Thursday, August 15, 2013

Make a Stand

Twentieth Ordinary Sunday Year C

A few years ago, I was attending a concluding conference of a programme organised by an interfaith dialogue institute in the United States. Ironically (and you’ll come to appreciate the irony shortly), this took place on the campus of the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. The ‘valedictorian’ chosen for the closing address was a fellow Catholic priest from a different country. It became obvious why he was the clear choice; his views were in tandem with those of the sponsoring institute. I’ve often listened to disparaging remarks regarding the Catholic Church and its teachings and have moved beyond the initial indignation, but I must admit that this address set new standards ad nauseum; especially, as it came from an ordained Catholic priest in a reputable Catholic university.

The whole address, which was originally feted as something to do with peace-building, interfaith dialogue and stuff-like-that degenerated into a sustained attack on the Catholic faith, covering a whole spectrum of topics: from its anachronistic grip on Tradition, to its misogynistic discrimination of women, and finally to its tolerance of intolerant and supposedly violent teachings and scriptures. To my amusement and the horror of the local faculty, the speaker announced at the end that he was going to take a firm stand against violence and bigotry by launching a crusade to revamp the whole body of Catholic teaching and undertaking a re-editing of sacred scripture to remove all offending texts, including the one we just heard today. Of course, no one took the claim seriously. An Indonesian Muslim participant, who sat beside me during the lecture, turned to me and asked a question which must have been playing on everyone’s mind: “Is he a Catholic?”

The remarks which I heard in this address were not unusual or isolated. They have been around for some time. Today you can get away with saying anything disrespectful, horrifying, insulting, or just outright slanderous about the Catholic Church and the Catholic faith and get away with it. But what seems more shocking is that we are witnessing the emergence of more zealous critics within the ranks of the Church. In fact, negative assessment of all things Catholic does not necessarily emanate from the secular media alone or the likes of Richard Dawkins. Many ‘Catholic’ institutions, including seminaries and clerics, including high-standing ones, are doing a pretty good job at using the Church as a convenient punching bag. Today, being Catholic whilst being anti-Catholic doesn’t seem to be much of a contradiction. In fact, it has become trendy to be anti-establishment or anti-Catholic! By doing so, one feels more ‘alike’ the world than ‘apart’ from it.

The reason for such an unholy alliance is simple: traditional Catholicism and religion is seen as the real cause for violence and wars in the world and thus needs to be ‘fixed’ or ‘eradicated.’ In one online discussion, I lifted the following criticism, which is quite characteristic of others: “Religion is the harbinger of ignorance and bigotry, and faith's greatest enemy is reason. It also instils nationalism, racism, sexism, homophobia, and it encourages the intervention and judgment of society on the private individual.” If you were to ask for a proof text to substantiate the above allegations, you would most likely get a quotation from today’s gospel, citing that Jesus, himself, whom Christians claim to be the Prince of Peace, personally advocated violence and in today’s gospel, announces his real agenda; that he is here to ‘bring fire to the earth’ and division, not peace. The Matthean version is more incendiary, ‘I come not to bring peace, but to bring the sword’ (Matt 10:34).

To cite the words of Jesus in today’s gospel, such as ‘bring fire to the earth’ or ‘I am here to bring division’, as the cause of all the violence and hatred we see in the world is ludicrous. Jesus is not making some broad statement about his ultimate purpose. Rather, he is pointing to a very real result of his kingdom proclamation. The gospel will effect divisions because Jesus confronts us with the truth. He is "the truth" (John 14:6) and we have to respond. Our response will ultimately be the point of division. We can either accept the Truth or reject ‘him’. If we try to ignore, that too is a form of rejection. As Jesus announced the kingdom of God, calling for primary allegiance, this will inevitably cause splits and create rifts between different camps, those who will stand with him in the Kingdom, and those who refuse to abide with him or even choose to stand against the Kingdom. The family, the traditional central institution that provides protection and social identity, must also give way to this new relationship with Christ. So, even though the kingdom of God ultimately establishes God’s peace on earth, the advance of the kingdom brings division.

