Is violence the only way forward? Click on Preaching for today’s homily.
As diplomats and world leaders ponder the next move in the Syrian conflict, and the world waits to see what the United States will do if diplomacy fails, what we hear today is fairly scary talk from Paul and even scarier from Jesus…. In this country in particular, the recourse to violence is as close as it gets to a cultural characteristic. Our stories and movies and now computer games seem to be built on the premise that the only way to defeat evil is through violence – usually involving guns or high explosives. We love that stuff. John Wayne is a cultural icon, not only here but in Ireland and much of the rest of the world. Dorothy Day? Not so much…
Whether rockets and bombs or drones, the delivery system of American retribution tends to be swift, deadly, and destructive. I well remember after having witnessed at first hand the devastation unleashed on Iraqi neighborhoods by American rockets both under President Clinton and President Bush the chilling remark of the American military commander, “we don’t count civilian casualties.” We don’t count the little boys killed playing soccer in the street or the children who were in the school playground when the missile struck. And these words of the American soldier who described his work: we kill people and break things. “War,” Donald Rumsfeld explained, “is messy.”
What St. Paul and Jesus are offering us is another way, one that would be hard to classify as pertaining only to individual personal relationships, and not to nations. Faced with real and undeniable evil, even malevolence, can we really call ourselves Christian if the only and ultimate sanction we count on is violence?
G. K. Chesterton once wrote, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” [What’s Wrong with the World] Perhaps it’s time we tried it again.
Slavery is not just a matter of chains and locks. The worst slavery of all is deep within. Click on Preaching (above) for this week’s homily.
8 September 2013
Philemon 9-10, 12-17
In light of the seemingly endless crisis over Syria, the parable Jesus uses in today’s gospel has a chilly aspect. But Jesus is talking about renunciation, not making war. Even so it gives us something to think about. Think before you act.
Jesus had a way with words, and it was often pretty shocking. Obviously, you can’t really take Jesus literally when he’s just grabbing your attention. At least not all the time. Some of his closest followers, such as Martha, Mary and Lazarus, had their own homes and seemed able to provide very suitable hospitality for Jesus and his disciples. But the first reading from the Book of Wisdom also suggests that something strange is going on here. And what does a runaway slave have to do with any of it?
What we hear is that if we can barely understand how to cope with ordinary problems in everyday life, how can we possibly hope to fathom the wisdom of God? For not only is God’s wisdom as far above human wisdom as the stars are above the earth, God’s wisdom often looks pretty foolish to us human beings. It looks like madness, St Paul says. Divine madness. The folly of the Cross and the folly of total, uncompromising loyalty to an itinerant carpenter who was executed as a criminal and couldn’t even count on his best friends to stay by him to the end.
The gospel actually invites us to take Jesus very seriously. He challenges us with outlandish statements, not so we will go out and hate others as we hate ourselves, but so that we will recognize that anything or anyone we prefer over God and God’s kingdom will to that extent bar us from that kingdom, keeping us from the love and grace and healing forgiveness of God. In fact, Jesus, you might recall, tells us to love others as we love ourselves.
Today’s readings are not about possessions, but about possessing, about the desire to have, to control, to own something or someone. True freedom, Jesus tells us, lies in the ability to let go, and more precisely, in actually letting go. Letting go not just of everything, but of anything that comes between us and God.
A case in point is provided by Paul’s brief letter to his friend Philemon. It concerned a runaway slave named Onesimos, who apparently joined Paul at some point in his final trip to Rome. Onesimos, by the way, means “useful,” and Paul includes a nice play on words because of that. “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.” Although he has grown to love Onesimos as a son, Paul wants him to go back to Philemon, his Christian master and owner. Slavery, after all, means being owned by someone, not being free to be oneself.
Paul is sending Onesimos back with the request that Philemon treat him as a brother. But why didn’t Paul simply ask him to free Onesimus and his other slaves once for all? For that matter, why did the Christian church take 1700 years to speak out against slavery and demand abolition? In this country, church officials and even religious congregations owned slaves before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. It might be noted, by the way, that the movement toward abolition was not a project of the hierarchy, but of maverick laymen and women, mostly Protestants.
As with marriage, the family, and other social institutions, Paul believed that all of them, including slavery, were about to wither away in the burning love of Christ’s return. There were more urgent things on Paul’s mind than attacking one of the most deeply entrenched social structures of the ancient world. He even called himself a slave of Christ and the gospel.
But there is more to it than that. It would have been relatively easy for Paul to ask Philemon to free Onesimos. Christians did often free their slaves. But that would not have meant that Philemon would have loved him and forgiven him. Paul in fact sends Onesimos back not as a runaway slave, but as a dear brother, in fact a blood brother — which is to say, an equal, a co-inheritor. How could Philemon continue to regard Onesimos as a slave if he was in fact his own brother? Sadly, we don’t know how that part of the story ended.
Slavery of any kind, including domestic slavery, is an appalling failure of human respect and love. But freeing slaves is not enough. Following the American Civil War, the lot of many slaves was far worse after emancipation than before it. Homeless, separated from their families, without prospect of work or assistance, many slaves starved to death, others fell into crime, or were taken cruel advantage of by speculators eager to make quick profits from cheap labor. Another century would pass before justice would even begin to rectify the situation of black men and especially women in the United States. Just last week we commemorated the March on Washington led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1963, with his prophetic cry, “Free at last, free at last, Thank God we are free at last!”
