A Prophetic Tour in the Land of Ruin

At Mass for Tuesday of the 18th Week of the Year, we read from one of the later chapters of Jeremiah the Prophet, who wrote during the time of the Babylonian exile. He serves as a kind of “tour guide” through a land of ruin, one that seems all too familiar to us today.

The Northern Kingdom of Israel had been destroyed by the Assyrians in 721 B.C. The Southern Kingdom of Judah, ignoring numerous warnings and calls to repentance, later experienced the same fate; the Babylonians laid siege and destroyed Jerusalem in 587 B.C. Just prior to this destruction, Jeremiah saw the glory of God lift from the Temple and move away to the east. The city and even the Temple now lay in ruins. The Ark of the Covenant was lost and the survivors were deported to Babylon.

Yes, it was a terrible destruction, but one that could have been avoided if the Lord’s people had only heeded the warnings of the prophets and returned wholeheartedly to the Him and His commandments. With the Lord and within the safe walls of His commandments there is strength and protection. Outside the walls and His presence, Judah was a sitting duck, easy prey.

Let’s consider what the Lord says through Jeremiah in today’s passage and ponder how this historical event speaks to our times.

Ruin Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Incurable is your wound, grievous your bruise.

Simple medicines or bandages are not sufficient. These wounds are deep, foul, and festering. Sin does this to us spiritually as its evils go deeper and deeper. A simple skin cancer, left untreated, can find its way into inner organs and even reach our bones. So, too, does sin, untreated by repentance, grow more serious. It renders us vulnerable to deeper and more serious sins that bring spiritual ruin, darkness, and a stubbornly unrepentant demeanor in which the cancer of pride is in its final stages. Judah has reached this stage and the only medicine that is left is for the people to experience the full ramifications of their rejection of God.

What of the once-Christian West? What of America? Can we possibly think that our cultural revolution, rooted in sinful rebellion against authority, sacred Tradition, the moral vision of the Scriptures, and the meaning of human sexuality and marriage can yield anything but corruption? Can our greed, our insatiable desire for more no matter the human (or monetary) cost, forever mortgage our future? Have not our wounds multiplied and gone deeper? The blood of our aborted children cries out to Heaven. Our broken families multiply due to promiscuity and rampant divorce. Broken families yield a bumper crop of broken children as the cycle deepens. Are these wounds curable? Do we even show any willingness to take the necessary medicines of self-control, fidelity, and obedience to God’s vision? It seems not. Midnight fast approaches. As Jeremiah once warned the people of his time, so must we in the Church today send up the warning cry that our wounds are getting worse, the intellectual and moral darkness is growing ever deeper, and our time to repent is getting shorter. Soon enough, as with Ancient Israel and Judah, the full bill for our sin will come due.

Scripture says,

Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith (Gal 6:7-10).

Rejection There is none to plead your cause, no remedy for your running sore, no healing for you. All your lovers have forgotten you, they do not seek you.

Among the things that the ancient Jews did was to run after other lovers and other remedies. They were entangled in foreign military alliances and became enamored of pagan culture and religion. God spoke of their running after pagan gods as infidelity and adultery, for they were espoused to Him.

As for us in the formerly Christian West, while we are not espoused to God as a nation (though surely as members of the Bride of Christ), we too have often sought solutions far from God or even opposed to Him. We have cast aside God’s plan for our happiness and bought into the notion that worldly indulgence and sin will bring us happiness and health. In so doing we call God a liar and forsake our covenant with Him. We run after other lovers, trusting the world, the flesh, and the devil instead of our God, who made us and saved us. Secular mindsets and even outright atheism have made deep inroads into our culture. Church attendance has plummeted while attention to the “bread and circuses” of the modern world has reached new highs. We trust our affluence, power, medicine, and science (all themselves great gifts of God), but we do not trust the true Shepherd and Lord of our souls, the only one who can really save us.

What are these philosophers that pose as healers and lovers, who have ushered in this ruin, doing now? They are doubling down on their false prescriptions and going ever deeper into darkness, repeating the lies of these worldly philosophies, glorying in the flesh, and marginalizing the vision of God. Moderns cry out “Love!” and speak of compassion, but it is a false love and a false compassion.

The text essentially asks, where are these lovers now? Where is the happiness and fulfillment they promised with their false notions of freedom?

Reason I struck you as an enemy would strike, punished you cruelly; Why cry out over your wound? your pain is without relief. Because of your great guilt, your numerous sins, I have done this to you.

The consequences of sin cannot forever be postponed. Even if God mercifully protects us from some of them, He will not do so forever. God’s patience is directed toward our salvation. He gives us time to repent, but at some point (known only to Him) our presumptiveness eclipses His patience. The boil must be lanced; gangrenous tissue must be cut away. Only strong— even desperate—measures will work. They may seem to us to be cruel, but to do nothing would be to lose all, and that is far more cruel. Our sins and unrepentance “force” these difficult measures, so that at least a few might be saved.

When does a person, a culture, or a nation reach such a point? Only God knows, but why test the situation? The Lord says,

“… O Israel, if you would but listen to Me! ‘You shall not have in your midst a foreign god; you shall not bow to an alien god. I am the LORD your God Who brought you up out of the land of Egypt’—open wide your mouth, and I will fill it.” But My people did not listen to My voice, Israel did not yield to Me; so I set him free with their stubborn heart, that they could follow their own counsels. O that My people would listen to Me, that Israel would follow My ways! At once I would subdue their enemies, against their foes bring back My hand. Those who hate the LORD shall cringe before Him; their doom will last forever. But He would [rather] feed him the finest wheat: and sate you with honey from the rock. (Ps 81:9-17).

RestorationThus says the LORD: See! I will restore the tents of Jacob, his dwellings I will pity; City shall be rebuilt upon hill, and palace restored as it was. From them will resound songs of praise, the laughter of happy men. I will make them not few, but many; they will not be tiny, for I will glorify them. His sons shall be as of old, his assembly before me shall stand firm; I will punish all his oppressors.

God permits these terrible ills to befall His people so that He might save at least some, a faithful remnant.

