On Meddling and On Intervention

Gossip - Giovanni Boldini

Gossips – Giovanni Boldoni

Whoever meddles in a quarrel not his own is like one who takes a passing dog by the ears. Proverbs 26:17 ESV

I wonder what you think.  Meddling is a hard thing to describe. In my made-for-TV movie marathon yesterday I watched The Scarlet and the Black (Gregory Peck as an anti-Nazi monsignor, foiling the evil fascists. He won).  I also watched a film about a brave meddler in a women’s prison; her bold and impetuous stand against corrupt prison guards meant that good triumphed and evil was punished. I also watched a TVM about a Polish girl who sheltered Jews during the Nazi occupation.  This tale, like the others, was based on a true story – that of the Podgórski sisters. Is intervention, therefore, a good thing? Should we always speak truth to power? In each film the protagonist was warned ( in one case by the Pope himself) to mind his or her own business and leave well alone.  The perils of unintended consequences – for self and for others- were mentioned.

I used to be more certain about such things. I was raised in a romantic intellectual tradition, on Ireland, Cuba, Chile, South Africa, Tolpuddle, Cable Street, Tito’s partisans, the Free French, the underground churches of the USSR, the example of, ahem, radical Jesus.  Nowadays,  much older, I tend to think that what once seemed heroic now is arrogant foolhardiness.  Is intervention a sin or a duty? However, I am jaded. I write this in a culture in which chastising someone for queue-jumping or dropping litter can get you stabbed.  There’s little point in speaking truth to power if the power is an idiot with a knife.

We have also seen, in the last several years, the awful consequences of intervention, the awful consequences of laissez-faire. I suppose we are dragged back to the notions of jus ad bellum and jus in bello – on which no two sides will agree. And very few Internet thought-warriors are Saint Thomas Aquinas, let’s face it.

Heroics are easy when they are other people’s heroism, comfortably far away: in the past, in the future, on the page, on the screen or, simply, Abroad. When John Osborne’s Jimmy Porter said ‘There aren’t any good, brave causes left”,  he was both correct and a right twit.

There is, of course, bad meddling. Oh, bad meddling. The ‘it’s for your own good’ meddling. The ‘I was only trying to help meddling’. Liars.  This sort of meddling is traditionally the vice of women but one must be truthful here – there are many male perpetrators. The bad sort of meddling is, as far as I can tell, closely related to the actions of the pilferer (‘I was just trying it on to see how it looked’) and the ‘I wonder what would happen if..’ fantasist, for whom no action has real-life consequences.  What links these three types of behaviour is deceit – the perpetrator has breached the trust of others and ignores the voice of conscience.  The bad meddler acts out of self-interest, puts himself or herself at the centre of someone else’s drama and forgets that real people are involved in these machinations.  Bad meddlers rarely get thumped: they are quite hard to catch out, after all, or they seem so harmless that their meddling is overlooked as a quirk.  They operate on the personal and the political levels and are dangerous on both.

I think I’ve written about this before:

 At the same time they also learn to be idle, as they go around from house to house; and not merely idle, but also gossips and busybodies, talking about things not proper to mention. 1 Timothy 5:13

Indeed.

Let us see what greater minds than mine have had to say.

Take care not to meddle in things which do not concern you, nor even allow them to pass through your mind; for perhaps you will not then be able to fulfill your own task.

St. John of the Cross

And Pope Francis said:

 “‘A good Catholic doesn’t meddle in politics.’ That’s not true. That is not a good path. A good Catholic meddles in politics, offering the best of himself – so that those who govern can govern. But what is the best that we can offer to those who govern? Prayer!

“That’s what Paul says: “Pray for all people, and for the king and for all in authority.” “But Father, that person is wicked, he should go to hell. . . .” Pray for him, pray for her, that they can govern well, that they can love their people, that they can serve their people, that they can be humble. A Christian who does not pray for those who govern is not a good Christian! “But Father, how will I pray for that person, a person who has problems. . . .” “Pray that that person might convert!”

Does this mean that we should not intervene and should not risk sacrifice? No, I do not think so. But who and what and when and where and how and why remain the important questions. God don’t like stupid, after all.

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