Friday, June 9, 2017

You Speak Russian

Articulating the arguments of our enemies

Acts of the Apostles 22:30; 23:6-11 Wishing to determine the truth about why Paul was being accused by the Jews, the commander freed him and ordered the chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin to convene. Then he brought Paul down and made him stand before them. Paul was aware that some were Sadducees and some Pharisees, so he called out before the Sanhedrin, "My brothers, I am a Pharisee, the son of Pharisees; I am on trial for hope in the resurrection of the dead." When he said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and Sadducees, and the group became divided. For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection or angels or spirits, while the Pharisees acknowledge all three. A great uproar occurred, and some scribes belonging to the Pharisee party stood up and sharply argued, "We find nothing wrong with this man. Suppose a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?" The dispute was so serious that the commander, afraid that Paul would be torn to pieces by them, ordered his troops to go down and rescue Paul from their midst and take him into the compound.

         Many years ago I learned one of the most helpful skills in dealing with people from watching the movie “Hunt for Red October.” This skill can be summarized in the maxim, “Know your enemy.” In the movie, Captain Ramius, played by Sean Connery, is a Russian submarine commander, who takes a submarine armed with nuclear warheads and propels it toward the United States. He comes face to face with Jack Ryan and the battleship U.S.S. Dallas. In the tense scene where the two face-off, Captain Ramius makes a joke in Russian, which Ryan catches because he speaks Russian. Surprised, Ramius asks, “You speak Russian.” Ryan answers in Russian, “It is wise to know the ways of your enemy.” And Captain Ramius replies in English, “It is.” (Of course, Ramius spoke British English because he’s really James Bond.) In other words, both men had taken time to learn the ways of their enemy – by learning their language – and guess what happens? They’ve taken the first steps to become friends.

          Someone else who had mastered this skill was St. Thomas Aquinas and he put it on full display in his classic work Summa Theologica. Before he gave his own argument for the truths of the Catholic faith, he listed the three reasons why his enemies would disagree with him. He often stated their arguments more forcefully than they themselves did. When you take time to “know your enemy,” you disarm them, diffusing their hostility and animosity, and you take the first steps toward friendship. Just like Jack Ryan, St. Thomas Aquinas “spoke the language of his enemies,” and he sometimes made some surprising friends.

          In the first reading today, St. Paul uses this same skill to save his skin before the Sanhedrin. He is placed on trial before both the Sadducees and Pharisees. You’ll remember that before his conversion to Christianity, Paul was Saul, a devout and even deadly Pharisees who persecuted and punished Christians, putting them to death. Knowing his enemies well (because he was one of them), Paul declares: “My brothers, I am a Pharisee, the son of Pharisees. I am on trial for hope in the resurrection of the dead.” And a huge dispute broke out between the Pharisees and Sadducees because these two sects vehemently disagreed on that subject. And Paul goes free. But notice what the Pharisees say: “We find nothing wrong with this man.” In other words, not only has Paul saved his life, he has made a few friends, too. Why? Because Paul knew the ways of his enemy; he spoke their language.

            Today, try to think of who is your enemy, with whom you disagree, with whom you fight. If you’re a Democrat, you don’t like the Republicans; if you’re a Cleveland fan you don’t like Golden State; if you’re North Korea, you don’t like anybody! Of course, our enemies could be a lot closer to home: our spouse sometimes seems like an enemy, our parents seem to fight against us, and maybe even our next door neighbor is not so neighborly sometimes. Once you’ve identified your enemy, ask yourself: “Do I truly know my enemy?” That is, can you speak their language like Jack Ryan, or can you articulate their arguments like St. Thomas Aquinas? If you can master that skill – and it’s as hard as learning to speak Russian – not only will you be able to disarm your enemies, but you might even take the first faltering steps toward a new friendship. What you really realize, though, is that the real enemy was never the Pharisees, or the Russians or the Republicans, or your spouse, or your neighbor, or your parents, but only yourself: your pride, your prejudice, and your personal preferences. Speaking the language of your enemy helps you to see the real enemy was always within.

             St. Francis of Assisi also mastered this skill, and he summarized it in his famous “Prayer of Peace.” The Poverllo wrote: “O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek / to be consoled as to console, / to be understood as to understand, / to be loved as to love. / For it is in giving that we receive, / it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, / and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”  In other words, if you can understand your enemy, he might turn out to be your friend.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

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