We still have far to go before we as a people recognize our Onesimos as a dear sister and brother, in fact, a blood-sister, and act accordingly. The reason, of course, is obvious. And this brings us back to the words of Jesus. It is not the slave who lacks freedom — it is the slave-owner, who is enslaved by his own possessiveness. We do not so much possess things or persons, as they possess us. Have you ever really tried to give away your possessions? The best most of us can do is throw them out. My old friend Brother Henry used to go around the priory at night fishing unwanted clothes out of the trash bins so he could wash them and take them to the Little Brothers of the Poor.
What Paul proposed was much more radical than merely freeing a runaway slave. What he asked for was divine folly. So be warned. Being a Christian, being the good news of Jesus Christ, is a little like dying. If we believe what Jesus said in today’s gospel, it is a lot like dying.
So let us pray for the courage to die — to our selves, to our desire to possess, to our forgetfulness of other people’s needs and the God who so dearly, foolishly, loves us and wants us all to be free.
This is Cairo the Cat, who adopted me from the Anti-Cruelty Society last March, when I was recuperating from heart surgery. He took it upon himself to make me laugh and helped get me well again. He’s a two-year-old half Maine Coon Cat, very bright, friendly, and affectionate. And sometimes too clever for his own good. Or mine, anyway. He celebrated his third birthday on Jan. 7.
Celtic Spirituality: Ancient Heritage and Living Legacy explores important aspects of the spiritualities that animated the lives of the Christian peoples of Ireland, Britain, Scotland and other regions that once covered most of northwestern Europe and continues today in a variety of forms in many parts of the world – wherever necessity or adventure led emigrants from their ancestral homelands. This 12 lecture set was recorded on CD for Now You Know Media, Inc., Chevy Chase, MD, in Nov. 2011.
Following on the big success of Katherine Kurtz’ first anthology, Tales of the Knights Templar , she rounded up the team and we put together a collection of new stories called On Crusade: More Tales of the Knights Templar. My contribution is called “The Treasure of the Temple,” and takes up where the first story left off. On Crusade was published in June 1998 by Warner Books in New York. It’s also available from Amazon.com . (A third volume of Tales will be in production shortly.)
In the midst of the rapidly shifting debate over military intervention in Syria, a couple of quotations came to mind – “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” a remark of the great English parliamentarian Edmund Burke in a Letter to William Smith in 1795. But then came the second thought, “First, do no harm.” Although not part of the Hippocratic oath, the injunction epitomizes the great medical code and a lot else besides. There’s also the caveat of Hillel the Elder and Jesus to consider – “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor” – the Golden Rule. As Jesus put it, “…do to others as you would have them do to you…” [See Matt 7:12 and esp. Luke 6:31.] As time went on, I was even reminded of Aesop’s parable of “The Boy Who Cried ‘Wolf’.” So much for the collective wisdom of the past.
President Obama appears to be caught between Burke and Hippocrates, or more significantly today, between those who believe it is the duty of the United States to enforce international law even if it means violating international law, and those who are convinced that lethal intervention can only make the Syrian crisis worse. Perhaps the dire lessons of the punitive Iraq War lodged in someone’s memory, stemming from the chant that Saddam Hussein killed his own people (with poison gas) and hoarded weapons of mass destruction that echoed so frequently in the halls of the US Congress and even the UN General Assembly.
He did both, and a lot else besides, although the “Weapons of Mass Destruction” had been dismantled a decade before the 2003 war. So much for Military Intelligence and political “certainty.” But the war was waged for many other reasons and killed many more people. Thousands more. And they are still dying as Iraq teeters ever closer to either civil war or total anarchy. (When CNN recently turned to L. Paul Bremer, the Destroyer of Nations, for an opinion on Syria, I felt that the capacity for moral outrage had truly flown out the window. The irony was painfully complete.)
For anyone who opposed the War against Iraq, the present claims of poison gas “used against his own people” and the reports of “weapons of mass destruction” evoke a chilly sense of déjà vu. Even a cursory glance at what became of Iraq after our “intervention” ought to prompt second and third thoughts as well as considerable restraint as the Administration ponders its next moves. The parliaments of Great Britain and France, as well as many members of the US Congress, certainly seem to think so. Pope Francis has added his voice to a growing chorus of world leaders pleading for a diplomatic approach rather than more violence and more deaths. Religious leaders and other vocal groups in the United States and Europe have similarly expressed strong opposition to a unilateral punitive expedition by the United States, or even one in which France may be the sole survivor of the new Coalition of the Willing.
Should the UN inspectors’ conclusions lend support to the accusations against the Assad regime, the seriousness of the situation may worsen, of course. It may also turn out that rebels used poison gas as some evidence appears to indicate. Will the Obama administration then be constrained to bomb them as well? But which rebels? It would be difficult, to say the least, to sort out only Al Qaeda or Iranian groups.
In the meantime, almost two million refugees have felt the necessity to flee Syria, and over a hundred thousand people have been killed. How selective bombing of Damascus can bring some kind of closure to this calamity is not at all evident. Please, Mr. President, first do no more harm.