The Illusion of Control

Don't Confuse Decisiveness with Wisdom

Here’s something priests often hear, sometimes from members of parish councils: “Well, Father, in the real world…”—the implication being that the real world is the world of—what? Banking? Business? Politics? Apparently. One of my priest friends responded, “In the real world everybody dies. What are you doing about that?”

As I look at our real world on the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of World War I—briefly referred to as “the war to end all wars”—I see a confluence of so much horror that it seems as though the same stupidity that led to two world wars might soon repeat itself in the same random and irrational way. The ongoing conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians; the collapse first of Syria and now of Iraq; the emergence of ISIS in both those countries; the nationalistic battles in Ukraine; a deadly epidemic in western Africa—all lead me to wonder how many concurrent crises the international community can juggle before it drops one.

I was born during the war that followed the one meant to end them all, and have lived through enough others to know that you should never trust politicians who claim to have everything under control.

Both politicians and political writers tell us we should neither want nor expect saints to be in charge of our politics. Of course saints are unlikely to be interested in the kind of power and control that anyone who seeks political office cares about. It’s the consuming hunger for power and control over others that leads to what is happening now in the Middle East. The same hunger is responsible for the gridlock in Congress. Winning the next election—gaining power or hanging on to it—is all that matters to too many of our elected leaders. Such people can’t be trusted. We need to keep an eye on them.

Instead of accepting their cold calculus, we should look to something deeper than politics for clues about the real sources of peace and conflict. Look at a Buddhist manual for monks, for example, which says that a good monk, seeing what most people must endure in their lives, forms “a tender estimate of the true condition of human beings.” Or look at the Epistle of James: “What causes wars, and what causes fighting among you? Is it not your passions that act at war in your members? You desire and do not have, so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain: so you fight and wage war.... What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:1–2, 14).

In August the American Conservative (a fine magazine, by the way) published a good piece on WWI and WWII by Wesley P. Harker. It quotes Herbert Butterfield’s 1949 book Christianity and History:

The more human beings are lacking in imagination, the more incapable men are of any profound kind of self-analysis, the more we shall find that their self-righteousness hardens, so that it is just the thick-skinned who are more sure of being right than anybody else. And though conflict might still be inevitable in history even if this particular evil (of self-righteousness) did not exist, there can be no doubt that its presence multiplies the deadlocks and gravely deepens all the tragedies of all the centuries. At its worst it brings us to that mythical messianism—that messianic hoax—of the twentieth century which comes perilously near to the thesis: “Just one little war more against the last remaining enemies of righteousness, and then the world will be cleansed, and we can start building Paradise.

This kind of messianism still passes for realism with a lot of politicians and pundits. People as different from each other as John McCain and Maureen Dowd want President Barack Obama to act with this sort of passionate decisiveness, as if passion and a commitment to seeking total control were the same thing as leadership. My disagreements with the Obama administration are many and deep, but he is the first president I’ve seen in many years who tries to act like a grownup, and understands that there are limits to what force can achieve. His cautiousness does him credit.

The kind of compassion recommended in the Buddhist manual for monks and in the Epistle of James makes so much more sense than the false wisdom of those, in Congress and in the media, who promise that they can ensure our security by using force—and the threat of force—to control the rest of the world. Total control and total security are always illusions. Beware of anyone who pretends to offer them.

Published in the October 10, 2014 issue: 

John Garvey was an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal, and author of Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.

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