but woke to a nightmare

I have a dream! Four words that are forever etched in our consciousness; four words that defined a singular moment in time; four words that forever altered the civil and social fabric of our nation and indeed the world; four words uttered by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, 52 years ago. I, along with so many others, were both captivated and moved by the eloquence of Dr. King’s words that day, especially those which were obviously so deeply personal and from the heart. We all remember them, for they have been repeated so often, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

The Scream

The Scream

Dr. King spoke of more than his four children that day of course but in that one sentence he found and declared his defining moment, his clear, unambiguous affirmation of the value and importance he placed on human life. What is especially remarkable is how his dreams were for the benefit of others, never for himself; it is as if he knew that he would not live to see such a dream, yet he still dared to dream such a dream for those who would live on after him. What is equally remarkable is how so many heard his words that day yet were offended and scandalized by what he had to say.

Throughout his public ministry, Jesus taught his disciples a new way of looking at their families, their friends, their neighbors, and even their enemies; Jesus taught them about love and he often did so in ways that would have easily offended and scandalized those around him. He often reached out to children to show his disciples how to love one another. In order to truly understand just how scandalous and even offensive this was you must see the world as his disciples saw it and not as we see it today.

First century Mediterranean societies placed children at the lowest rung on the status ladder, lower than the lowliest slave, even lower in some instances than domesticated animals. Why? Because children were seen only as consumers of scarce resources; they produced nothing of value to support or enrich the family and so were deemed little more than worthless. That sounds so heartless, so cruel and harsh to our modern sensibilities; after all, who doesn’t find an infant or small child irresistibly appealing. And yet that was first century reality, a reality and a world in which Jesus lived and taught and ultimately died.

Thus when Jesus puts his arms around a child he is telling his disciples that in order to be first in the eyes of the One who sent him, they must become like the child, among the least wanted, least desired, least valued.

There is a common thread, a singular notion that underlies both what Jesus taught and what Dr. King dreamed and that is this, that there is an immeasurable value associated with every single human life. Dr. King dreamed of a world where skin color or any other superficial difference mattered not, while Jesus taught that the value of any human life ought not and could not be defined by their station or status in any society. We are God’s creation, and God and God alone values each of us equally and loves each of us equally.

This understanding and acceptance of the priceless value placed upon each and every human life, both born and unborn, each a creation of our Creator has been the essence and the core of our Christian faith for two thousand years. The essential element in this is of course a belief in God. Even one of the most famous atheists of the last 200 years, Friedrich Nietzsche, thought as much for he wrote:

When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet. This morality is by no means self-evident … Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands.[1]

There are many things that stand upon belief in God, such as the idea that human beings have intrinsic value. Ethics, law, and human rights theory are based on the belief that you are not just a random collection of atoms, but a person with dignity and worth.[2] From where did this idea originate? It came from the Bible’s teaching that human beings are made “in the image of God”.[3] Take God out of the equation and you are left with few options for establishing the value of any one human life, you are back to first-century valuations based on social status and what you can produce or bring to the table. It’s only business and your value is based upon what you can contribute to the bottom line.

In an increasingly secular society whose blatantly stated objective is “freedom from religion”, and which strongly deemphasizes and even zealously dismisses God from virtually every aspect of our lives, it is easy to see the disastrous results. Without God, life has little or no value except to those who are in a position to determine it. Allow me to point out just a few of the more abhorrent examples.

  • We are familiar with the 11 million people who were systematically murdered, primarily for their belief in God, by the Nazis during World War II
  • In Rwanda in 1984 neighbors were often confronted by roving bands of thugs, handed a machete or other weapon and given the choice: kill your neighbors, or you and your entire family will be tortured and killed.
  • Since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortions, there have been over 58 million abortions in the U.S. alone and over 1.3 trillion worldwide since 1980!
  • And today, we hear almost daily of the systematic and wholesale torture and brutal slaughter of Christians and others who refuse to convert to the radical Islamic tenets of ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Now these are, in many people’s opinion, simply old, stale, meaningless statistics but they are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The reality is that what they truly represent is a profound shift in the thinking of an ever expanding portion of the population toward a virtual and complete devaluation of human life. Far too many have accepted the false narrative that we are nothing more than a random collection of atoms without purpose or value, and that eliminating a few or a multitude is of little or no consequence; in fact many actually perceive this to be a benefit to those who remain.

It is not just within the realm of physical atrocities that we see this sordid and horrific attitude for we are seeing real examples promulgated throughout philosophy, metaphysics, ethics, law, academia, and politics. Let me offer just one example, there are many more that can easily be found.

In the March 2012 edition of the Journal of Medical Ethics, Doctor Alberto Giubilini from the Department of Philosophy of the University of Milan, Italy and Doctor Francesca Minerva from the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics of the University of Melbourne, Australia published a paper entitled: “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?” Now if the title alone doesn’t cause severe nausea, here is a portion of the abstract: “By showing that (1) both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons, (2) the fact that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant, and (3) adoptions is not always in the best interest of actual people, the authors argue that what we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all cases where abortion is.” I must note here that these learned bioethicists define a newborn as any infant under the age of four! With this in mind, it now makes the current issues surrounding Planned Parenthood completely understandable and morally reprehensible.

