Book Number One
Not too long ago, I read Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand for the first time. A heroin of many conservatives, Rand wrote Atlas Shrugged specifically to demonstrate the foolishness of any political system where the means of production are managed by the state. As a freedom-loving, American capitalist, I have to say that through most of it I was riveted and cheering Rand on as she masterfully illustrated that capitalism is by far the best economic and political system around. It’s not that I thought her book was perfect, but she definitely made her point.
A staunch advocate for capitalism, Rand, herself, escaped communism as a young adult and was determined never to return. Her mission as a writer was to decry the evils of government control and to extol the virtues of capitalism as well as the importance of individual freedom. Having experienced the former in the early 1900’s – she was a high school student in Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 – Rand considered the resulting state power to be absolute evil.
Lately it seems the political climate in the United States is not completely alien from that of Russia in the early twentieth century. Governmental corruption is rampant, as is the inefficiency of the huge bureaucracy which is the federal government. Like the Russians on the cusp of 1917, Americans are war weary and there has been great unrest regarding a lack of opportunity, low wages and disparate conditions.
Over the last eight years these problems seem to have intensified and multiplied or, if nothing else, have been magnified to the nth degree. Issues of race, creed and economic disparity are more paramount today than at any time since the Civil Rights Movement reached its height in the 50’s and 60’s. Daily demonstrations receive massive media attention. Just this week over 400 protesters were arrested at the capital building – civil disobedience is on the rise and tensions are high.
Needless to say, in this climate a shout-out for capitalism in the form of a novel was for me a light in the darkness. A herald to a truth that has been rabidly twisted and distorted over the past generation. Particularly in our country, as concerned citizens seek answers to the problems they witness all around them. Many, especially the young, are willing to try an alternative to the capitalism they’ve long been taught is the source of our deepest cultural and economic problems.
So roughly 800 pages into it, I was all-in for a book illustrating the virtues of capitalism. And then I reached the last, roughly 70 pages. This was where things got crazy, as Rand presents the reader with a complete diatribe of her belief system through a speech given by one of the main characters of the book. During that speech, Rand (through the voice of John Galt) throws religion out with big government.
“Selfishness – say both – is man’s evil. Man’s good – say both – is to give up his personal desires, to deny himself, renounce himself, surrender; man’s good is to negate the life he lives. Sacrifice – cry both – is the essence of morality, the highest virtue within man’s reach…
…”It is your mind that they want you to surrender – all those who preach the creed of sacrifice, whatever their tags or their motives, whether they promise you another life in heaven or a full stomach on this earth.”
Whoa!! So this is why I’d vaguely remembered hearing that Rand’s views are not compatible with the Catholic church. Religion is nothing like communism or socialism. While those systems strive to serve the lowest common denominator by denouncing individual aspirations and self-determination, our Faith asks that we take advantage of our God-given freedom to serve all with love – through our own will, not by mandate. Being asked to serve by our Heavenly Father is not at all comparable to being obligated by law. When I reached the end of the book, I was deeply disturbed that after 800 pages of getting it (for the most part) right, Rand could end on such a horribly depraved note.
But shortly after reading Atlas Shrugged, I realized that Rand’s distorted view of religion had germinated through seeds of deception planted in the poisonous soil of her youth. A riveting book about the lives of citizens in North Korea both helped me to understand Rand’s confusion, and spurred some of my own.
Book Number Two
The book was Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. Written by a journalist who captured in minute detail the day to day lives of six North Korean citizens who eventually escaped to freedom in South Korea, the book illustrates the horrid conditions of many in a country that strains to present itself as a utopian society. Ordinary citizens watched loved ones tortured and killed. They ate rats in order to stay alive. Daily lives were nightmares from which citizens could find no escape. Oppressed and desperate, each of these individuals risked life and limb just to get out from under the incredible burden of communism.
The most disturbing and discomforting part of this book was the sacrifice lauded by the government. The talk from their leaders sounded startlingly familiar. These were the themes I hear in Mass every Sunday. That I read in Sacred Scripture every day. They were the profound ideals offered by the saints that have gone before us. Here’s just one small example of the themes saturating North Korean culture through the hand of their omnipotent leader:
Every town in North Korea, no matter how small, has a movie theater, thanks to Kim Jong-il’s conviction that film is an indispensable tool for instilling loyalty in the masses…The films were mostly dramas with the same themes: The path to happiness was self-sacrifice and suppression of the individual for the good of the collective. (emphasis mine)
Sacrifice? Suppression of self? These are things I’d read for years in the great classics of our Faith. This is what we teach our children. And yet, these sentiments came from an evil, communist dictator. As someone who escaped the USSR, no wonder Ayn Rand did not believe in God. If USSR was anything like North Korea, the government presented itself as a god-like figure. Trusting in THE God would become a an almost insurmountable hurdle once a counterfeit had been exposed for the corrupt, self-serving charlatan that he is. There could be no greater impediment to faith in the One True God than the fraudulent benevolence claimed by the powers that be in those godforsaken countries.
I must admit. When I finished Nothing to Envy, I was perplexed. I was confused. While I didn’t doubt the existence of God, I did wonder how something so good and something so terribly evil could sound so similar? What was I missing?
Book Number Three
Enter Life of Christ by Fulton Sheen (which we just began reading in our book club at spiritual direction.com – check it out). In the first couple of pages, Sheen addresses this very subject. In a few sentences he brings clarity to my confusion. His comments illustrate the error inherent in Rand’s philosophy:
“Communism has chosen the Cross in the sense that it has brought back to an egotistic world a sense of discipline, self-abnegation, surrender, hard work, study, and dedication to supra individual goals. But the Cross without Christ is sacrifice without love. Hence, Communism has produced a society that is authoritarian, cruel, oppressive of human freedom, filled with concentration camps, firing squads, and brain-washings.” – Fulton Sheen, Life of Christ (p. xxv)
There is no love without sacrifice. But in a political system, sacrifice without love becomes a distorted perversion of the sacred, used by the few to control the many. No version of this is the solution to our nation’s problems. True love offered as true sacrifice is the only real solution to what ails us. And it cannot be found in any law, mandate or government system.