The people of Israel spent eighty years in Babylon, and then as if miraculously, God brought them back. The Babylonians were defeated by the Persians; Cyrus, King of Persia, permitted them to return to their land and even offered to help rebuild Jerusalem! Now that there is a purified remnant, God will begin again with His people. Future purifications will also be necessary.

What of us? In times of old, there was a faithful remnant that did not fully succumb to the darkness of the days. There were others who did repent; it is for their sake that God acts to bring an end to widespread evil lest all His people be consumed. Though none of us has lived a perfect life, through repentance we should seek to be the faithful remnant God acts to save. We are likely going to see even darker days before the evil of our times plays out and is purged. The battle is the Lord’s. For our part, we should seek to stay faithful, repent when we fall, and look to the day when God will restore this world or come again in glory.

The Church has survived many ups and downs in this world. Empires have risen and fallen, nations and cultures have come and gone, but we are still here proclaiming the gospel, in season and out of season, until the Lord shall come.

What is your mission and mine? Be the remnant! Yes, Lord, do what you need to do, but please, help us to stay faithful!

Reunion His leader shall be one of his own, and his rulers shall come from his kin. When I summon him, he shall approach me; how else should one take the deadly risk of approaching me? says the LORD. You shall be my people, and I will be your God.

Here is the endgame. The Lord’s ultimate work for each of us is to restore ourselves to union with Him. Jesus came to give us access to the Father through the shedding of His Precious Blood. Jeremiah’s message to us is to stay faithful unto death, when we will be summoned to the Father, and by the grace of our Lord Jesus approach Him with the confidence of holiness granted to us by that grace. The Book of Hebrews describes this and gives us both hope and an exhortation:

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the veil, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near (Heb 10:19-25).

Thus, a quick tour through a ruined land, but with our eyes set on a glorious reunion.

Meanwhile, be the remnant and stay faithful, by His grace. Let God do His work. Maranatha!

Of Hunger and Hallucinations – How the Stages of Starvation Describe the Decaying West

Physical hunger is a serious problem; We are obliged to assist the starving and malnourished. But even more prevalent these days is spiritual hunger, if not outright starvation. As is the case with physical hunger, the source of spiritual hunger is not God, who has given us abundant grace and truth; it is we who are the source. It is a strange starvation to be sure, for it is largely self-inflicted. Further, it seems to be at an advanced stage.

I am told that as physical starvation advances there comes a time when a kind of lethargy sets in. Although a person knows he is hungry, he lacks the mental acuity to want to do much about it. This seems to be the stage of spiritual starvation at which many Westerners find themselves today. Most people know they are spiritually hungry and are longing for something, but through a kind of lethargy and mental boredom, they don’t seem inclined to do much about it.

I’d like to look at the progressive stages of physical starvation (gleaned from several medical sources) and then speak of their spiritual equivalents. Please understand that when I use the pronoun “we” I am not necessarily talking about you, but rather about a large number, perhaps even a majority, of people in our culture today.

  1. Weakness – In our time of spiritual starvation, a great moral weakness is evident. Self-control in the realm of sexuality and self-discipline in general seem increasingly lacking in our culture today. Many are too weak to keep the commitments they have made to marriage, religious life, or the priesthood. Addiction is a significant issue as well: addiction to alcohol, drugs, and pornography. In addition, we seem consumed by greed; we are obsessed with accumulating possessions, and the more we have the more we seem unable to live without them. Increasingly, people declare that they are not responsible for what they do and/or cannot help themselves. There is a general attitude that it is unreasonable to expect people to live out ordinary biblical morality, to have to suffer or endure the cross. All of these demonstrate weakness and a lack of courage, signaling the onset of spiritual starvation.
  2. Confusion – As spiritual starvation sets in, the mind gets cloudy; thinking becomes distorted. There is a lot of confusion today about even the most basic moral issues. How could we get so confused as to think that killing unborn babies is OK? Sexual confusion is also rampant, so that what is contrary to nature (e.g., homosexual acts) is approved and what is destructive to the family (e.g., illicit heterosexual behavior) is widely accepted as well. Confusion is also deep about how to properly and effectively raise, train, discipline, and educate our children.
  3. Irritability – As spiritual starvation progresses, a great deal of anger is directed at the Church whenever she addresses the malaise of our times. In addition, there is growing resistance to lawful authority and a loss of respect for elders and for tradition. St. Paul describes well the general irritability of a culture that has suppressed the truth about God and is spiritually starving: They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy (Romans 1:29-31). Because we are starved of the common meal of God’s Word and revealed truth and because we have rejected natural law, we have been reduced to shouting matches and power struggles. We no longer agree on the essentials that the “food” of God’s truth provides. Having refused this sustenance, we have become irritable and strident.
  4. Immune deficiency – As our spiritual starvation grows we cannot ward off the increasing attacks of the disease of sin. We more easily give way to temptation. Deeper and deeper bondage is increasingly evident in our sin-soaked culture. Things once thought to be indecent are now done openly and even celebrated. Many consider any suggested resistance to sin to be unreasonable, even impossible. Sexually transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancy, abortion, the consumption of internet pornography, divorce, and cohabitation are becoming widespread. Like disease, sin spreads because we are less capable of fighting it off.
  5. The body begins to feed on its own muscle tissue (after fat cells are depleted) – In our spiritual starvation, we start to feed on our very own. We kill our children in utero; we use embryos for research. We euthanize our elderly. Young people kill other young people in gang violence. We see strife, power struggles, and wars increase. In tight economic times, we who have depleted the fat cells of public funds and amassed enormous debt fight with one another over the scraps that are left and refuse to give up any of our own entitlements, instead of restraining our spending and re-examining our priorities. Starving people can be desperate, and desperate people often turn on others. In the end, we as a body are consuming our very self.
  6. Internal organs begin to shut down – In the spiritually starving Western world, many of our institutions are becoming dysfunctional and shutting down. Our families are in the throes of a major crisis. Almost of half of all children today no longer live with both parents. Schools are in serious decline. Most public-school systems have been a disgrace for years. America, once at the top of worldwide academic performance, now lags far behind. Churches and parochial schools also struggle as Mass attendance has dropped in the self-inflicted spiritual starvation of our times. Government, too, is becoming increasingly dysfunctional; strident differences paralyze it, and scandals plague the public sector. As we go through the stages of starvation, important organs of our culture and our nation are shutting down.
  7. Hallucinations – St. Paul spoke of the spiritually starved Gentiles of his day and said, their thinking became futile and their senseless minds were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools … Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind (Romans 1:21-22,28). As we in the West spiritually starve, our thinking becomes increasingly bizarre, distorted, fanciful, silly, vain, and often lacking in common sense. Since our soul is starving, we hallucinate.
  8. Convulsions and muscle spasms – Violence and turmoil run through our culture as basic social structures shut down and become dysfunctional. The breakdown of the family leads to many confused, incorrigible, and violent children. This is not just in the inner cities; violence, shootings, and gangs are in the suburbs as well. Even non-violent children have short attention spans and are often difficult to control and discipline. Although ADHD may well be over-diagnosed, overstimulated children with short attention spans are a real problem today. Adults, too, manifest a lot of convulsive and spasmodic behaviors, short attention spans, and mercurial temperaments. As we reach the advanced stages of spiritual starvation in our culture, convulsive and spasmodic behavior are an increasing problem.
  9. Irregular heartbeat – In the spiritually starving West, it is not as though we lack all goodness. Our heart still beats, but it is irregular and inconsistent. We can manifest great compassion when natural disasters strike, yet still be coarse and insensitive at other times. We seem to have a concern for the poor, but abort our babies and advocate killing our sick elderly. Our starving culture’s heartbeat is irregular and inconsistent, another sign of spiritual starvation.
  10. Sleepy, comatose state – Our starving culture is sleepy and often unreflective. The progress of our terrible fall eludes many, who seem oblivious to the symptoms of our spiritual starvation. St Paul says, So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled (1 Thes 5:6). He also says, And do this, understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed (Rom 13:11). Jesus speaks of the starvation that leads to sleepiness in this way: Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness, and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap (Luke 21:34).
  11. Death – Spiritual death is the final result of starvation. We become dead in our sins. Pope Francis remarked that the lights are going out in Europe. As Europe has forsaken its spiritual heritage and embarked upon a self-imposed spiritual starvation, its birthrates have declined steeply. It is quite possible that during the lifetime of some of the younger readers of this post, Europe as we have known it will cease to exist. Western liberal democracies that have starved themselves to death will be replaced by Muslim theocratic states. This is what happens when we starve ourselves: death eventually comes. America’s fate is less obvious. There are many on a spiritual starvation diet, but also many who still believe; there are signs of revival in the Church here. Pray God that the reversal will continue! Pray, too, that it is not too late for Europe.

