful person meet, there arises an irrational state of affairs that is controlled not by reason or by spiritual aspiration but by the “id” of both leader and people. We see this phenomenon seemingly increasing today in what we once practicing democracies. When such is the case, the only possible outcome is increased and unmitigated violence. As Adrian van Kaam points out, “The primordial act of violence is the refusal of our spiritual awareness.”
It is an expression of true wisdom that the Hippocratic Oath, which doctors take to this day, issues the call to first of all “Do no harm.” Whenever we find ourselves in a position of power over others, even unsought, we must first of all discipline everything in us that would use that power to our own advantage over that of the other. We must, as 1 John reminds us today, never fail to remember that we are sinful. To “forget” our sinfulness is the primary act of self-deception. Once we have deceived ourselves in such a way, the force of our own unconscious is likely to inflict harm, in service of our own self-aggrandizement. A good leader, then, is a person with an acute realization of his or her own sinfulness, of how easily and readily he or she can be mistaken.
If we look at the greatest of horrors that have been inflicted on the world, from Herod to the Inquisition, to the recurring genocides throughout human history, to the pervasive physical, sexual and emotional abuse inflicted by religious leaders, there is the common thread of the “refusal of spiritual awareness,” an awareness that always includes the recognition of our sinfulness and thus the mitigating of our unconscious desire for power and control over others.
In our own lives, the manifestation of this desire is usually much more veiled, to others and ourselves, than these historically horrific acts. One form that our own tendency to violence takes is our exercise of power in service to our own idea or ideology. We do what we do in service to what we take to be the other’s good. For example, as a teacher or a parent we discipline our children “for their own good.” We presume to know what is good for them, and so we seek through use of force their conformity to our and our society’s notion of that good. In our capitalist social system, we now take for granted that the unique life and call of persons, seen merely as laborers, is subservient to the goals of productivity and profit. Even at times in the history of religious life, we mistook goals of efficiency and productivity for the summons of mission. The sense of people that they were being used and unrecognized led, at times, to a culture pervaded by anger and resentment.
Jesus teaches the disciples that the way to mitigate our unconscious will to power is come to understand that among those living in accordance with life in the Kingdom of God authority means service. What does it mean to exercise authority and power in this way? As I reflect on how I have misused authority and power over others, I recognize that it is when I have forgotten that my first duty is to respect and to foster the original unfolding of the other person, to serve his or her original calling. I misused my authority as a teacher or formation director when, in my relationship to the other, I was serving an end I had in view rather than the unfolding of the person before me. As a parent one is always struggling with the tension of forming a child who “can make it” in the culture while at the same time respecting that child’s uniqueness and originality. While most religious orders and congregations have very limited life spans, there are those few that have continued for millennia. Adrian van Kaam says that what distinguishes these orders and institutes is their “appreciation for the uniqueness of their members.” When our goal is efficiency in functioning and a specific outcome of a task, that appreciation becomes secondary to that goal. For a “community” of persons to endure, it must be a space where the unfolding of each person’s unique life call is fostered. In this work of inter-formation, we can serve each other, but we do not have power over each other.
The famous line from John Milton’s On His Blindness reads, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” Perhaps the greatest exercise of spiritual potency and service we can often render is to “stand with” another and wait with them, as they, in their time and in their way, continue to become the person they are called to be. This standing with is hardly passive, as it may at first sound. It is a deeply active stance of being “with and for” the other. It is realizing that, although we are troubled and anxious about many things, only one thing is necessary. the Rule of St. Benedict describes the profound responsibility of the community leader as a servant of the human and spiritual becoming of the members of the community. It goes so far as to say that the leader will have to account before God for those over whom he or she has been given authority. The responsibility is not responsibility for the outcome, that is only true of the person him or herself. It is, however, a responsibility for attending, as one’s primary task, to that human and spiritual formation of the others. It is a responsibility to be actively and courageously involved in serving the integrity and authenticity of the other’s developing life form.
Herod’s failure is that he has no sense that, sinful as he is, he only has power and authority to serve the lives of his people. Instead, because he is deliberately ignorant of the truth and his truth and because he serves the masters of his own self-aggrandizement, wealth and power, he can only relate by violence. Perhaps for so long I could not identify with him because I did not recognize the potential for and realization of violence in myself. It is not rare, in fact perhaps it is more typically the case, that I perceive and relate to others only in reference to my own needs, desires, and agenda. it is far easier than I realized to act toward others within socially acceptable norms of violence. The movement of the unconscious is to gratification, whatever the cost to others. it is true that to walk in the light we must name the darkness. But the first place we must recognize and name it is in ourselves.
In yielding is completion.Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, #22, trans. David Hinton
In bent is straight.
In hollow is full.
In exhaustion is renewal.
In little is contentment.
In much is confusion.
This is how a sage embraces primal unity
as the measure of all beneath heavens.
Give up self-reflection
and you’re soon enlightened.
Give up self-definition
and you’re soon apparent.
Give up self-promotion
and you’re soon proverbial.
Give up self-esteem
and you’re soon perennial.
Simply give up contention
and soon nothing in all beneath heaven contends with you.
It was hardly empty talk
when the ancients declared In yielding is completion.
Once you perfect completion
you’ve returned home to it all.