If God is for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:31)
I’ve heard these words from today’s second reading four times now this weekend, and I’ll hear them again in another couple of hours. I’m visiting parishes throughout the deanery to track how well we’re doing rolling out the 2012 archdiocesan appeal, and it means hearing the Liturgy of the Word repeated enough times to hammer through the thickest of heads, like mine.
Paul was being rhetorical, but this weekend, in the United States, his question begs an answer. Lots of folks are against us Catholics right now. The administration, which frames us as obstacles in the path of universal health care. Editorial cartoonists and late-night comedians, who are having a field day pointing out our track record of hypocrisy. Combox dwellers, who are waxing eloquent–if misspelled and ungrammatical–on our ability to embody, simultaneously, irrelevant fuddyduddyness and implacable evil. Women, even many Catholic women, a million of whom plan to march on Washington to protest the war we have declared on them and their rights.
If God is for us, who can be against us? The question is, Who can’t?
There are many in the Catholic hierarchy and in the blogosphere who read this as proof that we are on the rightest of right tracks. Persecution, especially by the powers that be, is always easy to read as justification. After all, didn’t Jesus himself predict this?
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:10-12)
So in a sense, the fact that so many are against us must be proof that God is for us . . . right? The fact that we are feeling persecuted must mean that we are righteous . . . correct? That Them v Us military model works for a lot of people, even those who have never been closer to actual combat than the pages of Dumas or the latest reboot of Medal of Honor. But what if we have it wrong?
At the risk of having my name jump to the top of my own side’s persecution list, I am wondering, as I hear those words of St Paul over and over, whether we might not read that question as an examination of conscience this Lent. If God is for us, we might ask, why are so many against us?
Do liberal Democrats hate us because they are morally bankrupt babykillers who care more about buying the votes of the poor with entitlement programs than actually addressing real injustice? Or do they hate us because that is how we see and treat and dismiss them?
Do people who don’t experience themselves as heterosexual hate us because they are moral lepers, unnatural and disordered, who can never participate in committed relationships or family life? Or do they hate us because that is how we see and treat and dismiss them?
Do women hate us because they are second-rate humans who are envious of the male power they will never be able to possess, in the Church or in the world, and because they are essentially incapable of being anything other than an occasion of sexual sin unless they are consecrated virgins or married mothers? Or do they hate us because that is how we see and treat and dismiss them?
Do people of other faith traditions–or of no faith tradition whatsoever–hate us because their beliefs or lack of them are so pitifully inferior to our Truth that they have nothing to say to us? Or do they hate us because that is how we see and treat and dismiss them?
In that same Sermon on the Mount when Jesus talked about being persecuted for the sake of righteousness, he also described very clearly what our response to our enemies, our persecutors, the haters, should be:
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? (Matthew 5:43-47)
What if we dared to love those who have become our enemies–whether we call them adversaries or sinners or heretics? And I mean really love, not just tolerate with thinly disguised distaste. Not just love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin love, which turns out to be no kind of love at all. More than the “tough love” that excludes and condemns and vilifies “for your own good.” I mean love that looks like love, feels like love, to both the giver and the receiver: open, forgiving and asking forgiveness, willing to listen, aimed at making the other happy and healthy and safe and welcome.
I mean love that feels like the hand of Jesus raising the tear-stained face of the woman with the bad reputation. Love that feels like the strong shoulders of the shepherd carrying home the lost sheep. Love that looks like the hated centurion seeing his beloved servant come back from the dead. Love that sounds like the whole town coming to lunch at the shunned and lonely tax collector’s house. Love that sees the other, and is impossible not to see. “Children, let us love not in word or speech, but in deed and truth.” (1 John 3:18)
Signs of that kind of love have been sorely lacking in our long history of timidly clinging to law, and in our recent forays into public discourse. (I am as much a part of that priggish “our” as anybody, as my friends can attest.) Moral and doctrinal principles are well and good, but unless they are incarnated in our relationships with flesh-and-blood people–people who sin, as we all do, most often out of the deep brokenness of believing themselves unloved–they are sounding brass and clanging cymbals.
If we come from love, I am starting to wonder, will the HHS mandate truly be the Calvary we want to die on? Would we not have done better to engage a Sandra Fluke in a real and loving conversation about why she said what she said on Capitol Hill than to have contributed–as we did, directly and sinfully–to Rush Limbaugh’s hateful caricaturing of her? If we have any moral high ground left after our butchery of the abuse scandals, is this where God is calling us to spend it? The Church might still–I might still–come to say yes to the first and third of those questions, and no to the second, but I believe Lent calls us to make damn sure that’s what we mean to do.
“In the evening of our life,” wrote St John of the Cross, “we will be judged on love alone.” Maybe that’s what this New Evangelization thing is all about, and why this is all happening now. What difference would it make if our love were as public, as political, as visible and tactile, as headline-making, as undeniable as our principles? What if, instead of tithing mint and rue, we lived God’s infinite providence? What if we lifted burdens instead of laying them? What if new generations were to say, “See how these Christians love us all!”
If God–who is Love–is for us, it will be because we love as he does. And as Paul says, who could be against us then?