Thus, while we know little of physical starvation in the affluent West, spiritual starvation and its symptoms are manifest. Mother Teresa once spoke of the West as the poorest part of the world she had encountered. That is because she saw things spiritually, not materially. Some years back, Cassidy Bugos, a student from Christendom College in Virginia, spent a few weeks working among the poor in Mexico with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. Recounting a conversation with one of the nuns there, Miss Bugos wrote,

In the East [India], the soul is different. It is stronger, as she put it, and solid. Whether a person is Christian, or Hindu, or Muslim, or Buddhist, he is a solid Christian, a solid Hindu, Muslim, or Buddhist. He will not lose faith because he is hungry, or because he is well-fed. And in India, if people are hungry, they are still happy. The poorest people on the streets, she said, are the happiest. If they have food today, they are happy; they do not wonder if they will have food tomorrow. Their joy, she insisted, is something unlike anything you see on any face in the West …

Here in the West, she said, it is different. Here most poor people have enough [materially], even though they don’t understand how little “enough” is. But they are unhappy, she said. … They are unhappy, because they have no God. That is the real poverty. The farther North you go in America, she added, the more wealth you see, and the less joy you find. Those people … the depressed, and the sad people “with no God and a great big house”, are the poorest of the poor. That’s what Mother Teresa meant. It is hard, she added with a sigh, to find Christ in them. … We must put Him there. …

More than that, she wanted us to understand whom we were serving, when we served anyone’s spiritual or material needs. We were serving Christ. When one of “the Grandmas,” blind and deaf, cried out from her wheelchair, “Agua, por favor,” on the wall over her head we were bound to see a crucifix and beside it the motto of the Missionaries of Charity, the two words, tengo sed. “I thirst.” [1]

Be well-fed spiritually! Spiritual starvation is an awful thing; it is the worst thing.

This post has been a bit heavy, so I hope you won’t mind if I inject a little humor in the form of the video below. Though humorous, it makes an important point: you’re not you when you’re hungry. Spiritual starvation can rob us of our identity as joyful children of God, meant to be fully alive and fully functioning. Ultimately, we are meant to be Christ, to become what we eat in Holy Communion. When we do not eat, we are “not ourselves.” This video is trying sell Snickers bars, but please understand that I am talking about Jesus. If you’re hungry, you’re not yourself.

 

 

Unmoored Freedom is No Freedom – A Reflection on the 4th of July

To most modern minds, freedom is a very detached concept; it is an abstraction of sorts, a free-floating power unmoored from any limits or defining standards. Freedom today is often viewed as personal and self-referential, with little consideration as to how one’s “freedom” might affect that of someone else. A healthy sense of the common good suffers mightily in a world of deeply conflicting personal freedoms.

I have written before on the paradoxes of freedom and will not repeat all of that here, but one point to reiterate is that for us (who are limited and contingent beings) the only true and healthy freedom is a limited one.

I was free to write this column and you are free to read it, but for shared communication to occur, we must each limit our respective personal freedom by following certain rules. I had to post the article in the expected place and you had to go there to read it. I had to follow many grammatical and linguistic rules in order to be intelligible, and you must apply similar norms in order to understand. As soon as either of us starts to cop an attitude and say, “I won’t be told what to do; I’ll do whatever I please,” communication suffers. Therefore, each of us limits his freedom in order to communicate.