The fiery message of this passage is equally crucial to our times. The challenge thrown by Jesus is contrary to many of the prevalent values of our age, the two principal ones being inclusiveness and moral relativity. As a result of this obsession with "inclusiveness," we are told that we should accept "alternative lifestyles", accept all sorts of behaviour that used to be considered unacceptable. The watchword is "tolerance". Some have almost made a god of tolerance. Yet we find these same people can be quite intolerant of any viewpoint that does not tolerate every kind of behaviour. Closely related to this teaching of tolerance is the concept of moral relativity, which illogically argues that there are no moral absolutes, except its own claim to be absolute. We must, however, note that Truth is indeed intolerant but its intolerance is directed to lies and sin which seek to hide under the cover of euphemisms. We must remember that Jesus was never tolerant of evil. In the case of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:11), he reached out to the sinner in love, but he hated sin. Compassion and acceptance of the sinner never meant tolerance of their behaviour. It meant exhorting them to cease that sort of behaviour. Jesus drew very sharp lines between what was good and what was evil, what was moral and what was immoral, lines which our modern society attempts to blur. When we blur the line between good and evil, we call destruction upon ourselves.

This unhappy truth does not, of course, imply that followers of Jesus are to seek conflict or to try to split up families or bring division. In fact, Jesus makes it clear that we are to be peacemakers and “to live in peace with each other” (Matt. 5:9; Mark 9:50). St Paul adds: “Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:18). But making peace is not the same as making nice. Sometimes, our efforts to bring genuine peace to a situation or a relationship will, in fact, lead to conflict. Neither, does making peace mean compromising the Truth. Quite often the gospel demands exposing the lie that underlies our culture and society.

So, today, Jesus draws the lines and calls us to make a stand. Jesus contrasted his way to the way of the world quite emphatically: “He who is not with me is against me” (Luke 11:23). I’m reminded of the meditation of the Two Standards in the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola. Ignatius believed that there is a battle between good and evil going on in the world and in our hearts. It is important that we are aware of this battle. All disciples have to choose where we are going to stand—with Jesus or with the world. Many of us, well-intentioned Catholics, may honestly believe that we are standing with Christ but unknowingly aligning ourselves with the world’s standard. Our collusion with the world may sometimes be benign and subtle. When we are afraid to witness to the values of the Kingdom with the excuse that we wish to be peaceful and respectful, that we do not wish to offend anyone, we are actually standing out of line, within the firing range of enemy territory. When we try to be friendly with the world, we may make the fatal mistake of being an unwitting Trojan horse within our own ranks – thus the oxymoron of a committed Catholic who’s anti-Catholic. When the lines are blurred, our benign collusion may actually be a path to succumb to the darkness. We begin to buy into the lies of the world and after a while become advocates of ideologies that emerge from the world, to the extent of treating them as divinely inspired theological doctrines.

I just recently read the meditation by the Maltese Cardinal Prosper Grech given to the College of Cardinal Electors just before they sealed the Enclave that had elected our new Pope Francis. In his reflection, the eminent and erudite Cardinal presented several points of what he believed Christ would want of his Church. Any reader would clearly agree that this is not the soft fluffy version of the gospel, heavily edited by the tools and standards of political correctness. On the contrary, it unequivocally presents and states the real hard Truth, the kind of Truth that demands a response, a decision, a Truth that will evoke division between those who choose to stand with Christ or with the world. I guess anything fit for an audience like the princely College of Electors should be fit for us lowly folk. I would like to share the first point he made, which thus acts as a foundation for the rest: “After his resurrection Jesus sent the apostles into the whole world to make disciples of all peoples and baptise them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (Mt 29:19). The Church does this by presenting the Gospel without compromise, without diluting the word… When one descends to compromises with the Gospel one empties it of its “dynamis,” (power) as if one were to remove the explosive from a hand grenade.” Pow! As we draw closer to Christ and his gospel, the lines are being more sharply drawn between good and evil, between truth and falsity, between faithful orthodoxy and disobedient dissent, between the one true God and false gods. We must choose. We must make our stand. There is no middle ground.

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