In recent years the issue of social justice has edged its way to centre stage within Christian spirituality. This may not be seen as simply another post-Vatican II phase that the church is going through. It must be seen for what it is, namely, a truer and more radical response to the Gospel of Jesus. Nuclear disarmament, injustice and exploitation in the Third World, and unemployment and abortion in the First World, are not issues any Christian may be indifferent to. It is not good enough to simply say one’s prayers, mind one’s own business, and leave these things to the politicians and lawmakers. However, our involvement here, like most blessings, comes mixed. In our movement into social justice, there frequently stalks a subtle demon. Our involvement in these mammothly important issues too easily gives us the impression that the moral issues we do battle with in our own private lives, the mini-demons, are not so significant.
It is all too easy to conclude that it does not matter how we live our lives in the recesses of our own private worlds, as long as we are doing battle with the right causes on the social front. How important are our piddling little private moral concerns when one considers the threat of nuclear war or when one looks at injustice and exploitation in the world? How important is the commitment to private prayer, to the Eucharist or to a Christian sexual morality in the face of these globally important issues? Do we really believe that God cares much whether we gossip a bit, slander someone, pray in private or refuse to reconcile with each other over some petty dispute? As Morris West so graphically puts it in his Clowns of God: “Do you really believe that God cares whether you hop in and out of bed a couple of times with someone not your wife or husband, given the important concerns of the world?” The answer is yes. God does care about the little things as much as he cares about the great ones. He cares because we care. It makes a difference to him because it makes a difference to us. More importantly, he cares because the little things shape the big things. Social morality is simply a reflection of private morality. The global picture is what the microcosm of the human heart looks like when it is magnified.
When the chaos that lies within the recesses of our private lives remains untouched and untamed, it will remain untouched and untamable in the world at large. As long as the demons and chaos within our hearts lie untouched and untamed, our social action is not worthy to be called spirituality. It is merely political action, nothing more. It is power doing battle with power. Ultimately it will be successful or unsuccessful on the basis of the Machiavellian principle of “might is right.” The kingdom of God does not work by this kind of power. It works by conversion. Conversion, in the final analysis, is an eminently personal act. Carlos Castanedo, the American Indian mystic, writes: “I come from Latin America where intellectuals are always talking about political and social revolution and where a lot of bombs are being thrown. But nothing has changed.” “It takes little daring to bomb a building, but in order to stop being jealous or to come to internal silence, you have to remake yourself. This is where real reform begins.”
Thomas Merton, in his celebrated dialogues with Rosemary Reuther during the Vietnam War, makes the same point. Reuther has accused him of being out of the mainstream, hidden away, living a sheltered and privileged, and ultimately useless, life. Of what value, she taunted, were his prayers and his private struggles and his little moral victories in stopping the war? She, at least, was in the front lines, manning the pickets. Stung by this criticism, Merton replied that, for her, his battle with his private demons “must seem like small potatoes.” However, he submitted, he was engaged in the real battle, that of changing hearts. When you change a heart, whether it be your own or that of someone else, you actually change something. All the rest is simply one power attempting to displace another. Private morality and all that comes with it, namely a deep commitment to prayer and honesty in the smallest, most secret and most internal of things, is the source from which spiritual energy ultimately flows. There is potentially more energy inside of one atom than could be generated if one harnessed every river, waterfall and ocean on earth. An emphasis on prayer and private morality is not a hangover from the days when the monastic ideal dominated Christianity. Nor is it an unaffordable luxury not available to the busy and the committed person. Nor, indeed, is it counterproductive to social justice. It is an attempt to create real energy, spiritual energy, by splitting the atom of love inside of ourselves.