Another example can be found in the realm of sports. Rules, in a sense, make the game. The players and spectators limit their freedom by accepting that a given game has a specific goal. Further, there are boundaries and rules of play. If some or all of these limits were removed, there would be no framework. Players would start moving aimlessly about the field and teams would break apart. Spectators would argue about everything and even forget why they were in the stadium to begin with. All order on the field and in the stands would break down; even the distinction between the field and the stands would start to lose meaning. Chaos and conflict would result.

To some degree this picture describes our modern age. Cultures, like the microcosm of a sports event, need agreed upon goals and rules of play in order to function properly. In the modern Western world, we are currently engaged in a misguided experiment as to whether a culture can exist without a shared cultus.

Obviously, the word cultus is at the heart of the word culture. In Latin, a cultus is something for which we care or about which we are concerned; it is something of worth, something considered valuable. It describes the most central, fundamental values of a group. In later Latin, cultus came to describe the worth or value we attribute to God, who is our truest goal.

Remove the cultus from culture and you get the breakdown we are seeing today. While pluralism and diversity have value, they must exist within a framework that is shared and agreed upon. Otherwise pluralism and diversity are unmoored and become like ships crashing about in a stormy bay.

In order for a culture to exist, there must be a shared cultus, a shared focus on what is good, true, beautiful, and sacred. Our modern experiment shows the failure of trying to have a culture without this.

Bishop Robert Barron, himself commenting on Pope Benedict’s analysis, writes the following:

The setting aside of God can take place both explicitly (as in the musings of the atheists) or implicitly (as in so much of the secular world where “practical” atheism holds sway). In either case the result is a shutting down of the natural human drive toward the transcendent and, even more dangerously, the elevation of self-determining freedom to a position of unchallenged primacy.

[Pope Benedict elaborates] here a theme that was dear to his predecessor, namely, the breakdown of the connection between freedom and truth. On the typically modern reading, truth is construed as an enemy to freedom—which explains precisely why we find such a hostility to truth in the contemporary culture. Indeed, anyone who claims to have the truth—especially in regard to moral matters—is automatically accused of arrogance and intolerance.

Society will be restored to balance and sanity, Benedict argued, only when the natural link between freedom and truth—especially the Truth which is God—is reestablished. … Behind all our arguments about particular moral and political issues is a fundamental argument about the centrality of God [Vibrant Paradoxes, pp. 217-218].

Thus, freedom cannot be an abstraction. It cannot be unmoored. It is not an unlimited concept. Freedom can only exist in a healthy and productive way when it is in reference to the truth—and truth is rooted in God and what He has revealed in creation, Sacred Scripture, and Tradition. This is the cultus necessary for every culture. True and healthy freedom is the capacity to obey God. Anything that departs from this necessary framework is a deformed freedom, on its way to chaos and slavery.

The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to “the slavery of sin” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1733).

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Two Stories About Detachment

It is common to think of detachment as something the poor easily have and the rich seldom have. Whatever the statistics on detachment as related to wealth, it is certainly true that there are some poor folks who are greedy attached to this world’s riches, while there are some rich people who are quite generous and unattached to the possessions their wealth affords.

Two stories come to mind. I do not recall the sources, and I have likely adapted them over the years. They speak to the difficulty of maintaining a healthy detachment from material wealth regardless of one’s financial health.

A wandering monk moved about preaching. He owned only the clothing on his back and, strangely, a golden begging bowl, gifted to him by a benefactor who was also his disciple. One night as he was about to lie down among the ruins of an ancient monastery he spied a thief, lurking among the columns. “Here, take this,” he said, handing the golden begging bowl to the thief. “That way you won’t disturb me once I have fallen asleep.” The thief eagerly took the bowl and ran off. But the next morning he returned, saying, “You have made me feel poor, giving me the bowl so freely. Teach me to acquire the riches that make this sort of lighthearted detachment possible.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Among the wandering shepherds was a leader who lived in riches, with luxurious tents, surrounded by servants. So lavish was his wealth that his tent pegs, driven in the ground, were made of solid gold. A poorer shepherd came by one day with his wooden begging bowl, cracked and warped. Seeing such wealth, he begged from the wealthy man but also upbraided him for such conspicuous wealth. Nevertheless, the wealthy man welcomed him, served him a fine meal, and permitted him to rest in his expansive tents. Early the next day the wealthy man said to the poorer one, “Come, let us go up to Jerusalem.” Staff in hand, the wealthy man left his wealth and luxury behind without a thought or care. A short way into the journey the poor man realized that he had left his wooden begging bowl behind and wanted to go back and get it. But the rich man said, “I left all my wealth behind without care or worry. Yet you are so attached to a cup of little or no worth that you cannot go up to Jerusalem without it. You upbraided me for my wealth, but I want to assure you, the golden tent pegs to which you objected were driven into the earth, not into my heart.”

Yes, detachment is ultimately a matter of the heart. It is not wrong to enjoy the good things of life, but too often they possess us, and we come rely on them so heavily that we cannot imagine living without them. We who live in these times of widespread comfort sometimes discover that we lack the freedom to live without them. Further, though surrounded by abundance, we see to be more fearful, not less. Though this age is filled with luxuries and creature comforts, we seem more anxious than ever; we just have too much to lose. The tent pegs that belong in the earth are so often driven into our heart.

St. Paul describes the grace we should seek:

I have learned to be content regardless of my circumstances. I know how to live humbly, and I know how to abound. I am accustomed to any and every situation—to being filled and being hungry, to having plenty and having need. I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength (Phil 4:11-13).

Without this grace, it is clear how quickly our hearts enter bondage and we go astray. Help us, Lord, to enjoy what you have given but not so much that it becomes a substitute for you. May trust and gratitude be our guide to detachment.

 

Two Teachings on Discipleship from Jesus

In the Gospel for today (Monday of the 13thWeek of the Year) Jesus gives two teachings on discipleship. They are not easy, and they challenge us—especially those of us who live in the affluent West.

Poverty– The text says, As they were proceeding on their journey someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus answered him, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”

Here is a critical discipline of discipleship: following Jesus even if worldly gain not only eludes us but is outright taken from us.Do you love the consolations of God or the God of all consolation? Do you seek the gifts of God, or the Giver of every good and perfect gift? What if following Jesus gives you no earthly gain? What if being a disciple brings you ridicule, loss, prison, or even death? Would you still follow Him? Would you still be a disciple?

