Spirituality for Today – May 2010 – Volume 14, Issue 10

Does Persuasion Really Work?

By Msgr. Frank C. Wissel, D.Min.

One of the darkest chapters in the history of the Church was the Spanish Inquisition. Its purpose was to stamp out heresy and enforce correct beliefs.

A photo from the inside of a prison cellPhotograph: Martin Argles/Guardian

To accomplish this goal, heretics were thrown into prison and sometimes burned at the stake.

The Russian author, Dostoevsky, wrote a story about this period of history.

He pictured Jesus reappearing in the city of Seville. The people flocked around him as they did in Galilee. But the Grand Inquisitor had him arrested and locked in a dungeon.

That night, the old priest went to the dungeon and talked with Jesus. He explained to him that his method simply would not work.

People cannot be trusted to make the right choices and to do the right things. They are too selfish and too weak to be in control of their own lives. The only thing that will work is force. People must be compelled to think right and to act right. Otherwise, the world will always be in a mess.

Sometimes it seems that the Inquisitor had a valid point. Left to our own devices, we human beings do tend to go from bad to worse. Perhaps we need a benevolent dictator who will show us the way and force us to follow it.

For example, suppose your income for 2010 should triple. You make three-times the money this year as you have any other year of your life.

What should happen to that extra income? Would you use it to help the poor? Would there be a few less hungry children? Would ten more Russian orphans have warm coats and good shoes?

Or would you just move into a bigger house and buy a better car?

Such questions bother us because they suggest that the old inquisitor was right. People cannot be trusted to do right on their own. They have to be forced.

Nevertheless, Jesus refused the way of coercion. There is a Gospel reading, where Jesus said, "Once I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself."

That was his method. He would not compel anybody to do anything. Instead, he would voluntarily give his life. And then he would depend upon the appeal of that sacrificial death to win people to himself.

His entire cause would be entrusted to the power of persuasion.

Everything would depend on that. He would draw people to himself.

Was that a mistake? Did Jesus miscalculate the stubbornness of the human heart?

It has been a long time now, and he is a long way from drawing all people to himself. Does persuasion really work?

One obvious thing is that persuasion does not work all the time. You can appeal to some people until you are blue in the face but nothing changes.

That is why we have habitual criminals. Parents have appealed to them. Teachers have appealed to them. The Church has appealed to them. But they keep going back to the same old ways. And at some point, the courts have to impose force in order to protect the rest of society.

This kind of action will be necessary as far as anyone can see into the future. No ordered society can be maintained without some degree of coercion.

This is not true of the criminal class alone. It also applies to those of us who consider ourselves law-abiding citizens.

Suppose our tax system were strictly voluntary. Just tell everyone to pay their fair share. Then leave it up to the individual.

How long do you think our city, state, and federal governments would continue to be operational? What if our Social Security had just a good will kind of thing; if as little or as much as you like strictly depended on you. How long would it be before our elderly citizens were going hungry? Persuasion does not always work. We have to apply some force.

One other thing is obvious: persuasion really does work. To point out that it does not work to perfection is beside the point. Nothing works all the time, including force.

The most important things in life cannot be crammed down people's throats. They can only be drawn out of their hearts.

You cannot force an angry child to learn piano. If he ever learns, it will be by persuasion. You cannot force a rebellious teenager to love. It simply will not work.

That is not how you and I learned to love. No one beat it into us. Someone loved us, and kept on loving us even when we were unlovable. And from the power of that gentle persuasion, we eventually learned to love.

The insight of Jesus was more profound than most of us know. The drawing power of sacrificial love is the only road to a better world.

We cannot force people into believing good. Nothing but persuasion will ever do that.

All of the progress of the human race has come by this route. So in the end, we return to the place where we started: the cross. It has done more to change the world than all of the armies that ever marched or all the navies that ever sailed.

The amazing thing is that Jesus saw this over 2,000 years ago. He looked at the concentrated might of the Roman Empire and said, "Once I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself."

He is still doing that. But the Roman Empire has vanished and been forgotten centuries ago. But persuasion really does work.