Spirituality for Today – July 2008 – Volume 12, Issue 12

Changing the World One Life at a Time

By Rev. Msgr. Frank Wissel

Photo of a distorted group of people reflected in a fun house mirrorMark Twain said, "Everyone complains about the weather. But no one does anything about it."

A similar thing can be said about the moral climate of the world. Hardly a week goes by that I do not hear some comment about the rot and ruin of society. One person laments the divorce rate. Another decries the behavior of young people. Another points out the widespread use of illegal drugs. And in a world of despair, someone wonders, "What is this world coming to?"

Such observations are common. We have all heard them. And most likely, we have all said them. But far less common are practical solutions to the problem. And that is what we need most. Anyone can point out what is wrong. It does not take a genius to see that the world is in bad shape. And anyone can bemoan our fate for living in such a troubled time. But what good does that do? It only adds to a sense of despair that many already feel.

Our need is for someone who can point the way to a better world. Instead of complaining about the weather, would someone please show us what to do about it?

Jesus lived in a troubled world, no less than we do. In fact, it was even worse. Justice was nothing but a faraway dream. Tyrants ruled the world. One of those tyrants, King Herod, had arrested John the Baptist and thrown him in prison. John's only crime was telling the truth. And for that, he would eventually be executed.

But in the face of that injustice, Jesus never lost his faith in God. He told the people that the reign of God was at hand. It was almost within reach. And the way to that better world was for each person to reform his own life and believe the good news. The mission of Jesus was to change the world one life at a time.

That means that you and I, first of all, are responsible for ourselves. My primary assignment is to make something good and decent out of me. Your first obligation is to make something good and decent out of yourself. For us to fail is to fail across the board. But if we succeed, it gives us a fighting chance to do something useful with our lives.

The Bible is quite clear on this point. It teaches that we are responsible for other people. We are not free to look out for ourselves, and let others get by the best they can.

Way back in the Book of Genesis, God asked Cain about his brother, Abel. And Cain replied with a now famous question, "Am I my brother's keeper?" The rest of the Bible is spent answering that question in the affirmative. We are indeed our brother's keeper. But along with that social obligation, the Bible also teaches a kind of healthy self interest.

For example, that well-known commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." That is a blending of social responsibility and personal responsibility. It begins with the assumption that I will love myself. I will look to the well-being of my own life. Start with taking care of yourself first. Then we will have a place to stand while caring for our neighbor.

We have a familiar saying that charity begins at home. Whether or not that is true, it is certainly true that character does. I have no right to expect a better world, unless I am willing to become a better me. You and I are first of all responsible for ourselves

Now consider also that there is no problem in the world that cannot be traced back to individuals. Much nonsense has been spoken and written about social sin. We talk about society as if it could be immoral all by itself. That is absurd. A society is no better or worse than the people who make it up. The fact is that all badness or goodness is first of all inside of people. Society is not an entity unto itself. It is a collection of individuals. And the collective quality of those individuals determines the quality of the society.

This is not to deny the existence of social sin. That really is too obvious to dispute. War, for example, is a social sin. It engulfs all of life and turns otherwise decent people into monsters. But what is war? It is the outcome of the way multitudes of individuals conduct their lives.

Economic injustice is a social sin. Great living is virtually impossible for the person who is born and raised in a rat-infested slum. But what is economic injustice? It is the cumulative result of the greed and ignorance of thousands of individuals.

And finally, we must consider that no social order can ever relieve us of the necessity to correct our own lives. Have you ever gone to a carnival and walked through the "house of mirrors"? It is a mystifying experience. Every wall is a mirror. And no matter which way you go, you keep running into yourself.

Life is like that. Whatever our circumstances may be, we keep running into ourselves as the decisive factor. I am not forgetting that millions of people have no fair chance at life. Social situations exist against which individuals struggle in vain. But we are not in the slums.

As for us, I venture to say that not one person in a million has a better chance at life than we do. The problem with most of us is that we keep running into ourselves. Put us anywhere. Give us any kind of an income. Surround us with the most fortunate circumstances. And that would be our problem. Jesus was right on target, "The reign of God is at hand." A better world is within reach. And that is right here and now. Therefore, let us remember that if we reform our lives and believe in the Gospel each individual can contribute to making it a better world.