26th Sunday in Ordinary Time—Year B

There are many things wrong with our society and the world, but how are we to go about changing them? One approach was presented by a fellow named Saul Alinsky. He, and his highly-influential 1971 book entitled Rules for Radicals: A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals, have been popping up a lot lately. Reading his list of 11 rules you can see how they are widely used in politics & culture today.

The dedication of the book reads like this: “Lest we forget at least an over-the-shoulder acknowledgment to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology, and history (and who is to know where mythology leaves off and history begins — or which is which), the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom — Lucifer.”

I doubt Alinsky believed in the devil at all.  He probably wrote that because it was a clever and effective attention-grabber for his book. But the book’s dedication was truer than he realized.  The book recalls the first rebel’s rejection of the kingdom of God and then goes on to explicate rules which often reject the approaches embodied and advocated by Christ, whose approaches the world often considers too impotent to defeat evil in the world.

The tactics this book advocates are often the same used by demons in spiritual warfare against us—a war fought on the battlefields of our hearts and minds, for the defense or the capture our souls.

Consider, for example, “Rules for Radicals #1: Power is not only what you have, but what an opponent thinks you have. If your organization is small, hide your numbers in the dark and raise a din that will make everyone think you have many more people than you do.” And, “Rule 9: The threat is more terrifying than the thing itself.” Demons fight us most effectively when they deceive us into imagining they are more powerful than they are. In fact, the only real weapon they have against us is to play on our fears, for we protected against demons in Christ.

Rules for Radicals # 4: “Make opponents live up to their own book of rules.” Alinsky writes, “You can kill them with this, for they can no more obey their own rules than the Christian church can live up to Christianity.” In following this rule, one follows the example of the Great accuser, the devil, who (as the book of Revelation says) night and day accuses us before God for sins. Alinsky’s charge against Christians, that the Christian Church cannot live up to Christianity, blends the truth and lies, just like the words of the demons when they speak to our thoughts.

The truth is that we are God’s servants, that we care deeply about Christ’s teachings, and that all of us commit sins, sins that we would say we truly oppose. But, like the psalmist, we pray for God to cleanse us from even our unknown faults. And from wanton sin especially, we sincerely ask the Lord to restrain us; to not let it rule us, so that we may be blameless and innocent of serious sin. Even though we do not yet follow Christ perfectly, we are truly made better people, more Christ-like, through our relationship with Him.

Yet demons want us to convince us we’re all hypocrites. They want to make us silent, out of shame for our sins, about what is right and what is wrong. They would even cause us to give up on trying to live-out lives of perfect love. Though we are sinners, we trust in God’s mercy and love. Jesus was always merciful toward sinners who acknowledged their guilt and He enabled them to become more perfect through a relationship with Himself.

Rules for Radicals #11: “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, polarize it. Don’t try to attack abstract corporations or bureaucracies. Identify a responsible individual. Ignore attempts to shift or spread the blame.” Alinsky writes, “One acts decisively only in the conviction that all the angels are on one side and all the devils on the other.” You’ve seen this polarizing tactic employed through the media, and you see it all the time. It’s called the politics of personal destruction.

It is the demonizing of individuals who we don’t agree with. Christians must not be indifferent to wrongs wherever they are committed, but when it comes to persons, what Christians seek and pray for is the conversion of sinners, not their destruction. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”

Do tactics like those which Saul Alinsky laid out actually work at effecting change?  The answer is both Yes and No. Lots of influential people use them because they make lots of noise and heat and angry waves; they can end people’s careers, and they can extort institutions into making concessions. The power of these tactics makes them a strong temptation. But temptations they remain, for they do not have the power to bring about the kingdom of God.

Is the Church interested in social change? The Church is very much interested in social change, just like Jesus was, but we follow the way of His example. Allow me to present another influential writer of the 20th century, as an example, someone who was interested in radical social change of the Christian sort: Pope John Paul the Great. He is rightly called “the Great” for he must be counted among the greatest men of the last century.

Consider how he opposed the great evils and injustices of the communist empire. John Paul did not deal in deceptions. He spoke the truth, because he believed that the truth is powerful enough to set us free. He cared deeply and passionately about the grave injustices being committed, but he never seemed hateful because he was driven by true Christian love. He taught that some actions are wrong, even unspeakably wrong, but that all persons are worthy of love, and he radiated this love of God for all to see through his smile. His focus was not in personal attacks, but in speaking the truth to the human consciences. He insisted that all people should be given the recognition of the dignity and the rights they have from God: to live, and live freely, to speak the truth, and live the truth.

This is what he did, and the communist dictators literally trembled before him. When the communist leader of Poland welcomed the pope to his homeland in a speech at the airport broadcast on state-controlled TV, the dictator’s voice, and the paper he held in his hand, both quivered. The pope was so powerful against them, simply with the message and example of Christ, that the communists tried to kill him in St. Peter’s square, but the Pope miraculously survived the bullets, and forgave his would-be assassin.

By the mercy and the power of God, and in no small part through the words, deeds, and prayers of Pope John Paul the Great, the Soviet empire, which did so many evils for the sake of a utopia that never came to be, that empire ended; not with the fire of a thousand nuclear blasts, but with a harmless dying gasp. It was miracle, a peaceful victory for Christ and the Kingdom of God.

There are many things wrong with our society and the world, but how are we to go about changing them? Pope Paul VI said, “If you want peace, work for justice.” It’s good to work for justice, and we must work for justice, but we must remember this: true justice comes through the way of peace, the way embodied by our Lord, Jesus Christ. So whose example will we be dedicated to as we work for change in the world; that of Lucifer or that of Jesus Christ?

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