An old parable written by an unknown Jewish writer:
One of the just men came to Sodom, determined to save its inhabitants from sin and punishment. Night and day, he walked the streets and markets, protesting greed, depravity, and indifference.
In the beginning, people listened and smiled ironically. Then they stopped listening. He no longer even amused them. The killers went on killing, the wise kept silent – as though there were no just men in their midst.
One day, a child, moved by compassion for this unfortunate teacher approached him with these words:
“Poor stranger – you shout You scream. Don’t you see it is hopeless?”
“Yes, I see that” answered the just man.
“Then why do you go on shouting and screaming?”
“I will tell you why little boy. In the beginning, I thought I could change man. Today, I know I cannot. If I shout and scream today, it is to prevent man from changing me.”
I scarcely recognize my country. Never has our nation has been more polarized. Or confused. So much anger. Self-constructed virtue is built on a foundation of hate. Changes I would never have imagined. So quickly. So very quickly. Or is it?
What is evident is that religious ideas are ceasing to underpin morality. Because these ideas have prevailed for so long, people tend to assume the morality which goes with them is obvious and commonsensical and will continue.
“Love thy neighbor as thyself” is widely believed to be a moral imperative which everyone can accept and try to follow without religious faith- as if it were a belief that comes naturally to man. This is a terrible error.
Friedrich Nietzsche wrote this parable about a madman in 1882.
Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the marketplace and cried incessantly: “Where is God?”
As many who did not believe in God were standing around, he provoked much laughter. “Has he got lost?” Asked one. “Did he lose his way like a child?” Asked another. “Maybe he’s hiding.” “Or he is afraid of us.” “Maybe he went on vacation?”
The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Where is God?” he cried. “I will tell you. We have killed him- you and me. All of us are his murderers. How did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns?
Are we not falling continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down? Are we not straying through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us?”
“How shall we comfort ourselves? What was holiest in all the world has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What sacred games shall we have to invent? Must we ourselves not have to become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”
Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners. They too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last, he threw his lantern to the ground where it broke in pieces and went out.
“I have come too early,” he said. “This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering, it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time. The light of the stars requires time. Deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard.”
“This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars – and yet they have done it themselves.”
The event prophesied by Nietzsche has arrived and we are beginning to feel the results. The social consequences are more greed, more crime, more family breakdown, more violence and an extreme restlessness and distrust that permeates our culture.
Nietzsche was an atheist. But even so he understood the cost of casting God aside. That religion has an extraordinary and unique capacity to keep sublime concepts of beauty and truth and the principles of conduct derived from them in the minds of ordinary people. In America today, we are finding that our moral beliefs will decay if cut off from their source - just as a stream will become a stagnant pool if it is no longer fed by its spring.
It has never been more important to share the story and meaning of Christmas with your children and grandchildren. For their sanity and your own. The injunction to “love thy neighbor” is not a statement of the obvious. It is a commandment. And one which only makes sense because it flows from the first commandment “Love thy God.”
We obey this, not out of our own innate goodness or social coercion, but because it is true. And we know that it is true because of the events which Christmas day commemorates.
Oliver Sacks was a Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at Columbia University. He wrote the book “Awakenings”, later made into a movie with Robert De Niro. In that book, he wrote this:
All of us have a basic intuitive feeling that once we were whole and well.
At ease. At peace. At home in this world.
Totally united with the grounds of our being.
And somehow, we have lost this primal happy innocent state
And fallen into our sickness and suffering.
We had something of infinite preciousness and beauty, and we lost it.
We spend the rest of our lives searching for that which we have lost,
Hoping one day we will find it.
He’s right. It is exactly how I feel. What I want. It is what the angels promised us in some of the first words spoken in the Christmas story. “Peace.” Peace in my heart and mind. Peace in my home, with my family and friends, at my job, in my community and in my country.
I hope you find it this Christmas. And then give it away to all those you love.
Tim Powell MD