Detachment and Christian Discipleship

In today’s reading from the Gospel, we heard that the man came to Jesus and asked what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him to follow the commandments and to give away his possessions, give to the poor, and then come and follow him. We want to resist the temptation to water down the sheer radicalness of Jesus’ call. We are tempted sometimes to let ourselves off the hook a bit. So it is good to sit in the moment with all of its awkwardness for a while.

“Jesus, what must we do to inherit eternal life?” “You know the commandments. Follow them.” “We do, Lord.” Then Jesus, looking us with love says, ‘Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’”

It is true, that the Church does not interpret today’s reading to mean that every disciple of Christ must become materially homeless. The Kingdom of God would not advance if every Christian suddenly decided to live in the street. But we shouldn’t imagine that means our call is any less demanding or that it will be any easier to respond to.

The details for how Christ calls each of us are unique, but what is the same in every case, is the need for us to become detached from those things that prevent us from entering into the Kingdom of God.

Remember, the fullness of the Kingdom is not yet fully revealed, but it has already begun. It is not a distant, future reality. Jesus begins his public ministry by proclaiming, “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” So, the young man in the Gospel, he’s on the doorstep of the Kingdom. But he is still so attached to the world that he freezes on the doorstep, and ends up walking away.

The question for each of us, then, is what attachments do we have that are preventing us from crossing the threshold today? Once we have identified them, we should realize that detaching ourselves from them will probably not be very easy. It might even hurt. Like the second reading says, “The Word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow…” So, what are those attachments that are preventing us from enjoying a deeper communion with God? Let’s allow the Word of God to cut those things away.

Of course, there a many things that we can become attached to. For me, I have recognized an attachment to the desire of being liked. Selling out for Jesus has meant experiencing sort of a social, political homelessness. That has been hard because I am a people pleaser. I never want to say or do anything that will offend people. I don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. I want people to like me.

At a certain point, you make a decision to go along with the crowd, to hold your tongue so that people will like you. Then, one day, you wake up and realize that you are the one! You have become the person who doesn’t like you. I’m not there yet, but I am trying to detach myself from the desire of being liked.

October is respect life month. The Church reminds us that a just society must learn to respect the sanctity of every human life from conception to natural death, and in every stage in between.

When we hear the Church’s language regarding human dignity, where do our minds go? Do we think about the unborn? The poor? The elderly? The immigrant? Is there any population that we exclude when we hear the Church’s language?

I know Catholics who don’t like it when I write about the dignity of the unborn because they think it gives validity to a certain political party. They send me angry letters. I know others who don’t like it when I write about the dignity of immigrants, for the same reason. They think it gives validity to the other party. They send me angry letters too.

Our country is so taken by fear that we don’t seem capable of seeing the dignity of every person. So, it’s no wonder that we fail to challenge ideologies that veil the dignity of those persons, when we don’t even think of them as persons.

But that’s the political world with its zero sum game, saying we have to choose one group over the other. The Catholic worldview prefers people over policies.

I will be honest with you. I don’t much like looking at pictures of the horrific reality of abortion. I don’t much like hearing the stories of immigrant families being torn apart, fleeing gang infested, war-torn countries. I don’t like looking at poor homeless people in the street.

All of these things remind me of how small, and weak I really am. If I had power, all of these problems would be solved. But I don’t have power. I am weak. And that is a heck of a thing to learn about yourself. I don’t like it very much. But that is precisely where discipleship begins. Every single day. Every morning. Anything else, and the day begins with a lie.

We are weak. We don’t know worldly power or have simple political solutions to all of these problems. What we do know is the dignity of the human person created in the image and likeness of God as revealed by the son of God. He showed us that every person, including every single person in this Church, including the unborn, the infirm, the homeless, the immigrant, the elderly, the prisoner and every person in every other possible state, is worth the sacrifice made at Golgotha. To Jesus, they are all worth dying for. Yet for some of us, they are not even worth challenging our own political party for.

The Christian worldview is a consistent worldview. If you hold it consistently, you will know what Jesus meant when he told the would-be disciple, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” If you hold it constantly, you just might find yourself politically homeless.

The Good news is that the world, influenced by Christianity has come a very long way over the last two thousand years. The fact that the weak and the marginalized are given consideration is amazing. Two thousand years ago, broad public discussions like the ones happening today would have been unheard of. So the Kingdom of God has advanced significantly since then.

My prayer is that, one day, by the power of God, through whom all things are possible, every one of us will enter into the fullness of the Kingdom, in all of its glory. When that day comes, it is likely that we will see those who we were supposed to be afraid of. And we will recognize that they were not problems to be solved, but that they have always been our sisters and our brothers. And there will be rejoicing on that day.

But today, the question remains for us; will we be builders of that Kingdom? Or, will we remain so attached to the world and all of its false promises that we find ourselves frozen on the doorstep?