Next month has been designated as Respect Life Month and a recent letter from Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Pro-Life Activities and Archbishop of Boston iterates much of what I have already said but I believe it is worth restating:

One of the deepest desires of the human heart is to discover our identity. So often, as a society and as individuals, we identify ourselves by what we do. We base our worth on how productive we are at work or at home, and we determine our lives to be more or less good depending on the degree of independence or pleasure. We may even begin to believe that if our lives, or those of others, don’t “measure up” to a certain standard, they are somehow less valuable or less worth living.

Respect Life Month is a fitting time to reflect on the truth of who we are.

Our worth is based not on our skills or levels of productivity. Rather, we discover our worth when we discover our true identity found in the unchangeable, permanent fact that we are created in God’s image and likeness and called to an eternal destiny with him.

Because of this, absolutely nothing can diminish our God-given dignity, and therefore, nothing can diminish the immeasurable worth of our lives. Others may fail to respect that dignity—may even try to undermine it—but in doing so, they only distance themselves from God’s loving embrace. Human dignity is forever.

Whether it lasts for a brief moment or for a hundred years, each of our lives is a good and perfect gift. At every stage and in every circumstance, we are held in existence by God’s love.

An elderly man whose health is quickly deteriorating; an unborn baby girl whose diagnosis indicates she may not live long; a little boy with Down syndrome; a mother facing terminal cancer—each may have great difficulties and need our assistance, but each of their lives is worth living.

When we encounter the suffering of another, let us reach out and embrace them in love, allowing God to work through us. This might mean slowing down and taking the time to listen. It might mean providing respite care or preparing meals for a family facing serious illness. It might mean simply being present and available. And of course, it always means prayer–bringing their needs before the Father and asking him to work in their lives.

Experiencing suffering—or watching another suffer—is one of the hardest human experiences. Fear of the unknown can lead us into the temptation of taking control in ways that offend our dignity and disregard the reverence due to each person.

But we are not alone. Christ experienced suffering more deeply than we can comprehend, and our own suffering can be meaningful when we unite it with his. Especially in the midst of trials, we are invited to hold fast to the hope of the Resurrection. God is with us every step of the way, giving us the grace we need.

In times of suffering, let us have the courage to accept help that others genuinely want to give, and give the help that others need. We were made to love and be loved; we are meant to depend on one another, serving each other in humility and walking together in times of suffering. Our relationships are meant to help us grow in perfect love.

Let us learn to let go of our own standards of perfection and instead learn more deeply how to live according to God’s standards. He does not call us to perfect efficiency or material success; he calls us to self-sacrificial love. He invites us to embrace each life for as long as it is given—our own lives and the lives of those he has placed in our paths. Every life is worth living.

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ, London: Penguin, 2003 [1889], pp. 80-81.
[2] Michael J. Perry, “The Morality of Human Rights: A Nonreligious Ground?”, Emory Law Journal 54, 2005, pp. 97-150.
[3] Gn 1:26-27.

About the author: Deacon Chuck

Deacon Chuck was ordained into the permanent diaconate on September 17, 2011, in the ministry of service to the Diocese of Reno and assigned to St. Albert the Great Catholic Community. He currently serves as the parish bulletin editor and website administrator. Deacon Chuck continues to serve the parish of Saint Albert the Great Catholic Community of the Diocese of Reno, Nevada. He is the Director of Adult Faith Formation and Homebound Ministries for the parish, conducts frequent adult faith formation workshops, and is a regular homilist. He currently serves as the bulletin editor for the parish bulletin. He writes a weekly column intended to encompass a broad landscape of thoughts and ideas on matters of theology, faith, morals, teachings of the magisterium and the Catholic Church; they are meant to illuminate, illustrate, and catechize the readers and now number more than 230 articles. His latest endeavor is "Colloqui: A journal for restless minds", a weekly journal of about 8 pages similar in content to bulletin reflections. All his reflections, homilies, commentaries, and Colloqui are posted and can be found on his website: http://deaconscorner.org. Comments are always welcome and appreciated. He is the author of two books: "The Voices of God: hearing God in the silence" which offers the reader insights into how to hear God’s voice through all of the noise that surrounds us; and "Echoes of Love: Effervescent Memories" which through a combination of prose and verse provides the reader with a wonderful journey on the way to discovering forever love. He regularly speaks to groups of all ages and size and would welcome the opportunity to speak to your group.

1 Comment

  1. Impressive homily this past Sunday; I was moved by your examination of human dignity and how it relates to Christs’ humility.

    Thank you for your message, it has had a profound influence on me as I approach my 75th birthday. I often reflect on my life as a child of God and the multifaceted roles I have had in my early life and as a husband, father, and soldier.

    We just became grandparents 6 June of this year and I sometimes shutter at the world my grand daughter will grow up in. Hopefully with Gods blessing, she will find happiness in the challenges she will face, even with the loving care of her parents, our daughter and son in law.

    Again, thanks for your continued commitment and involvement in our Catholic community and your significant contributions to a better understanding of our Christian heritage.

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