By Eric A. Clayton
January 12, 2021 — When I was first introduced to St. Ignatius’ reflection on the Two Standards — that linchpin meditation in week two of the Spiritual Exercises — I found the imagery outdated and hard to wrap my head around.
“So, two warring factions,” I remember saying. “Christ’s and the Enemy’s, each carrying a standard?”
“Think of it like a battle flag,” my spiritual director had said. “The standard is a physical representation of the spiritual truths each army fights for.” Then, sheepishly, “Sometimes, we have to translate Ignatius’ imagery into modern day terms.”
How I wish that were still true.
Because on Wednesday, January 6, I did see a standard, a literal flag, bearing the name of Jesus. And that flag was just one of many; the name of Jesus was one symbol among others that promoted white supremacy, violent extremism, hatred, bigotry and secession.
(CNS photo/Thomas P. Costello, USA TODAY via Reuters)
That is not the Jesus we know from the Gospels. That is not the Jesus whose standard St. Ignatius reminds us stands for poverty, humility and rejection, who blesses the meek, the poor, the peacemakers, and who tells us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
As I prayed with these tragic events over the last several days, my prayer returned to Jesus cleansing the temple area. This was a protest, to be sure, but a protest against what? Jesus quotes the scriptures: “My house shall be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.” (Lk 19:46)
Those thieves who had infested the temple were deceiving the people. They conned them out of their coin, yes, but more tragically, they conned them out of an authentic relationship with God. These temple thieves told the masses that God’s love must be bought, must be fought for, must be earned, must be defended.
Jesus, of course, is the physical manifestation of God’s love freely given. And in Matthew’s telling, immediately after cleansing the temple, “the blind and the lame approached [Jesus] in the temple area, and he cured them.” (Mt 21:14)
“Beware of false prophets,” Jesus cautious us. “By their fruits you shall know them.” (Mt 7:15-16)
I believe that there were people gathered outside the Capitol on January 6th who thought they were doing God’s work. And yet, these words of Jesus ring in my ears: By their fruits you shall know them.
The Two Standards can help us as we sort the good fruit from the bad. Christ’s standard represents the path Jesus himself trod, one of poverty, rejection and humility. The fruits of Jesus’ standard are healing, love, compassion and justice. Indeed, immediately after cleansing the temple of liars and cheats, Jesus returns to the essential work of loving one’s neighbor.
The Enemy’s standard, on the other hand, is seen in the unrestrained pursuit of pride, wealth and honor. The chief priests witness Jesus’ actions in the temple and are “indignant,” their intentions focused on how they might put this man to death. They are consumed by the threat Jesus’ all-encompassing love poses to their own status; they see only what benefits themselves.
(CNS photo/Carlos Barria, Reuters)
The U.S. Capitol, of course, is not a religious temple. And yet, as I’ve prayed with this Scripture and the events of recent days, I believe the Two Standards can help us as we attempt to discern a path forward. Are we driven by pride, wealth and honor, or by poverty, humility and rejection?
Let me attempt to wrestle from these esoteric principles some practical questions:
- Do we use the events of January 6th to increase our personal renown, through witty Tweets, reactionary posts or a concern over how many followers we have? Or, do we attempt to lift up what is right and true, no matter the repercussion to our social media status?
- Are we looking for ways to benefit ourselves in the wake of the violent attacks by selling our ideas, our insights or our services? Or, are we concerned with the common good, putting ourselves and our abilities at the service of those in need?
- Are we seeking out news, information and calls for unity that serve only to confirm our preconceived beliefs, thus maintaining an unjust status quo? Or, are we attempting to discern the truth and discover what justice demands, uncomfortable as it may be?
I imagine Christ staring at the scene on Wednesday with these words from the Gospel: “At the sight of the crowds, his heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Mt 9: 36) Jesus knows the deception that allowed such violence, such hatred to flourish. And Jesus cries out with us in our agony, our anger, our disbelief, our suffering.
Jesus tells us that he is the way, the truth and the light. (Jn 14:6)
Jesus, compassionate Word of our God, a God of all people,
Let us walk in your way, courageous in pursuing the justice you desire;
Let us hide not from the truth, lifting it high as a healing balm for all;
Let us flock to your light and your love, in so doing banishing the darkness of hate, violence and fear.
Let us commit to a peace that knows justice, a faith that does justice and a people that loves justice.
Eric Clayton is the senior communications manager at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. He is the author of the forthcoming book, “Ignatian Storytelling” (Loyola Press). He lives in Baltimore with his wife and two daughters. Follow him on Twitter @eclaytopia.