The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Although I am an ordained deacon of the Catholic Church, the opinions expressed in this blog are my personal opinions. In offering these personal opinions I am not acting as a representative of the Church or any Church organization.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

COVID-19 Bible Study Reflection #7: Love One Another

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve written one of these reflections, and several people have asked me why. I’d like to say I’ve been extremely busy doing all kinds of important stuff, but that wouldn’t be true…well, not completely true. Thanks to the lifestyle changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve stepped away from some of my usual activities, probably out of sheer laziness. But during the past week or so, I’ve also been forced to think about what’s been happening in and to our country and didn’t want to react unthinkingly. I’ve needed time to digest these events, to understand them better, and to consider how best to respond.

The catalyst, of course, was the death of George Floyd on May 25. We’ve all seen the video, and I’ve heard absolutely no one support the police officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck, the act which allegedly caused his death. I suppose there are a few who believe otherwise, but I think I can safely say that 99% of Americans, and that includes me and everyone I know, were horrified by what they saw. But only a very few people, those actively involved in the case – investigators, medical examiners, prosecutors, defense attorneys, etc. – have access to all the evidence, so I will make no rash judgment, but will defer to our justice system. Like anything devised by man, our systems of justice are flawed. But we remain, at least for now, a nation of laws, and must allow the law to struggle toward a just result.

George Floyd was a black man who suffered death allegedly because of the actions of a white police officer. This has become the salient fact that initiated the protests against police brutality and racism spreading across the nation. I won’t argue the facts here, except to state that I do not accept the charge that the United States today is intrinsically a racist society. Indeed, if one actually takes the time to examine the statistics, particularly those that directly involve the actions of law enforcement professionals at all levels, obvious racist activity by the police is extremely rare, and actually on the decline. But that’s not my subject here.

The protesters have every right to go into the streets and let the nation know what they think. After all, in the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment to the Constitution recognizes some of our basic rights:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."
Yes, we have the right “peaceably to assemble.” We do not, however, have the right to engage in violent protest, something Terrence Floyd recently reminded those protesting the death of his older brother, George.

Unfortunately, some organizations and movements have tried to take over many of these otherwise peaceful protests, infecting them with violence and hoping only to destroy and create chaos. The most violent among these organizations have even prepositioned bricks, water bottles filled with concrete, Molotov cocktails and other incendiary devices, and have encouraged looting and destruction by those confused souls who inevitably appear during times of urban unrest. How sad for the protesters who have exercised their right to come together and air their grievances peacefully. I might not agree with everything they have to say, but I spent many years in the uniform of our nation willing to give my life for their right to express it.

Among the most radical of the violent organizations that have embedded themselves into these protests is Antifa, a so-called anti-fascist movement. Ironically Antifa practices the same kind of violent criminal activity carried out by its predecessor, the Nazi Sturmabteilung (SA) or Brownshirts, who were largely instrumental in Adolph Hitler’s rise to power in prewar Germany. (If you don’t believe me, look up the history of the Brownshirts and compare their tactics to Antifa’s.)  Antifa, of course, is not alone, and is joined by a collection of mostly leftist organizations that desire not racial equality, but division. Some even espouse the destruction of American society.

I’ve found that extremists almost universally charge those they hate with the same evils that best define their own activity; hence Antifa, while claiming to be anti-fascist, is fascist to the core. Similarly, Black Lives Matter focuses only on the relatively few deaths of unarmed African Americans by law enforcement, while ignoring thousands of black on black murders. Apparently, only some black lives matter.

Communists, fascists, anarchists…In truth I’ve never seen much difference between the extremists of the left or the right. They all seek power and will use any means to achieve it. They claim to love democracy and yet despise the idea that the people are sovereign and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” We need only observe the results so evident in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Communist China, Castro’s Cuba, and so many other regimes that have essentially enslaved their people while calling themselves “democratic.”

As Christians, what then are we to do? 

First, we must always speak the truth. It’s so easy to speak only what others are saying, or what they want to hear from us. Indeed, it’s easy to assume that public opinion must be right because so many seem to accept it. But as Pope Benedict XVI once wisely said, “Truth is not determined by majority vote.”

The actual truth behind so much of human activity is impossible for us to grasp, simply because we cannot see into the hearts of others. St. Paul put it well when he wrote:
“For what person knows a man’s thoughts except the spirit of the man which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God” [1 Cor 2:11].
We should, therefore, speak only that which we know to be true. This isn’t easy since much of what we think and say is influenced not only by the facts, but also by our own prejudices and emotional reactions to people and events. Perhaps if we turn to Jesus, specifically to His Sermon on the Mount, we can gain some clarity.

