Fred Smith’s is a voice of wisdom in the world of giving. He also thinks deeply about things like Christian practice and responsibility. Read today as he explores our nation’s growing cynicism and the Christian responsibility to maintain hope.
The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart.
– Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Over the years, I have returned to read the remarks of Alexander Solzhenitsyn given at Harvard University in 1978 and published later as “A World Split Apart” in which he plays the prophet by his indictment of the corruption of the West through a combination of the seduction of luxury, extreme individualism and the loss of courage. For my generation, Solzhenitsyn became a hero for an era that had seen the dethroning of many others. He “spoke truth to power” and made us feel, in spite of his harsh judgment of the West, his very presence here was a statement of his belief in us as an alternative to totalitarianism.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered his affection for and close relationship with Vladimir Putin in the years before his death in 2008. In fact, threads of Putin’s ideology and the revival of Russia as a global power can be traced to Solzhenitsyn’s influence. “Solzhenitsyn had long signaled in his writing and speeches that the Russia of his dreams was no clone of Western-style democracy. It was instead a place apart from and suspicious of the West, acutely aware of its destiny as a great power and unique culture and steeped in the values of the Russian Orthodox Church and Slavic nationalism.”
Cynicism is not an option, in spite of perpetual revelations about the deceptive and crooked nature of leaders and institutions.
I’ve thought about Billy Graham’s visceral reaction to his first hearing of the Watergate tapes and how he was physically ill in discovering the hidden parts of Richard Nixon. Some have said the same when the secret life of Ayn Rand and her abuses of friends and lovers was exposed. Certainly, we know the shock of the widespread and long history of abuse by hundreds and likely thousands of Catholic priests and the entrenched cover-up to keep secrets and protecting the institution. It was not unlike reading Martin Luther’s scathing anti-Semitism when he proposed that Christians “set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom.”
We can slip easily from naive disappointment to disgust and then to cynicism. There are no heroes or men and women of virtue. All of it is spin and a well-crafted deceit while everything we thought true is propped up by a web of lies. In fact, anyone who aspires to be a leader is faced with unprecedented obstacles. As Solzhenitsyn said at Harvard, “An outstanding and particularly gifted person who has unusual and unexpected initiatives in mind hardly gets a chance to assert himself. From the very beginning, dozens of traps will be set out for him. Thus, mediocrity triumphs.”
But, cynicism is not an option, in spite of the perpetual revelations about the deceptive and crooked nature of leaders and institutions. For me, it’s not an optimism that things will eventually get better. It is the realization that the inevitable result of mass cynicism is the self-destruction of a society. We have a responsibility to resist despair.
The resistance should not be to a person or a party but to the temptation to believe that nothing and no one is true.
In 1951, Hannah Arendt wrote “The Origins of Totalitarianism” and it could have been written for today.
In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true… Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness…The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction and the distinction between true and false no longer exist.
The resistance should not be to a person or a party but to the temptation to believe that nothing and no one is true. Yes, the line separating good and evil passes through every human heart but that is not the whole of the quote. He concluded with this: “This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.”
Holding that small bridgehead is our hope and our responsibility.