Can’t We All Just Coexist?

So, there it was again, in front of me, slipped in between “My Other Car is a TARDIS,” and the “Vulcan Science Academy Alumni” stickers.  Now, I’m not averse to either of those.  I, too wish I had a TARDIS (for the uninitiated, this is a blue police box, bigger inside than out, which travels in time and space and is piloted by a Time Lord, who calls himself “The Doctor”) and, back in the days when I had a car of my own, I seem to recall a Starfleet Academy sticker somewhere.  So, I’m not opposed to bumper stickers in general, but there is one that particularly sticks in my craw.  You’ve probably seen it.  It’s the one that says, “COEXIST,” but in the place of the letters are symbols of various world religions.  They can vary a bit, but one is likely to see a star and crescent, a star of David, a peace symbol, a ying-yang symbol, a cross, etc.  You get the idea.  At this point, many might wonder: Unless you are a religious militant or bigot, why would you object to that?

Well, I don’t consider myself either of those things.  You could call me a Christian evangelist, and I wouldn’t object to the term.  I am even ready to admit that I would love to have you become a Christian or a Catholic if you are not already one (and some, I suppose, even if you are!).  However, I admire anyone who is faithful and devoted to his or her religious tradition (or lack thereof), so long as they are not out to harm me, or worse kill me, because of mine, or because I don’t share theirs.  They can even try to convince me to convert if they’d like, though I doubt they’d be successful (chalk it up to an opportunity to learn more about them and what they value).  Given all that, sounds like I should be slapping one of those babies on my car too, right?  WRONG.

While I’ve no doubt that most people who sport such stickers have good intentions, I’m not sure they fully realize that they too are participating in their own form of bigotry.  As a Christian, when I read this “peaceful” reminder of my duty to live peacefully with my fellow human beings, I read condescension.  I read the presumption that my faith and the faith of others are naturally prone to violence and are, as some believe, at the root of all wars and conflict.  The implication is not simply that people of different faiths should coexist (because, in truth, we already do), but that if we really want to bring peace to the world we should all abandon our faiths and become secular humanists.  Yet, as Star Trek has shown us, even a federation founded upon a form of secular humanism, still has to fight battles with Klingons, Romulans, and various other peoples, races and factions that are different from them.  We cannot, nor should we, erase difference.

And truly, that is what is at the root of conflict and war.  Not religion, but difference.  Granted, some wars have been fought over religious differences, but many have not.  Thus, the “COEXIST” bumper sticker could just as easily feature the flags of various different countries.  It could include an elephant, a donkey, a teacup(?), and the symbols of various other political movements or parties.  It could include, as some do, the symbols for men, women, and the various LGBT communities.  Or, a combination of all of these things.  There is even one that suggests that aficionados of various sci-fi shows—Whovians, Trekkies, and the like—might also need to find ways to COEXIST.

To bring this way of thinking to its most absurd conclusion, then what we really need to do away with is coexistence.  If all religious peoples, video gamers, or sci-fi fans are by nature violent and intolerant of each other, then what we really have to do is give everybody in each community or category there own little peace of the earth.  That’ll solve things, right?  I’m still not convinced.  Jesus once said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them.”  He could just as easily have said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name—or anyone else’s, for that matter—there is difference.”  Thus, all of us, whether we adhere to a religious faith or not, whether we like it or not, are forced to coexist.  But, that’s obvious.  We don’t need anyone to tell us that.

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Osama Bin Laden & A Child’s Question

I must admit to feeling at once relieved, inspired, and disturbed by news of Osama Bin Laden’s death last night.  I saw the images of crowds celebrating outside the White House, heard some fireworks and sirens joining the celebratory chorus nearby, and watched as a student walked past my window on campus, playing the bagpipes.  I found myself laughing uncomfortably.  Clearly, I didn’t know how to feel.

Yesterday, interestingly, had begun with me questioning, in response to a New York Times article announcing the death of Gaddafi’s son and grandchildren: Is this article suggesting I should be happy at this news?  I was disturbed at the thought of celebrating anyone’s killing.  The same question came back to me again shortly before midnight as I listened to the President speak in ways that inspired in me a sense of pride.  When he referred to Bin Laden as a “mass murderer,” I was kind of shocked by the words, but also had to acknowledge their truth.  Later, someone being interviewed said, claiming he was not only speaking for himself, but for many: “I hope he rots in Hell.”  Despite my mixed feelings about the matter, I resented the fact that this man might think he was speaking for me.  No matter my relief at an evil man being prevented from doing further evil, I realized at least that I could not bring myself to wish this for him, or anybody.

Some of my friends are thinking about similar things, and asking important questions.  Fr. Jim Martin is asking: What is the Christian Response?, and Mike Hayes asks: Can We Forgive Bin Laden?