In this verse, the potential disciple of Jesus seems to have had power, prestige, or worldly gain in mind. Perhaps he saw Jesus as a political messiah and wanted to get on the “inside track.” Jesus warns him that this is not what discipleship is about. The Son of Man’s kingdom is not of this world.

We need to heed Jesus’ warning. Riches are actually a great danger. Not only do they not help us in what we really need, they can actually hinder us! Poverty is the not the worst thing. There’s a risk in riches, a peril in prosperity, and a worry in wealth.

The Lord Jesus points to poverty and powerlessness (in worldly matters) when it comes to being disciples. This is not merely a remote possibility or an abstraction. If we live as true disciples, we are going to find that piles of wealth are seldom our lot. Why? Well, our lack of wealth comes from the fact that if we are true disciples, we won’t make easy compromises with sin or evil. We won’t take just any job. We won’t be ruthless in the workplace or deal with people unscrupulously. We won’t lie on our resumes, cheat on our taxes, or take easy and sinful shortcuts. We will observe the Sabbath, be generous to the poor, pay a just wage, provide necessary benefits to workers, and observe the tithe. The world hands out (temporary) rewards if we do these sorts of things, but true disciples refuse such compromises with evil. In so doing, they reject the temporary rewards of this earth and may thus have a less comfortable place to lay their head. They may not get every promotion and they may not become powerful.

Thus “poverty” is a discipline of discipleship.What is “poverty”? It is freedom from the snares of power, popularity, and possessions.

Jesus had nowhere to rest his head. Now that is poor. However, it also means being free of the many obligations and compromises that come with wealth. If you’re poor no one can steal from you or threaten take away your possessions. You’re free; you have nothing to lose.

Most of us have too much to lose and so we are not free; our discipleship is hindered. Yes, poverty is an important discipline of discipleship.

Promptness (readiness)The text says, And to another he said, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” But he answered him, “Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

The Lord seems harsh here. However, note that the Greek text can be understood in the following way: “My Father is getting older. I want to wait until he dies and then I will really be able to devote myself to being a disciple!”

Jesus’ point is that if the man didn’t have this excuse, he’d have some other one. He does not have a prompt or willing spirit. We can always find some reason that we can’t follow wholeheartedly today because. There are always a few things resolved first.

It’s the familiar refrain: I’ll do tomorrow!

There is peril in procrastination. Too many people always look to tomorrow. But remember that tomorrow is not promised. In Scripture there is one word that jumps out repeatedly; it’s the word now. There are many references to the importance of now or today rather than tomorrow:

  • Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD (Isaiah 1:18).
  • behold, now is the day of salvation (2 Cor 6:2).
  • Today if ye will hear his voice, Harden not your heart (Ps 95:7).
  • Boast not thyself of tomorrow; for you know not what a day may bring forth (Prov 27:1).

That’s right, tomorrow is not promised! You’d better choose the Lord today because tomorrow might very well be too late. Now is the day of salvation.

There is an old preacher’s story about delay: There were three demons who told Satan about their plan to destroy a certain man.The first demon said, “I’m going to tell him that there is no Hell.” But Satan said, “People know that there’s a Hell and most have already visited here.” The second demon said, “I’m going to tell him that there is no God.” But Satan said, “Despite atheism being fashionable of late, most people know, deep down, that there is a God, for He has written His name in their hearts.” The third demon said, “I’m not going to tell them that there’s no Hell or that there’s no God; I’m going to tell them that there’s no hurry.” And Satan said, “You’re the man! That’s the plan!”

Yes, promptness is a discipline of discipleship. It is a great gift to be sought from God. It is the gift to run joyfully and without delay to what God promises.

Here are two disciplines of discipleship. They are not easy, but the Lord only commands what truly blesses. There is freedom in poverty and joy in quickly following the Lord!

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In Times of Harsh Political Discourse, What Do the Scriptures Say?

We are in times of strident political protest that includes a lot of harsh language, personal attacks, name calling, and even debased and profane terms. There are tweets, and angry monologues, harsh commentary on news networks, and interruptive press conferences and news interviews that sound more like a brawl than a debate. To put it all more pleasantly, these are times of “colorful” discourse.

What is the overall teaching of Scripture when it comes to this sort of colorful language? Are there some limits and ground rules? Let’s take a look.

The word “civility”dates back to the mid-16th century and has an older meaning that referred to one who possessed the quality of having been schooled in the humanities. In academic settings, debate (at least historically) was governed by a tendency to be nuanced, careful, cautious, formal, and trained in rhetoric. Its rules often included referring to one’s opponents with honorary titles (Doctor, Professor, etc.) and euphemisms such as “my worthy opponent.” Hence as the word entered common usage, it has come to mean speech or behavior that is polite, courteous, gentle, and measured.

As one might guess, there are a lot of cultural variancesin what is civil. And this insight is very important when we look at the biblical data on what constituted civil discourse. Frankly, the biblical world was far less dainty about discourse than we have become in 21st-century America. The Scriptures, including the New Testament, are filled with vigorous discourse. Jesus, for example, really mixes it up with His opponents—even calling them names. We shall see more of this in a moment. But the Scriptures also counsel charity and warn of unnecessarily angry speech. In the end, a balance of the scriptural witness to civility must be sought along with an appreciation of the cultural variables at work.

Let’s examine a few of the texts that counsel charityas well as a modern and American notion of civility:

  1. Anyone who says to his brother, “Raqa” is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell(Matt 5:22).
  2. Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen(Eph 4:29).
  3. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged(Col 3:21).
  4. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be (James 3:9-10).
  5. Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry(James 1:19).
  6. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt(Col 4:6).
  7. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up(1 Thess 5:11).
  8. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips(Col 3:8).
  9. Words from a wise man’s mouth are gracious, but a fool is consumed by his own lips(Eccl 10:12).
  10. The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools(Eccles 9:17).
  11. Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification(Rom 14:19).
  12. Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother(Gal 6:1).
  13. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort [the repentant sinner], so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow(2 Cor 2:7).

