Reformation vs. Rebellion

Yesterday I attended Mass at the law school chapel, presided over by the University’s Director of Campus Ministry, Fr. Erich Rutten, whose homily always provides me with something to reflect on. Yesterday was a day that conjoined the memorial of St. John of the Cross, a great reformer of the Carmelite order, with a first Mass reading from the prophet Zephaniah, in which God chastises the people for their rebellious nature.

I smiled as Fr. Erich began his sermon because he immediately made the same link I did the second time I heard the word “rebellious” in the first reading. He asked, how do we distinguish between the reformer and the rebel? The activist and the terrorist?

The first thing that struck me when he put the question that way is that quite often, neither the actor nor the institution that is the object of the action sees the difference between the two, although in differents ways. To the institution being acted upon, rebellion and reform efforts both have a tendency to be perceived as rebellious attacks. (Hence the reality that many reformers and prophets through the ages have been punished severely by the leaders of the institutions they have tried to reform.) The actor tends to perceive himself or herself as a noble reformer, even in those cases where the acts are more accurately characterized as acts of rebellion.

At an objective level the distinction in motivation between the reformer and the rebel, the activist and the terrorist, is easy to articulate. One is motivated by a desire to build up, the other to tear down. One seeks the good, the other seeks chaos. But it strikes me that motivation alone is not sufficient. One can be well-motivated but still be faulty in one’s discernment of actions (or reactions); we’ve all heard the phrase “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

From the inside, so to speak, it is important to distinguish between reform and rebellion. The institution needs to have a willingness to hear the cries of those who see where the institution needs to change for the better and to dintinguish between sincere, justifiable and worthwhile calls to reform and misguided efforts to pull the institution off its positive course. And so-called reformers need to be sure their efforts are truly efforts at reform and not acts that will act to the detriment of themselves and the institution. That requires both careful discernment and humility. On both sides.