As for me, I’ll add to what I’ve said above something I wrote for America Magazine almost nine years ago in their “Of Many Things” column about my challenges teaching CCD in the Bronx that year.  Here’s an excerpt:

One day, for instance, they were challenged by the notion that God loves us, whether we want God to or not. Can’t God, some of them suggested, choose who to love and who not to? No, I insisted, God cannot not love any person; God loves everyone, unconditionally. To this came the astute and timely response of one student: “Does that mean God loves Osama bin Laden?”

Read the whole article here.

Listen, Jesus Doesn’t Have To Be Nice

At the beginning of one semester as we were going over the requirements for my course, one of my students said excitedly to me, “you’re a Jesuit, that means you have to be nice.”  I immediately took the opportunity to relieve him, and the entire class of this notion, explaining that there was nothing in my job description as a teacher or as a Jesuit that required me to be nice, fair and just perhaps, but not “nice.”  If they didn’t believe me then, I think a number of them changed their mind when they got their first paper back!

Many of us, though perhaps we don’t come right out and say it, often approach Jesus in the same way, “You’re Jesus, so you have to be nice!”  And many people persist in this idea, even though it seems that we have plenty of evidence to the contrary.  Jesus wasn’t very nice to the Pharisees, and he’s not being particularly nice in our Gospel reading today.  In fact, if anything he appears to be cruel, and downright unreasonable.

Nevertheless, I think we have to avoid the temptation to dismiss this Gospel story by saying something like, “I don’t believe in that Jesus.”  If we only listened to the stories of Jesus in which we liked Jesus, or thought he was being nice, we would have to throw out or ignore a good portion of the Gospel.  But I think we can—and should—ask the question, “Why is Jesus being so unreasonable?”

It hardly seems fair the way he’s treating these people, turning his back on them, claiming he never knew them, and telling them to go away!  After all, the evidence seems to be in their favor.  They say, and we have no reason to believe they are lying: We have prophesied in your name, we have driven out demons in your name, we have done mighty deeds in your name.  We might expect Jesus to say “thank you,” not “depart from me, you evildoers.”  Why is Jesus being so unreasonable?

What seems to be the problem is that Jesus’ standard of judgment in this case is not simply concerned with what they have done, or even in whose name, but why they have done it.  Jesus is challenging the “all I have to do is be a good person” approach to life.  He is trying to cure us of the approach to life in which we really expect little of ourselves, because we are confident that in the end, Jesus will be nice to us.  Just because God is a God of love, compassion and mercy, he might be saying, doesn’t mean that God doesn’t expect much of us.  We make a mistake if we think that our life with God comes with such low expectations.

What was expected of the people that Jesus rejects?  And what is expected of us?  Jesus makes this pretty clear: that we do God’s will.  It’s not enough to just do things, even if they seem to be good things.  As Christians, we are held to a higher standard because we love God and because God loves us.  And it’s important that we listen to what Jesus is saying today, because he is explaining that following God’s will isn’t about simply “doing,” but is first about “listening.”  Those who follow God’s will, he explains, are those who “listen to these words of mine, and act on them.”  Jesus’ problem with those that have come to him is not with what they have done so much as it is the fact, as his parable suggests, that what they have done has no foundation.  They have not listened to the voice of God telling them what to do.  It may be that God did not want them to prophesy, cast out demons, or do mighty deeds.  It may be that this was someone else’s job, that God had something else in mind for them, but they never asked, and didn’t listen.

Jesus is warning against the life of “just being a good person,” a life in which we are relatively nice to others, mostly stay out of trouble, but more or less just do what we want, confident that the nice Jesus won’t hold our mistakes against us.  He is also warning against a life in which we do all kinds of “flashy” God stuff like prophesying and casting out demons without ever paying attention to what God really wants for our lives.  We can live our lives doing the kind of things God might want us to do.  Or we can instead listen to what God is asking us to do.  The challenge, of course, is that the God we are now paying attention to is going to expect a lot more of us than the God we were just counting on being nice to us in the end.  But, why, anyway, would we want to follow a God with such low expectations?

Instead, each of us needs to answer Jesus’ call today to listen and to act.  To listen to the voice of God which may be inviting us to do something extraordinary, or even, to the disappointment of some, something quite ordinary.  To risk doing great things for God, and in doing so, sometimes failing quite spectacularly, as many of the disciples did before us.  To make us of the unique gifts, talents and quirks which God has given us, and which God desires us to use for God’s glory and the good of others.

To do this we must all take the opportunity, like the one we have today in our worship, to stop our doing and start listening to what God’s desires are for our lives.  If we listen for God’s will, we will see that what God invites us to do is to become most fully what God intends us to be, as we deepen our relationship with God.  When we discover the confidence that what we are doing is not just something God might like, but something God wills, our lives are transformed.  We become more accustomed to hearing God’s voice guiding us in times of trial and decision, hope and joy.  And though our lives don’t become free of mistakes or sin, we won’t find ourselves in the end hoping for a Jesus we don’t really know to be nice to us, but we’ll be looking forward to belonging more completely to the God we’ve been listening to for so long.

