Sunday, February 20, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Lev 19:1-18; 1 Cor 3:16-23; Mt 5:38-48

In 1966, when I was a deacon at St. Meinrad, I had the opportunity of attending a conference for university students at the University of Chicago. Thousands of students from all over the mid-West attended. The topic was on the morality of the war growing in Vietnam. One of the featured speakers was John Howard Yoder, a world-famous Mennonite scholar. Yoder, in true Mennonite fashion, espoused a total pacifism as the only viable Christian response to the war. He took literally and radically the words of Jesus in today’s gospel passage: "offer no resistance to one who is evil." His presentation to the students followed that line of thinking; to him the only Christian response to the Vietnam war lay in total pacifism and non-violent resistance. In the question-and-answer session that followed a student rose and asked him: "if you were walking down the street with your wife and your young son in her arms, and a man came and attempted to grab the child from her, would you try to stop him?" Without a hesitation or a flinch Yoder said, "No." There followed a gigantic gasp through the whole audience. Yoder went on to explain that the radical pacifism of Jesus sometime demands radical actions from his followers. One of the other speakers at the conference was Henry Kissinger, who didn’t quite take the same view as Yoder. Kissinger focused more on the country’s responsibility toward international justice and the need to use force if necessary.

More than anything else the students came away from that conference with the sense that it’s really, really hard to balance the Christian (and political) issues of striving for peace on the one hand, and the responsibility of justice on the other. Those have always remained very, very difficult issues and balances throughout Christian history. At no time did Christians ever attain a perfect balance. In hindsight they weighted the scale in one direction or the other.

How do we find our way today? In our position on the wars being waged by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan? In the debate over capital punishment? In public issues like health care funding for the poor and the unemployed or immigration or the environment? There’s always that elusive balance between peace, love and justice. All need to be considered honestly and openly.

One direction might be given us by that terse line in the first reading from the book of Leviticus: "Be holy, for I the Lord your God, am holy." We should remember that the original meaning of holy (KADOSH in Hebrew) is not being morally good. It’s true that a common interpretation of "holy" that developed through the centuries in Christian spirituality understood "holy" in a primarily moral sense. The holy person was someone who did every thing morally correct, who was always good. The images of saints on holy cards strongly fostered that view. But the original meaning of "holy" is unique, special, different. So the meaning should read: "You should be different and unique, because I am different and unique." The actions of Christians should be different from all others around them, from the prevailing societal norms. Christians and their moral positions should be clearly different from what most of society holds.

In that sense the Christian position on any moral and social issue is to be counter-cultural. But that’s still very vague. It means leaning more to the side of love and peace, while still recognizing the justice factor. I think the Catholic Christian positions on moral issues through the ages have always struggled with that difficult balance. They leaned sometimes toward love and peace, sometimes toward justice. If anything, this reflection ought to remind us to be respectful of people who are making difficult moral decisions. People can always use some encouragement rather than criticism. Let’s remember that when we are advising people who are making difficult moral decisions.

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