Come and see
Some years ago, a young English trainee journalist was invited to have the experience of going on the campaign of an American presidential candidate. Like most trainee journalists, he had little respect for politicians (and not just American ones). He saw them as vain, boastful, proud men – and women, with few principles and even fewer scruples - sometimes corrupt, often complaisant, almost always deceitful. But he thought it would be good experience anyway, so he went. And, straightaway, his prejudices were confirmed. At every stop, every pause, even the slightest opportunity, the candidate would rush around shaking hands, kissing babies, making grandiose speeches condemning his opponent with childish names and making unrealistic promises. And so it went on. And so the journalist had great fun writing snide articles about the shallow show-business show-boating of American political culture and how inferior it was to more mature European democracies.
But, after about a month, he said, something suddenly clicked and he saw the whole thing in a new way. He noticed that the candidate and his team were quite genuine in their belief that the country needed the kind of leadership they wanted to offer. They were absolutely genuine in their commitment to the good of the nation. They even had respect for their opponent and knew that he too was genuinely doing his best for the country according to his own beliefs. And he saw no corruption whatever – everyone from the candidate, through the advisors, the canvassers and the countless other party workers could have earned more money, worked shorter hours, had more sleep and lower blood pressures by doing other things. Genuinely, each and every one of them was working for the good of the nation according to his own lights. And for the great majority of them, they were doing this work not for any earthly reward but because it was what they believed God wanted of them in building up His Kingdom on earth.
Eventually, three days before the election, everyone from the candidate downwards realised that he was going to lose. And the cynical political reporter found himself weeping like a child for the first time in fifteen years.
We too live in cynical times – almost as cynical as first century Palestine, when as far as we can gather almost all the public institutions were appallingly corrupt by any reasonable standard. That cynicism is the refusal to believe in the possibility of goodness in the world, the possibility of goodness in other people and even the possibility of goodness in ourselves. Because the motives we are willing to ascribe to other people actually tell us much more about the motives that are operating deep inside our own hearts.
I believe that kind of cynicism is very close to being a mental illness. It is an illness I sometimes see in my homeless, alcoholic and drug-addicted patients – a complete loss of faith in God, in humanity and in themselves. It is that, more than anything else, which destroys them – which deprives them of hope that they can be more and better than they are. And the only cure for such cynicism is the deep personal encounter with the goodness of God manifest in Christ Jesus.
“Come and See.”
Let us profess our faith in God from whom all genuinely good things come.
Paul O'Reilly SJ