Rorate Caeli

Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany

From the 12th chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans:

 “Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty,… never be conceited.  Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.  If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

St. Paul wrote those words to the Christians in Rome as instructions on how to live as followers of Jesus Christ in a pagan world, pagan in the sense of not only the official Roman religion but also in the sense of the many different religious sects that were part of society at that time, and also recognizing the deep cynicism of those who professed belief in some form of religion but in reality believed in nothing except themselves.  These words are also addressed to us today in a real and important way, as what we know as Western culture drifts farther and father away from its Christian roots, as various sects defined by religious enthusiasm seem to flourish, as people turn to self-help gurus to solve their problems, as a militant secularism forces faith out of the public square and into the ghetto of privatization, as young people drift into either a vague religiosity with no roots or content, or to professed atheism.

By its very essence Christianity calls for public witness by those who profess faith in Jesus Christ and his Church.  As St Paul tells us, this witness must always be done with humility and in a way that tries to preserve peace, even with those who provoke or insult us.  “Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.”  I love that phrase of St. Paul:  “take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.” What is noble.  It sounds almost quaint to use such words.

The past few weeks were marked in a terrible way by the horrendous slaughter of the French journalists in Paris by representatives of what is called radical Islam.  One could not fail to be moved by the photographs shown on TV and the Internet that showed the reality of the bloody carnage that so shocked and outraged the world.  The most public response to this tragedy was the march in Paris organized by the French government but also supported by many European countries, whose leaders marched in what was understood as a show of witness to the world, that witness of solidarity in the face of terror, that witness to one of the important freedoms of a democratic society: the freedom of speech.

This solidarity was encapsulated in the phrase:  “Je suis Charlie Hebdo”,  "I am Charlie Hebdo" the latter being the name of the French newspaper that is known for its satiric cartoons, skewering politicians, religious leaders-- everyone and everything is considered fair game for Charlie Hebdo.  And so by saying “Je suis Charlie Hebdo” I am not only claiming solidarity with the violated humanity of the cartoonists who were gunned down.  I am not only claiming solidarity with those who refuse to bow to the threat of terror.  I am also claiming solidarity with the right to free speech and specifically as was and is practiced by Charlie Hebdo.

I decided to look at these cartoons that have elicited controversy not only in the Muslim world but in the Christian world as well.  What I found upset me greatly, not because I am a prude or easily shocked, but because of the deliberately crude and offensive nature of the cartoons.  This is not satire. This is not social commentary.  This obliterates St. Paul’s words: “but take note of what is noble in the sight of all.”  Now satire is not meant to be nice. It is meant to be biting and should be. But satire is about skewing someone or something that has betrayed a noble cause, something that is deeply hypocritical, that denies freedom, and so forth.  Religion is not immune from satire nor should it be.  In fact, in this present time, the Catholic Church could do with a healthy dose of satire from both those who love her and those who do not. 

In the context of what happened in Paris, we must think about our affirmation of freedom of speech, what it means.  There is no one here, I should hope, who does not believe that we should be free to say what we want to say without fear of reprisal from the government or from groups that oppose our beliefs.  But because one has this precious freedom does not mean that one should use this freedom in a defamatory and scurrilous way.  Pope Francis responded to a question about freedom of speech and religious freedom with the following paraphrase:   “Suppose you insult my mother, I would give you a punch in the nose.”  This remark by the Pope, which indeed invites commentary,  was understood by some as a denial of freedom of expression, of freedom of speech, with respect to personal and specifically religious belief.

Gérard Biard, the new editor of Charlie Hebdo, in an interview with Chuck Todd for NBC responded to Pope Francis’s controversial comments about the relationship between free speech and religious faith in these words: “Every time that we draw a cartoon of Muhammad, every time that we draw a cartoon of the Prophet, every time that we draw a cartoon of God, we defend the freedom of religion,” said Biard. “We declare that God must not be a political or public figure. He must be a private figure. We defend the freedom of religion. Yes, it is also the freedom of speech, but it is the freedom of religion.  Religion should not be a political argument. If faith, if religious argument, steps into the political arena, it becomes a totalitarian argument. Secularism protects us against this. Secularism guarantees democracy and ensures peace. Secularism allows all believers and all non-believers to live in peace, and that is what we defend.”

No. You are wrong, terribly wrong, M. Biard. Je ne suis pas Charlie Hebdo.  I am a Catholic Christian who deplores violence and who loves peace and whose heart breaks for those who were killed and their families;  and yet who understands that sin is a reality in this world and manifests itself all too often as violence.  I am a Catholic Christian who is saddened by a culture that has forgotten that the blood of God incarnate was shed for the sins of the world, that has forgotten what love means and demands.  I am a Catholic Christian who knows that egalité, fraternité, liberté, equality, brotherhood and freedom can never be understood or founded on the self-centered godless understanding of man that pervades the contemporary culture of Europe and more and more in this country.  Freedom, equality and brotherhood can never be the accomplishment or the product of a political system of thought where “je suis” always takes precedence over “nous sommes”, where “I am” always takes precedence over “we are”.  It is only a culture founded upon the truth of the Christian faith, a truth that is not a system but a person, a person who is God in the flesh:  it is only a culture, a civilization that is truly imbued with the truth of the Christian faith and its moral demands that is founded on God’s love for man that can understand what freedom truly is, what equality really is, what brotherhood really is.

That huge rally in Paris after the terrible massacre of the cartoon journalists:  what did that mean in the end?  Solidarity with the journalists, showing resolve in the face of terror?  Yes. But upholding the right of freedom of speech?  Is this the freedom that those who fought in two World Wars on European soil died for?  The freedom to mock in scatological and crude ways the religious beliefs of those with whom they claim to be bound and to call their brothers in fraternité?

 Compare that rally and march with the march on Selma led by Martin Luther King.  Those who marched in the Paris demonstration were in a way self-congratulating sentimentalists who really had nothing to lose by their participation.  But the march to Selma was powered by a profoundly Christian understanding of equality and freedom and brotherhood that was in deep conflict with the society in which those who marched lived, a society that ironically and tragically called itself Christian but in reality denied the meaning of the Cross of Christ and the freedom the Cross bought in the name of Love.   And it cost, it cost dearly to participate in that march to Selma.  They were insulted, they were spat on, and some were beaten, and many were put into jail.  But they knew that what they were marching for, fighting for, was true, not because this was part of some ideology about freedom but because the center of their cause was the God who loved them and their enemies so much that he died for them, that they might all be free, that they might all be free. “For freedom Christ has set you free”, says St. Paul. 

And this is something that is not merely religion, not merely a private belief. For in a few moments we, you and I, in this church will affirm that nous sommes Chrétiens catholiques and that therefore we are free men and women by participating in that very act that makes us free, as we participate in the Sacrifice of the Son to the Father that bought our freedom at the greatest cost possible, no holding the knife back here as with Abraham and Isaac, as Calvary is re-presented on this altar and the life-giving grace that pours forth from the acceptance by the Father of his Son’s Sacrifice envelops us all, gloriously stricken by grace, lost in wonder, love and praise.