All these texts counsel a measured, charitable, and edifying discourse. Name-calling and hateful or unnecessary expressions of anger are out of place. And this is a strong biblical tradition, especially in the New Testament.

But there are also strong contrasts to this instruction evident in the Bible. And a lot of it comes from an unlikely source: Jesus. Paul too, who wrote many of the counsels above, often engages in strident denunciations of his opponents and even members of the early Church. Consider some of the passages below, first by Jesus, then by Paul and other Apostles:

  1. Jesus said, “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good?”(Matthew 12:34)
  2. And Jesus turned on them and said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are. “Woe to you, blind guides! … You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. … You hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. … And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers! “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?”(Matt 23 varia)
  3. Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me. … You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. … He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God” (John 8:42-47).
  4. Jesus said, Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me”(Mark 7:6).
  5. And Jesus answered them, O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long must I tolerate you?(Mark 9:19)
  6. Jesus said to the disciples, “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matt 7:11)
  7. Jesus said to the crowd, “I do not acceptpraise from men, but I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts”(Jn 5:41-42).
  8. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables(John 2:15).
  9. Then Jesus replied, “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!”(John 6:70)
  10. Paul: O senseless Galatians, who hath bewitched you that you should not obey the truth … As for those circumcisers, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!(Galatians 3, 5)
  11. Paul against the false apostles:And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve (2 Cor 11:11-14).
  12. Paul on the Cretans:Even one of their own prophets has said, “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true. Therefore, rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith(Titus 1:12-13).
  13. Peter against dissenters:Bold and arrogant, these men are not afraid to slander celestial beings…these men blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like brute beasts, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like beasts they too will perish. … They will be paid back with harm for the harm they have done. … They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their pleasures while they feast with you. With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed—an accursed brood! … Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit,” and, “A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud”(2 Peter 2, varia).
  14. Jude against dissenters:These dreamers pollute their own bodies, reject authority and slander celestial beings….these men speak abusively against whatever they do not understand; and what things they do understand by instinct, like unreasoning animals—these are the very things that destroy them. Woe to them! They have taken the way of Cain; … These men are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm—shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead. They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever. … These men are grumblers and fault finders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage(Jude 1:varia).

Now most of the passages above would violate modern norms about civil discourse.Are they sinful? They are God’s word! And yet they seem rather shocking to modern ears. Imagine getting into your time machine and going to hear Jesus denounce the crowds and calling them children of the devil. It really blows a 21st-century mind!

I want to suggest to you that these sorts of quotes go a long way toward illustrating the cultural dimension of what it means to be civil.The bottom line is that there is a great deal of variability in what people consider civil discourse. In some cultures there is a greater tolerance for anger. In New York and Boston, edgy comments and passionate interruptive debate are common. But in the upper-Midwest and parts of the Deep South, conversation is more gentle and reserved.

At the time of Jesus, angry discourse was apparently more “normal,”for as we see, Jesus Himself engages in a lot of it, even calling people names like “hypocrites,” “brood of vipers,” “liars,” and “wicked.” Yet the same Scriptures that record these facts about Jesus also teach that He never sinned. Hence at that time, the utterance of such terms was not considered sinful.

Careful, now—be careful here. This does not mean it is simply OK for us to talk like this because Jesus did. We do not live then; we live now; and in our culture such dialogue is seldom acceptable and often backfires. There ARE cultural norms we have to respect to remain in the realm of Charity. Exactly how to define civility in every instance is not always clear. An old answer to these hard-to-define things is “I know it when I see it.” So perhaps it is more art than science to define civility. But clearly we tend to prefer gentler discourse in this day and age.

On the other hand, we also tend to be a little thin-skinnedand hyper-sensitive. And the paradoxical result of insisting on greater civility is that we are too easily “outraged” (one of the more overused words in English today). We take offense where none is intended and we presume that the mere act of disagreeing is somehow arrogant, intentionally hurtful, or even hateful. We seem so easily provoked and so quick to be offended. All of this escalates anger further, and charges of hate and intolerance are launched back and forth when there is merely sincere disagreement.

Balance– The Scriptures give us two balanced reminders. First, that we should speak the truth in love, and with compassion and understanding. But it also portrays to us a time when people had thicker skin and were less sensitive and anxious in the presence of disagreement. We can learn from both biblical traditions. The biblical formula seems to be “clarity” with “charity,” the truth with a balance of toughness and tenderness. An old saying comes to mind: “Say what you mean, mean what you say, but don’t say it mean.”

Here is a video that depicts the zeal of Jesus and a bit of his anger.

1968 – A Year When Many in the Church Drank the Poison of the World

Corner of 7th & N Street NW, Washington D.C., April 8, 1968
There was something awful about the year 1968. Fifty years later we are still reeling from its effects. Perhaps we do well to ponder the deep wounds that still fester today.

I was a young lad at the time, and almost everything I saw on the television news terrified me. Harrowing nightly reports from Vietnam (where my father was stationed) detailed that day’s casualties; I always feared that my father had been one of those killed. There were frequent riots and anti-war demonstrations in America’s cities and college campuses. There were two high-profile assassinations: Dr. Martin Luther King in April and Robert F. Kennedy in June. Riots and burning cities followed Dr. King’s assassination. I remember my mother, who was teaching on the South Side of Chicago, having to flee for her life and finally be rescued and escorted out by police. The first stirrings of militant feminism were occurring.

The growing “hippie” movement was fresh off 1967’s “Summer of Love”—which was just an excuse for selfish, spoiled college kids to get high and fornicate while deluding themselves that they were somehow doing a noble thing. This ramped up to the even more hideous Woodstock festival in August of 1969. It popularized the sexual revolution, drug use, rebellion against all authority, and a lot of just plain bad behavior.

In the Church, sweeping changes were underway, adding to the uncertainty of those times. Even if one argues that such changes were necessary, they came at an inopportune time and fed into the popular notions of revolution. The revolt against Pope Paul VI’s magnificent and prophetic Humanae Vitae, published in July of 1968, ushered in a spirit of open dissent that still devastates the Church.

