Recent events bring to mind some questions, and maybe our readers can offer some answers. For example, regarding protests about income inequality: What would income equality look like? We know what a society with unequal incomes looks like; it has existed in every land for millennia. Would a society of income equality resemble the Distributist dream of G. K. Chesterton, wherein he envisioned everybody having three acres and a cow? Or would it resemble George Orwell’s fable, Animal Farm (1945), where all the animals are equal, but some are more equal than others?
Moreover, who determines what income people need, what level is fair and just for all, and who guarantees that equality? Do the guarantors make more money and live in bigger houses as rewards for their daunting task of preserving material equality?
Perhaps more interesting is why the ideal of income equality aims for everyone having the same smallness. For moral outrage over income inequality seems never to mean that everyone must have the same level of wealth as did Jacqueline Kennedy or as does Oprah Winfrey. Once a janitor or a waitress is guaranteed to make the same (say, $50,000 a year: surely in an ideal world no one needs more than that) as a Hollywood film star or a Silicon Valley mogul, once Mr. Fixit and Bill Gates are allotted the same modest income and both are living in two-bedroom walk-up apartments, will everyone be happy?
When angry crowds are chanting “No justice, no peace,” one recalls Pope Paul VI saying, “If you want peace, work for justice.” Both slogans imply that unjust societies result in unrest. For instance, the injustice might relate to the income inequality noted above. After all, one theory has it that envy of unequal levels of income will lead to spontaneous proletarian uprisings. History shows, though, that struggling, wage-earning people don’t want a revolution; they just want a nicer television for watching Dallas or Downton Abbey.
After the attacks on September 11, 2001, by Muslim terrorists, some prelates and pundits advised that rather than promising military retaliation, the United States should send foreign aid of food, clothing, and medicine to various Muslim countries. Those opponents of armed reaction recalled that it is written somewhere that if one’s enemy is hungry, feed him, and so on.
Yet, what if peace is not contingent upon material concerns? What if a lack of peace comes not from injustice but from ideology? What if people who kill others, even thousands of others in one sunny morning, do not covet their property but simply desire their death?
As for ideological disagreements, how did we come to a point in the United States, at least, where one person saying, “I disagree with you,” is heard by another person to mean “I hate you”? Even humorous criticism has become equated with hatred. Some comedians will no longer perform at American colleges and universities because the students, ever so serious and sensitive, will take the jokes as attacks on them, and protests against the comedians will not be far behind.
Of course, there are ideologies driven by hate, but they seem not to turn to social satire and stand-up comedy. Instead, they often become violent, making it difficult for victims of that violence to follow Saint Paul’s teaching to overcome evil with good (Rom 12:21). In June of 2015 the people of Charleston, South Carolina, gave shining Christian witness of forgiveness and love. It made homebody Northerners want to move to Charleston in order to absorb such virtue.
Then came cries to remove displays of the Confederate flag, symbol of rebellion and racism, and then to remove from street signs, public parks, and schools the names of Confederate generals and politicians. Then came questions of whether to abolish commemorations of slave-owning Southern Democrats such as Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. Next came suggestions that the vast sculpted relief on the side of Stone Mountain, Georgia, heroically depicting three Confederate leaders on horseback and serving as a monument to where in 1915 Southern Democrats re-founded the Ku Klux Klan, should be removed.
However grim are certain chapters of our history, when a society starts talking about chiseling off the names of famous men, as does the Pharaoh in the film The Ten Commandments (1956), it is time to stop and think. Do we really want to obliterate the names and memories of everyone from the past who fails to measure up to our brilliant examples of enlightened tolerance? If their images enrage us and their names offend us and must be hidden and unspoken, if not forbidden and destroyed, is it not long before we begin burning their books?
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.