Judge with right judgment. I have tried – not always successfully – to rely on the teaching Word of Jesus. He first instructs us to be careful of judging others:
“Judge not, that you be not judged…You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye” [Mt 7:1,5].
But beam removal is difficult, isn’t it? All those prejudices, and emotions, and past experiences are hard to set aside…hard, but not impossible. The only real truth, you see, is Jesus Christ, “the way and the truth and the life” [Jn 14:6]. If we stick with Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, we’ll be safe and can proclaim the truth confidently. Only with a clean heart, only when all those pesky beams have been removed, can we grasp the truth and make just judgments. Of course, truth and just judgment demand God’s healing grace, His mercy, and His forgiveness. For this Jesus gave us the sacrament of reconciliation to free us from our sin so we can embrace the truth. How did St. John put it in his First Letter?
“If we say, ‘We are without sin,’ we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” [1 Jn 1:8].
So many today reject the very idea of truth, preferring instead to succumb to what Pope Benedict XVI called the “dictatorship of relativism.” Without the truth they cannot judge but only express faulty opinions driven by political and personal biases. Again, Jesus instructs us:
“Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” [Jn 7:24].
With these words Jesus takes us back to the Torah, to the Law as revealed in Leviticus:
“You shall not act dishonestly in rendering judgment. Show neither partiality to the weak nor deference to the mighty, but judge your neighbor justly” [Lv 19:15].
Here we encounter a concept of justice that is echoed centuries later by the prophet Isaiah when he points to the justice of He Who is to come:
“Not by appearance shall he judge, nor by hearsay shall he decide, but he shall judge the poor with justice, and decide fairly for the land’s afflicted” [Is 11:3-4].
This, of course, is the essence of “right judgment” because it conforms to God’s Law and not the laws of men. So often we think that by showing “partiality to the weak” we are being just. But doing so is really no better than deferring “to the mighty” or the wealthy or the politically connected. Appearances are so often deceiving, aren’t they?

We can, therefore, make judgments, right judgments, but only when we look past the appearances and seek the truth. Our judgment must be based on reality, not wishful thinking. Again, in His Sermon on the Mount, after telling us to remove those wooden beams, Jesus gives us a way to identify the evil in our midst:
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but underneath are ravenous wolves. By their fruits you will know them [Mt 7:15-16].
We live in a world with more than its share of “ravenous wolves” posing as innocent sheep. Jesus didn’t pull any punches when He exposed those plotting to take His life:
“You belong to your father the devil and you willingly carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in truth, because there is no truth in him. When he tells a lie, he speaks in character, because he is a liar and the father of lies” [Jn 8:44].
Yes, indeed, “By their fruits you will know them.” Unlike Jesus, however, you and I cannot know the heart or mind of another, we can judge only by the results of their words and actions…by their fruits. In other words, we can safely assert that the firebombing and looting of a business are both sinful acts. We can condemn the sin but should not be quick to condemn the sinner. 

Throughout the New Testament we are often reminded of the perils of unjust judgment. For example, as St. Paul instructs the Romans:

“Therefore, you are without excuse, every one of you who passes judgment. For by the standard by which you judge another you condemn yourself, since you, the judge, do the very same things. We know that the judgment of God on those who do such things is true. Do you suppose, then, you who judge those who engage in such things and yet do them yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God?” [Rom 2:1-3]
To judge another is quite a challenge, then, isn’t it? I suppose it all goes back to those wooden beams. Unless we strive to remove them, to reject the power of sin in our own lives, how can we justly judge another?
Over the years I’ve served on a number of juries, and always found it morally painful to judge another whom I didn’t know, based on often conflicting testimony and evidence. As jurors we are instructed to convict only when guilt has been established “beyond a reasonable doubt.” But as I discovered when serving as jury foreman on several occasions, “reasonable doubt” can mean very different things to different people. And so, again, as we apply man’s law, we struggle to achieve some kind of real justice.

What, then, should be our attitude toward those who seem so intent on leaving little but hatred and destruction in their wake?

Love them and pray for them. Loving and praying for those who seem so intent on hurting you and those you love is more than difficult. It’s impossible…impossible, that is, without God’s help. It’s only by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit working within us, that we can love our enemies. Jesus, once again in His Sermon on the Mount, gives us a command very much at odds with the ways of the world:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” [Mt 5:43-48].
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” is a pretty clear command, isn’t it? And yet it’s one of those hard to do things that seems so counterintuitive, so contrary to human nature – one of those things that causes many to turn away from Jesus Christ and His Church. They see Christians, folks like you and me, ignoring God’s call to love, and they sneer at our hypocrisy. “You preach a good line,” they say, “but you don’t practice what you preach.” And you know something? Too often they’re right.
Notice, too, that Jesus didn’t call us to be pretty good or to be slightly above average. No, He called us to “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” This, too, is impossible without God’s help. Called, then, to do the Father’s work in imitation of the Son, we need the grace of the Holy Spirit. God’s perfection is best defined by His love; and so, love is a Trinitarian thing, the very essence of the relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is only through love that we can even approach the perfection of our God. 

Some, of course, will ask why we are to love one another. That’s perhaps the simplest question to answer. We must love each other because God loved us first. He created each one of us in an individual act of love. He came into the world not just to redeem me, or to redeem you, but to redeem us all, every single one of us:

“This is good and pleasing to God our savior, who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth” [1 Tim 2:4]
Our loving, merciful God wills the salvation of all. And we are called to do our part by bringing others to a “knowledge of the truth” which is Jesus Christ, and to do so in love. Here’s how St. John explains it:
“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love. In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him. In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another. No one has ever seen God. Yet, if we love one another, God remains in us, and his love is brought to perfection in us” [1 Jn 4:7-12].
Loving one another is not optional behavior. Love is not driven by emotion; it must be a decision. But loving our enemies, or the often greater challenge of loving friends and family, doesn’t mean we just love them from afar and pray for them. “Whoever is without love does not know God” and it’s up to us to introduce them to God and His redeeming, merciful love. 

I’ll conclude with the words of St. Peter as he calls us to unity:
“Finally, all of you, be of one mind, sympathetic, loving toward one another, compassionate, humble. Do not return evil for evil, or insult for insult; but, on the contrary, a blessing, because to this you were called, that you might inherit a blessing” [1 Pt 3:8-9].
Maybe then, maybe when we Christians come together, united in our faith, when we are “of one mind, loving toward one another,” God will send forth His Spirit to shed His saving grace on the world.

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