Yes, 1968 was a terrible year. When I mention that year and shake my head, I often get puzzled looks. I stand by my claim: 1968 was a cultural tsunami from which we have not recovered to this day.

Some years ago, I read an article by James Francis Cardinal Stafford, who also singled out 1968 as being a year of intense darkness. He focused particularly on the devastating effects of angry and open dissent, set loose by theologians and priests who rebelled against Humanae Vitae. The Cardinal asserted that the violent revolution raging outside the Church decisively entered within her during that time and that we still stagger from the effects today. Here are some of his observations of that year, when he was a priest in Baltimore:

English historian Paul Johnson dubs 1968 as the year of “America’s Suicide Attempt.” It included the Tet offensive in Vietnam with its tsunami-like effects in American life and politics, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee; the tumult in American cities on Palm Sunday weekend; and the June assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy in Southern California. It was also the year in which Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical letter on transmitting human life, Humanae Vitae (HV). He met immediate, premeditated, and unprecedented opposition from some American theologians and pastors. By any measure, 1968 was a bitter cup. …

The summer of 1968 is a record of God’s hottest hour. The memories are not forgotten; they are painful. They remain vivid like a tornado in the plains of Colorado. They inhabit the whirlwind where God’s wrath dwells. In 1968, something terrible happened in the Church. Within the ministerial priesthood, ruptures developed everywhere among friends which never healed. And the wounds continue to affect the whole Church. The dissent, together with the leaders’ manipulation of the anger they fomented, became a supreme test. It changed fundamental relationships within the Church. It was a Peirasmòs [i.e., a trial or test] for many.

During the height of the 1968 Baltimore riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I had made an emergency call to [an] inner-city pastor … He described the view from the rectory while speaking on the phone … his parish was becoming a raging inferno. He said, “From here I see nothing but fire burning everywhere. Everything has been set ablaze. The Church and rectory are untouched thus far.” He did not wish to leave or be evacuated. His voice betrayed disillusionment and fear. Later we learned that the parish buildings survived.

Memories of the physical violence in the city in April 1968 [following the King assassination] helped me to name what had happened in August 1968 [the explosion of dissent against Humanae Vitae]. Ecclesial dissent can become a kind of spiritual violence in its form and content.

What do I mean? Look at the results of the two events. After the violent 1968 Palm Sunday weekend, civil dialogue in metropolitan Baltimore broke down and came to a stop. It took a back seat to open anger and recriminations between whites and blacks. The … priests’ August gathering [against Humanae Vitae] gave rise to its own ferocious acrimony. Conversations among the clergy … became contaminated with fear. Suspicions among priests were chronic. Fears abounded. And they continue. The Archdiocesan priesthood lost something of the fraternal whole which Baltimore priests had known for generations. 1968 marked the hiatus of the generational communion … Priests’ fraternity had been wounded. Pastoral dissent had attacked the Eucharistic foundation of the Church. Its nuptial significance had been denied. Some priests saw bishops as nothing more than Roman mannequins.

Cardinal Shehan later reported that on Monday morning, August 5, he “was startled to read in the Baltimore Sun that seventy-two priests of the Baltimore area had signed the Statement of Dissent.” What he later called “the years of crisis” began for him during that hot … August evening in 1968 … Its unhinging consequences continue. Abusive, coercive dissent has become a reality in the Church and subjects her to violent, debilitating, unproductive, chronic controversies.

The violence of the initial disobedience was only a prelude to further and more pervasive violence. … Contempt for the truth, whether aggressive or passive, has become common in Church life. Dissenting priests, theologians, and laypeople have continued their coercive techniques. From the beginning, the press has used them to further its own serpentine agenda (The Year of the Peirasmòs – 1968, J. Francis Cardinal Stafford).

Yes, a terrible year 1968 was, and we have yet to recover. Discussion in the Church has often retained its painful, divisive, “spiritually violent” tendencies. Clergy at every level are divided—priests against priests, bishops against bishops, cardinals against cardinals. Division is everywhere. The laity often see bishops as more resembling elected official than the anointed leaders and fathers they are. Sadly, politics do seem to infect ecclesial matters. Cynicism—whatever its source—has crushed our openness to be taught. Many today are neither docile nor loving and supportive of the Church. Discourse in the Church, which should be marked by charity and a family love, is instead modeled on angry political debate and the pursuit of power; an atmosphere of suspicion and scorn is in the air.

Our faith has been divided and politicized even within. Catholics who are passionate about the family, life issues, and sexual morality go to one side of the room; those passionate about the social teachings of the Church to the other. From their respective sides they hurl blame, venom, and scorn, debating who is a true Catholic and who really cares about what is most important. We do this rather than appreciate the work that each of us does, failing to understand that the Church needs two wings to fly.

Add to all of this the wars over the liturgy; scorn and contempt are often evident in discussions of something that should be the source of our greatest unity. Legitimate diversity has become adversity; preferences are dogmatized; arrogance is too easily on display.

It seems that it is easy to get Catholics to fight among themselves. We take the bait every time. The media know it; many politicians know it. Shame on them for doing it, but shame on us for being such an easy target.

To a large extent it goes back to those angry days in 1968, when priests and laity took the violence and discord of that awful year and made it the template for Church life, when there emerged a kind of spiritual violence and discord, when there developed a hermeneutic of suspicion, and when there was an embracing of a distorted ecclesiology of the Church as a political entity rather than the Body of Christ.

Perhaps such tendencies were decades in the making, but as Cardinal Stafford notes, there was something about that hot and fateful August of 1968. Something in that awful year infiltrated the Church and has grown like a cancer. It is still with us today and has infected us all. Somehow, it’s still August; the scorching heat wave lingers, and the hazy air reminds us of the summer of our discontent—that awful, fateful year of 1968. Usquequo Domine … usquequo? (Ps 12:1)

This song says, “I need you, you need me. We’re all part of God’s Body. Stand with me, agree with me, you are important to me, I need you to survive.”

