Away as I was on Sunday, October 12, I did not prepare a homily for that day’s Mass. That happens once every several years, this time because I was in the Italian Alps with my brother and his two daughters, exploring the regions from which our ancestors came around the close of the 1800s. Beautiful beyond description! It was good to stand where our roots are firmly planted. It was also good to be virtually free for that brief week from the cascade of disturbing news that assaults us daily, hourly, minute by minute in our beloved home country of America. But, having returned now to the New York Times and CNN, I am reminded again how far from reform and renewal our human race is. The killing, hatred, greed, and constant violence mark us as a not very civilized race even after the 2000 years in which we have lived in the presence of the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth.
Lest I sound like a gloomy doomsayer, I hasten to state my opinion that we have nonetheless made significant progress toward civility, justice, and peace. There was a time, after all, when people cheered as they watched men kill each other with swords in the gladiators’ arena. And it wasn’t very long ago that human beings were appraised on merchants’ blocks, bargained over, and sold exactly as cattle or sheep are. There were also economic systems that deliberately institutionalized poverty and maintained a caste structure from which there was no possible escape for the poor.
Of course these and similar evils do exist to a lesser degree in one form or another today, but the difference is that, while once even good persons – including Christians – condoned and supported them, apparently not recognizing how unjust and immoral they were, now we have at least reached the point at which we see how evil they are and devoutly wish that they could be abolished forever. To recognize evil is the first step toward conquering it.
Let me give you a personal example: my father, God rest him, was a good man, a just and generous employer in the textile industry. I remember very clearly his counseling me not to think harshly about an employee of his, a person of a race different from ours, who, after years of admirable service, had stolen a few hundred dollars from him. He said to me, “You’ve got to remember, son, that it’s in them – it’s in their nature — to be dishonest.” (How does the song go? “You’ve got to be carefully taught to be prejudiced.”)
We have a long way to go, for sure. Much hard work lies ahead of us largely because the attitudes and myths that put division between us and those who are different from us have burrowed their way into our bloodstreams and become so much a part of us that we simply take them for granted without questioning or suspecting them. Imagine yourself as having been born on a southern plantation 200 years ago, member of a white, wealthy, slave-owning family. Do you think you would have challenged the moral rightness of your father’s ownership of other human beings? I would think not. After all, “everyone else” owned them. They were “happy.” A good slave owner was not a cruel man; he provided well for his captive servants. Etc., etc.
When evils become part of our very system of life, they are like deadly germs that can live within us without our even realizing it. Today’s Scripture lessons are as necessary as ever: be compassionate; love your neighbor as you love yourself. We must not shrug off these axioms on the grounds that we’ve heard them too often already. The Spirit challenges us to look again & again deep inside ourselves and acknowledge what we see.
Next month we Americans have the privilege of going to the polls again – not to vote just for persons, promises, and platforms, but for priorities, moral priorities. The availability of the goods of the earth to all persons. The rejection of violence as a means of settling differences. The end of discrimination on any unjust basis. The proper care and use of our Planet Earth. A penal system that rebuilds broken lives and twisted personalities. Dignity and honor, necessities and comforts for our aged poor. Adequate educational opportunities for all who seek them. A renewed commitment to life and the struggle to eliminate everything that militates against it.
Jesus was acutely sensitive to the forces of evil and compassionate to its victims. We cannot call ourselves his followers unless we are trying to think and act his way. Let’s pray now that we will all exercise our citizenship in the most constructive and compassionate way we know how.