2018 Life Chain

Yesterday, 41 souls braved the cold to show peaceful and prayerful solidarity with the pre-born at Cheyenne’s Life Chain event. Some motorists showed disapproval by giving a “thumbs down” as they passed by. Occasionally, motorists flew another digit in the opposite direction in order to express themselves.

Many expressed their approval by honking, waving and giving the group a “thumbs up.”

The vast majority of people, however, glanced over and then looked away as they went about their day.

The experience is always a reminder of the deep divide in our country over the issue of abortion. It’s also an indication of the wounds that exist in our town. It makes me sad.

I know that our witness makes some women and men who have been directly involved with an abortion feel like they are being judged. No doubt, they have probably heard abortion debated by some Christians in uncharitable ways. There is no excuse for this on our part. We believe in a God of mercy. I am truly sorry for anyone who has ever had shame used against them as a weapon. Our experiences shape us, but no one is defined by the past. The image of our crucified Lord is a reminder of how far God is willing to go for each one of us. He loves us immensely and no one-moment in time can ever diminish us in his eyes. We all need to remember that.

God also knows the context from which such decisions are made; in many cases, young mothers without any support, abandoned or pressured by their partners, abandoned or pressured by their families and faith communities; they have even been abandoned by their own government. Too often this “choice” is made, because it feels like there is no other choice. Also part of the context is an ideology which denies science and is increasingly moving away from abortion being “safe and rare,” to saying that abortion should be celebrated.

When we look to the past, it is for the purpose of healing and learning.

Forty-five years of legalized abortion has had a significant impact on our country. Mother Teresa once said of this legacy, “It is the greatest destroyer of peace.” Over the years, I have thought much about that statement.

From my own experience, I hear regularly from people who are lacking peace because of fear. The Church calls Christians to enter into dialogue with all people of good will. This is the way forward, but dialogue is not easy. It is hard to open up and share what is on your heart and mind with another. It requires trust. People need to know that no matter how different their opinions may be, their own dignity as a member of the human family will always be valued. But, how do you develop that kind of trust with someone who rationalizes the willful destruction of a helpless person? Or with people who, within the context of a society which rationalizes such destruction, will simply look away and go on about their day? Is there any wonder why people are afraid and unwilling to dialogue? Can peace ever be hoped for in such a society? Is the possession and retention of power the only hope one has for being respected? How can we inspire recognition of the dignity of other vulnerable populations if we accept the legal devaluation of one population? These are critical questions for an aging population.

I still have hope that one day soon the human family will get past this civil war. It will happen when we learn to value the dignity of every person from conception to natural death (even the dignity of our political adversaries.) It will happen when we stop playing the zero sum game pitting mothers against their children and children against their mothers. It will happen when we learn to love them both.

To those who were able to join us yesterday, thank you!

A Change in the Catechism

Yesterday news broke that there is going be a change in the catechism regarding the Church’s teaching on the death penalty. You can read the article in the National Catholic Register here.

I have written previously about why I think repealing death penalty laws and overturning Roe vs. Wade are both necessary actions for restoring a culture of life. You can read that in my session review here.

Formerly, the catechism read, “Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”

That language, “if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives” is the key to understanding the change. Where a community did not have recourse to secure prison facilities, they could not effectively protect themselves from the most dangerous prisoners. The death penalty may have been the only way a community could protect itself. An argument could be made that this “exception” has not been applicable to those of us living in the U.S. for a very long time.

The new paragraph reads, “Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good. Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption. Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,’ and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

Two immediate thoughts come to mind after reading the new paragraph.

First, I was reminded of testimony given by a friend of mine as he argued against the death penalty repeal bill last year. He has been a staunch ally when it comes to defending the lives of the unborn. However, in his argument against the death penalty repeal bill he said that capital punishment should be “legal, but rare.” I was stunned because his testimony sounded so eerily similar to those who are arguing that abortion is a right. They say that abortion should be, “safe, legal and rare.”

My second thought came from the language in the paragraph that states, “effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.”

We can’t appeal to “the possibility of redemption” in a secular setting because the secular world is not concerned about that. However, I have already read several articles from Catholics who are upset about the change in the catechism. One of them even calls Pope Francis a heretic.

I’ve read less accusatorial articles posted by friends who appeal  to scripture and tradition in an attempt to justify their dissent from the change. But as a people of faith we see the Church is God’s instrument. God seeks repentance and the redemption of souls. How does justifying the premature death of an individual square with our belief that God desires that person’s redemption? From our lived experience, we know that God can work on hearts over time. If we become the reason for why that time is cut short, then we become an obstacle to God for that person. Jesus has some rather harsh words for those who become obstacles, (stumbling blocks or skandalon) to God for others.

Life is either sacred or it’s not. Period.