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Act Locally and Change the World

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By Chris Sparks (Oct 27, 2016)
My father would often repeat a saying that always drove me nuts growing up: "Think globally, act locally."

It always seemed to be a recipe for neglecting the larger issues in favor of small ones, a choice to live small, a refusal to be realistic, to be tough, to be determined to actually get around to fixing the problems that have dogged humanity for generations.

And also, if I acted locally, I'd have to actually — well, you know. Act.

It's amazing how useful lofty, globalist goals can be if one is unwilling to get out of one's chair and go do something. It's so easy to say, determinedly, "I will not stop thinking about this particular problem until I have the perfect solution! Anything short of the perfect solution is useless! It must solve the problem completely so that we never face it again! Helping this one poor person in front of me is pointless so long as there are any other poor people anywhere in the world! What good is feeding this hungry person if I don't solve hunger once and for all?"

Just so did the Communists of the last century discourage personal charity or individual works of mercy in the name of fomenting the revolution, the final solution to poverty and imbalances of power. If, after all, you make life tolerable or even pleasant for the underclasses today, then they won't march against the upper classes tomorrow. What counts is the revolution. Every other consideration needs to be subordinate to that.

Hence Marx's famous saying that religion is the opiate of the masses. Religion offers consolation in times of sorrow, charitable assistance when people are in need, and all in all, can even make this valley of tears tolerable, bearable, pleasant.

And that, of course, would get in the way of a final solution. Right?

But "final solutions" tend to prove themselves totalitarian delusions, and Christ calls us to love the real neighbor before us, rather than having a pretend love of the millions of poor people whom we will never meet.

Over time, I've come to learn that the whole weight of the Church's tradition is in favor of my father's wisdom, that even when it comes to issues of policy and power, of legislation and larger action, there really isn't a command structure in place that could simply legislate for the world.

Politics is local. Everything is local. Why? Because human beings will live longer than the stars. Because the relationships between individual members of the human family and the household of God will abide beyond the end of the present order of things into eternity.

As C.S. Lewis once wrote:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which,if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.

"Think globally, act locally." This is how the Church's moral teaching has always operated. We look at the fundamental principles — the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, the example of Jesus Christ — and we apply them to the problem or the situation in front of us, the person in front of us, the need in front of us.

Sometimes, that need is the need of a single beggar on the street. Sometimes, that need is a problem affecting our city or state, and our answer needs to be a vote or activism on behalf of a particular piece of legislation. Sometimes, that need is the need of our spouse or child. Sometimes, that need is our own.

In all things, in all needs, we are mortal, limited creatures by nature, not God. We may sometimes do superhuman things by His grace, but grace builds on nature. Grace builds on our virtues, our strengths, our talents, our skills. Grace builds on the works of our hands and hearts and lives, opening out formerly impossible possibilities, allowing local answers to local problems to become global solutions.

Think of the work of St. Francis of Assisi, for instance. God said to him, "Francis, rebuild My church, which is falling into ruin." And Francis begged stone and mortar to rebuild the little local church in which he heard the voice of God. And then another. And then another. And then he attracted to himself, by sheer force of sanctity, one of the greatest orders in the history of the Church, and rebuilt the universal Church. Saint Francis had no plans to found an order, no plans to rebuild the Universal Church. He just addressed the problem in front of him: his own sinfulness, and a small local church falling into ruin.

Or consider St. Faustina. She began by answering Christ's call to sanctity; then to the convent; then to tell all to her confessor, including the work of spreading the message and devotion to Divine Mercy; then to write a Diary. Through her obedience to each small, individual task, she ended up birthing the greatest grassroots movement in the history of the Church, helping countless souls come to Christ, and securing for herself a great company of the saved to stand with her at the end of the world.

Or think of Mother Teresa. She began by obeying an individual call to go to the poorest of the poor on the streets. She picked up one person at a time; began a house, then another, one building at a time; formed an order, one vocation at a time. She began locally and by the end of her life she had reshaped the globe.

We, too, are called to do likewise, because fundamentally, this is the way of Christ and His Church. For three years the Divine Mercy walked the earth and preached, but only in one tiny corner of the Middle East. He welcomed 12 apostles, and sent out 70 disciples, like Jacob, like Moses. From those 12 and from those 70, the Church grew out to the ends of the earth, across time and space to the present day.

We should do likewise. Think globally — what are the problems facing the world today? Act locally — how do I touch those problems locally?

As we've shared on these pages before, we Catholics, we devotees of the Divine Mercy and Our Lady are the rich ones in the present age, and the world is Lazarus, the poor man, sick and starving at the door. Let us share the riches of Divine Mercy with the world; let us answer Our Lady's calls at Fatima and thus bring peace and salvation to the world, beginning with our own little corner.

After all, if we change anything, anything at all, we have successfully changed the world.

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