What Ails Us? The Rise of the Imperial, Autonomous Self

A rather succinct and accurate summary of our current malaise is that we live in the age of “the imperial, autonomous self.” In effect, many if not most people claim an authority, a right, to craft their own reality and live according to their own notions of it. Not so long ago, it was generally accepted that reality was something outside ourselves, something that we had to go out to meet, study, and obey. There was a certain “is-ness” to things. Conformity with the basic and revealed nature of things produced thriving and the kind of happiness that comes from being in harmony with what fundamentally is.

Recently however, there has been the ascendency of the notion that reality is what I say it is. The “soft garments” version of this is, “That may be true for you, but I see it differently. You live your truth and I will live mine.”

A Supreme Court decision of the early 1990s gave voice to this notion in its ruling defending a woman’s “right” to abort her baby:

At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life (Planned Parenthood of SE Pennsylvania v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833, 851 (1992)).

Such vapid language from the highest court in the land undermines the very concept of law. If someone can just define abortion as good, or define even the very nature of the universe, why can’t someone commit mass murder and call it good? This is the exultation of the imperial, autonomous self with almost no qualification! No family, community, nation, or culture can exist as a collection of imperial, autonomous individuals; it would be moral and political anarchy! Something outside ourselves (e.g., reality, the real (not imagined) universe, divine law, natural law, agreed-upon legal norms) must unite us.

The imperial, autonomous self cannot stay soft when, as the court suggests, the heart of liberty is neither the truth nor law (divine, natural, or civil). As we have seen in recent years, the imperial, autonomous becomes the imperious, combative self; the battle is not won by those with the most reasonable stance but by the most powerful, richest, loudest, fiercest, most exotic; or by those with most access to the media and popular culture.

The soft version of the imperial, autonomous self marches under the banners of tolerance, kindness, and open-mindedness. The fiercer version that has emerged more recently substitutes tyranny for tolerance. Few of these tyrants will admit their tyranny; they prefer to call it tolerance, but they have substituted a new meaning for the word.

Tolerance used to be understood as “a measured willingness to live with differences.” Today it has come to mean “agreement” and even “approval.” Of course, if I agree with you and approve of what you do, I do not need to practice tolerance. Thus, the redefinition of tolerance vacates the original meaning of the word entirely. Interestingly this new definition still permits calling others intolerant using the original meaning! It illustrates the “brilliance” of the cultural left in refashioning our very vocabulary and harnessing the power of words. I have written more on this matter here: Misunderstood Tolerance.

We ought not to be mistaken; the “tolerance” of the cultural elites is in fact tyranny. This is evident time and time again when anyone dares to stray from the acceptance and approval that are demanded by this new meaning. If one transgresses by not approving whatever previously sinful behavior currently demands approval, the repercussions include denouncement and demonization. The person or group is labeled unkind, hateful, intolerant, bigoted, phobic, discriminatory, and/or guilty of aggression (or the newly coined “microaggression”) and is accused of making people “feel unsafe.”

Having successfully demonized people or groups, the next move is to silence and suppress any expression of alternate views. Speakers delivering oppositional lectures on campuses are not merely protested, they are interrupted, shouted down, and even subjected physical disruption. All of this is deemed acceptable because the protesters are silencing the views of “bad” and “intolerant” people. In this way, the cultural left—which once held free speech as among the highest freedoms—is increasingly silencing oppositional speech.

The next stage is not merely to denounce opponents, but to legally punish them and criminalize their non-cooperation in the latest cause-du-jour. They are threatened legally, hauled into court, decertified, fined, and/or shut down for failing to approve of whatever the theoretically tolerant people say they should.

A recent Supreme Court case granted some relief to a Colorado baker who was subjected to this. This does not mean that such actions are going to stop. The cultural elites and self-appointed enlightened ones will just keep at it until they reach their objectives. Wearisome, lengthy, and expensive lawsuits, along with increasingly severe legislation, will likely continue until complete compliance has been achieved.

Thus, we see how the imperial, autonomous self gradually becomes the imperious, authoritarian self. Tolerance becomes tyranny. Our current Pope warns of ideological colonization. Pope John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI warned of the “tyranny of relativism” and subjectivism. When we shift the locus of truth from the object (reality) to the subject (the individual), “truth” becomes about power and who has more of it.

George Weigel, in his thoughtful book The Fragility of Order , summarizes our times as follows:

The drastic attenuation of … three great ideas:

  • that there are deep truths built into the world, into human beings and into human relationships;
  • that these truths can be known by reason;
  • and that knowledge of these truths is essential to living virtuously, which means living happily (p. 124).

With these three great ideas weakened, we are left with a very small world; we are turned inward and have become self-referential. These are the ultimate parameters of the imperial, autonomous self: it is a small world, closed on itself, with a population of one. It is centered on me and whatever I think. Forget about anyone else. Forget about heritage. Forget the collected wisdom of millennia. Because little can be agreed upon (even the patently obvious sex of male and female bodies), we are left with a fierce power struggle between competing visions of “reality.”

If Western culture was the fair flower of the Judeo-Christian vision, the post-modern world is an ugly dandelion with deep tap roots. It is a dandelion that has gone to seed, and its white, cotton-like seeds are blowing in the breeze and taking root everywhere.

What are we to do? First, we must see the revolution for what it is. There is a hopelessly fatal shifting of the locus of truth away from what is revealed by God in biblical revelation (Divine Truth) and in the Book of Creation as grasped by reason (Natural Law). This is our Judeo-Christian heritage; it was what grounded us and united us. Having removed and denied the efficacy of this, our modern world has become unmoored and unraveled, mired in hopeless power struggles.

Only a return to our roots can save us. Therefore, St. Paul’s mandate to Timothy must also become ours:

Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and encourage with every form of patient instruction. For the time will come when men will not tolerate sound doctrine, but with itching ears they will gather around themselves teachers to suit their own desires. So they will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry (2 Tim 4:2-5).

This is true not only for bishops and priests, but for parents, Catholics in general, and all believing citizens of this land. America remains a great country, and our religious sensibilities are not completely lost. There is time, but the door is closing, and our cultural opponents are more fierce and bold than ever before. This is a good fight, and if you find a good fight you should get in it.