One effect of social media is that the world seems increasingly to resemble a giant courtroom with the combatants shrieking at one another, “J’accuse!” I accuse, I accuse, I accuse.
“J’accuse!” was of course the opening salvo, in an open letter by Émile Zola to the president of the French Republic, of what came to be known as the Dreyfus affair. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer, had been accused of treason by the French army.
Nowadays, colleagues spy on co-workers, friends rat out friends, political leaders at the highest level bully, name-call, insinuate, gossip, and slander. News is so biased, depending on the outlet’s audience, that we hardly dare hope for anything remotely approaching the objective truth. Egregiously substandard behavior is foisted off as the fault of deranged “libs,” some form of “identity discrimination,” or the egregiously substandard behavior of one’s enemies. “You can’t accuse me! I accuse you!”
No communal, artistic, spiritual, or human venture is exempt from this curdled vision. Thanksgiving: an oppressor’s holiday. Marriage: indentured servanthood. Children: a monstrous burden. Henry David Thoreau’s cabin: tainted because, as a recent Washington Post article explained, “until very recently, there has been little acknowledgment that Walden Woods was first occupied by Black people whose experience of self-sufficiency was harrowingly different from Thoreau’s two-year experiment.”
It’s as if the secular culture, with neither God nor theology, has come up on its own with a twisted notion of the Fall whereby half of humanity is by its nature violent, greedy, hateful, and irredeemable; and the other half is by its nature sinless, pure, gentle, and blameless, and therefore needs no redeeming.
A quick review of a few “Best Books of 2021” lists reveals that a good 75% of them — nonfiction, fiction, poetry — are based on a variation of this oppressor-victim paradigm. Everything must be unmasked. Everyone must be exposed.
No accident, of course, that one name for Satan is The Accuser.
People are fawned over, championed, and supported as long as they’re on the correct side of the ideological divide, whether that happens to be right or left.
But no one is loved. No one is admired.
This adversarial stance has obviously bled into the Church. Rads, trads, pope-haters. People who refuse to attend Mass because they can’t receive on the tongue during a pandemic. People who refuse to attend Mass because they can’t bear “the hypocrisy.”
How different all this is from the approach to our brothers and sisters actually modeled by Christ.
We followers of Christ don’t tear people down; we build people up. In “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” Fyodor Dostoevsky imagines paradise as a place that couldn’t be further removed from the hell we have made of our public spaces:
“They sang the praises of nature, of the sea, of the woods. They liked making songs about one another, and praised each other like children; they were the simplest songs, but they sprang from their hearts and went to one’s heart. And not only in their songs but in all their lives they seemed to do nothing but admire one another.”
We followers of Christ pray the “Litany of Humility”: “That others may be praised and I unnoticed. That others may be chosen and I set aside. That others become holier than I, provided I become as holy as I should.” Not because we’re not worthy of notice — and nor do we hide our light under a bushel — but because to insist upon being first leads to a life of bitterness, frustration, and self-pity.
What are we trying to evangelize people to if not this astonishing good news: that if you want your joy to be complete, be strict with yourself and easy on everyone else. Develop a sense of humor. Start letting people off the hook.
Yield the limelight. Let someone else sit up front.
As Abbé Henri Huvelin, a 19th-century mystic and theologian, noted: “Christ took the last place so completely that no one has ever been able to snatch it from him.”
Gazing at the monstrance during a recent Holy Hour, I thought of a God so humble that entered into history and time in the form of a baby who could not yet even speak.
I thought of a God who came into the world to a people under siege, to an illiterate mother so poor that she gave birth in a barn.
I thought of the Holy Family, the shepherds and oxen and asses, bathed in unearthly light, all gathered in wonder and exultation round the manger.
I thought of every Catholic altar in the world draped this month in royal purple, and of the Wise Men bearing their gold, frankincense, and myrrh, following the star in the East in order to fall on their knees and worship before what the world to this day sees as this tiny nobody of a King.
The follower of Christ doesn’t accuse (except himself). The follower of Christ adores.