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Setting Things Right

October 14, 2018 Featured Today No Comments

By DONALD DeMARCO

An ancient Chinese proverb reads as follows: “If there is righteousness in the heart, there will be beauty in the character. If there is beauty in the character, there will be harmony in the home. If there is harmony in the home, there will be order in the nation. When there is order in the nation, there will be peace in the world.”
We could add to this kernel of wisdom St. Teresa of Calcutta’s “business card”: “The fruit of silence is prayer. The fruit of prayer is faith. The fruit of faith is love. The fruit of love is service. The fruit of service is peace.”
We cannot choose peace directly, we must start with the seed that produces it. Without that seed, peace cannot be realized.
Peace seems to be universally desirable. Everyone from beauty pageant contestants to world leaders expresses a desire for peace. But do people really want peace? If they did, they would desire, with equal passion, its roots in righteousness and silence. Unfortunately, in our homes, in our nation and in our world, confusion and discord abide. Righteousness is mistaken for self-righteousness. Silence is effaced by noise.
But let us reflect on the message contained in the Chinese proverb for a moment.
Despite the multitude of moral problems that plague the current world, there is a prevailing attitude, not of contrition, but of self-righteousness. The daily news brings to our attention a stream of incidents in which people, feeling morally superior to the heroes of the past, want to tear down their statues, tarnish their legacy, or erase them from history.
But we have hardly reached a moral utopia that allows us to look down at our ancestors and sneer at them. Self-righteousness is the presumption that one is morally superior to others simply because one has accepted, without reflection, the dominant ethos of the times.
St. Paul distinguished between righteousness and self-righteousness when he said: “For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God” (Romans 10:3). On the other hand, we read in James 3:18 that “a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”
The self-righteous person uses himself as a moral standard while rejecting the standard set by God. Such a person is not on the road to peace. In fact, he is on the road to ruin. When the primary factor is missing, chaos becomes inevitable. In Richard III, Shakespeare tells us that for the want of a nail, the shoe, horse, rider, battle, and ultimately, the kingdom was lost.
How critical it is to begin at the beginning with something that sets in motion of series of positive values! The absence of that critical factor can bring about only chaos.
Robert Browning paints, in poetic images, what the world looks like when everything is set in its proper mode: “The year’s at the spring, and day’s at morn; Morning’s at seven; The hill-side’s dew pearl’d; The lark’s on the wing; The snail’s on the thorn; God’s in His Heaven — All’s right with the world!”
What is the proper mode for man, we might ask? It is to be alive with the grace of God, to see things, as much as he is able, through God’s eyes. “The life of a man is the vision of God,” wrote St. Irenaeus.
The Christian ideal is for man is self-fulfillment and not self-righteousness. And that self-fulfillment includes God. In Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, Ulysses gives a long philosophical speech to his troops in which he tells them that just as the planets are held on course by a certain order, so too, each person needs to live by a certain order so that he can “stand in authentic place.” Without this order, “hark, what discord follows” (act 1, scene 3).
It is easy for the halo of righteousness to slip a few inches to form the noose of self-righteousness. An athlete who refuses to stand when his own national anthem is played may believe he is being righteous, but is his action, disrespectful of the flag as it is, really one of self-righteousness? The practitioners of abortion and euthanasia may very well believe they are being righteous, but, in ending lives, can they truly be carrying out the work of God?
Scripture tells us that the righteous person is one who is doing the will of God. In an atheistic environment, does it become more difficult to do God’s will? Surely the prevailing ethos of political correctness cannot be consonant with such a lofty standard. At the same time, the word “righteous” has become somewhat of a religious cliché and has consequently lost its meaning for many people.
Nonetheless, its essential meaning has not lost any of its moral significance. Its enduring meaning is to set things right by putting them into a positive and realistic order. This order is the one that was originally established by God and not by man. It is the order that we find reflected in a Chinese proverb, in the words of Saints Teresa of Calcutta and Irenaeus, in the plays of Shakespeare, and in the poetry of Robert Browning.
When we set things right, we begin with a positive value that has the natural capacity of generating a series of additional values that contribute to peace. It begins with righteousness, but this term is not without a number of equivalent terms: a bright smile, a friendly countenance, a warm heart, a kind word, and a spark of the Divinity.
“Righteousness” may be out of style as a word, but it can never be out of style as a value. We can be apostles of righteousness without being agents of alienation.
(Dr. Donald DeMarco is a professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University, a regular columnist for St. Austin Review, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College. His latest book, Apostles of the Culture of Life, is available through amazon.com.)

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