Giving God What He Needs?

I’ve been meaning to post this, from my homily on last week’s readings.  So, I thought I’d get to it, before I preach this week’s homily!

I am fascinated by the movie genre you might call the “apocalyptic thriller.”  Movies about prophecies & the end times, often involving angels or babies that will save the world, or destroy it.  I like to watch them partly because, more often than not, they are interestingly bad.  But I am also always curious about what they have to say about God.

My latest foray into this genre was just this week, when I sat down to watch last year’s contribution to the genre, Legion.  It’s really more supernatural action movie than apocalyptic thriller, with Michael the Archangel two-fisting machine guns, and even shouldering a missile launcher, all to defend the human race against, not demons, but all the other angels.  Michael has gone rogue because God has decided, as he did once before, that humankind has become so corrupt they must be destroyed.  So, Michael, and a small band of humans take on God’s legions from a truck stop in the middle of the Nevada desert.

The movie never contends, however, with the one fatal flaw in its theology.  If you remember the story of Noah and the flood, you’ll remember that after it was all over, God made a promise.  God promised that he would never destroy the human race again.  Thus, the God we see in Legion is not the God we see in today’s readings.  Today’s readings, rather, seek to remind us that our God is a God who keeps his promises.  Our God is a God who never forgets us, who never abandons us, and cares for us like he does all creation.  Unlike the God that Legion’s Michael rightly rebels against, our God is a God who is trustworthy, who keeps his promises.

In Legion, Michael becomes a surrogate for the real God, and his main goal is to find a way to remind God of who God is, the one who loves and cares for human beings, not the one who destroys them.  As Michael explains, when his brother angel Gabriel tries to stop him from disobeying God, “you’re going to give God what he asks for, I’m going to give God what he needs. “ And, again, we see Michael playing surrogate for the real God, our God who doesn’t always give us what we ask for, but who does provide for our needs.

In the second reading, Saint Paul reminds us that we too are meant to be like God, but not to remind God who he is, but to remind ourselves who we are.  We are reflections of God.  We are the servants of Christ and the stewards of God’s mysteries.  And how will people know this?  Because they will see that we are like God in being trustworthy.  Because we keep our promises.

We all have made, and do make promises to God.  If you were baptized, received first communion and were confirmed, you made a promise to be part of this community.  When you came here today, you made a promise to worship God.  When you recite the Creed after this homily, you will have made a promise to believe.

I don’t think it is simply a coincidence that we describe people who seem well-suited for something as “promising,” or of someone who has talent in some area as showing great “promise.”  The implication is that the very fact that you have certain gifts or talents means that you are meant to use them.  Indeed, I think that Saint Paul stresses the importance of trustworthiness so much because he saw that Jesus, and he himself, and all of us are meant to be partners with God in keeping God’s promises.  It’s hard to believe that God will take care of everyone’s needs unless we know that there are people we can trust to help us.  And it’s much easier for us to believe that God wants to take care of us and others, when we see the unique gifts and talents, as well as the gifts of compassion and mercy, which God gives to each of us, so that we can fulfill our promise, and God’s promises.

If we are meant to be the stewards of God’s mysteries, then it seems obvious that we are called to be agents of God’s care and compassion in the world.  In doing so, we overcome the darker angels, and show people not the end of the world, but a world more like God intends it—a world free of fear and anxiety, and filled with hope and promise.

PsalmSongs 2: What I’ve Done

Confession is a way to start over.  This might mean confessing your sins to God in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, or confessing to another person some way that you have wronged them.  You might not expect a song of penitence and remorse from a band like Linkin Park, but this is exactly what we have in “What I’ve Done.”  It’s a song about washing oneself clean and starting over.  It’s a song about coming face to face with our own sin, and having to find a way to start again.  Though there’s some uncertainty about the possibility of forgiveness here, the refrain asserts the singer’s need to find it: “So let mercy come, and wash away what I’ve done.  I’ll face myself.  To cross out what I’ve become.  Erase myself, and let go of what I’ve done.”

This is not about self-annihilation, but about the freedom that comes when we accept mercy, and know ourselves to be forgiven.  The song also suggests what is often the case; that, frequently, the hardest person to forgive is myself: “Today this ends.  I’m forgiving what I’ve done.”

It’s a brief song, that’s also short on lyrics, but still it manages to say a lot.The video also reminds us that this is not just an individual thing.  We have to face the consequences of what we do as a community, and seek mercy for that too.  Not so that we can forget about it, but so that we can start again trying to make it right.  See the video here.