our first freedom

It is difficult at times to understand Jesus. There are times when what he says pricks like barbs on a rose. When called by Jesus, a potential disciple responds “Lord, let me go first and bury my father” to which Jesus replies “Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Such callousness in the face of grave personal loss seems so unlike Jesus—so what are we missing here?

Fortnight for Freedom 2016

Fortnight for Freedom 2016

What we are missing is the cultural understanding of first-century Palestine. We necessarily view life through the lens of now: of our own time, culture, and place; we have no true understanding of how great a divide exists between then and now, of the differences that engulf two-thousand years of historical and cultural changes. And then we must add to it the multi-linguistic challenges of translation, context, and usage.

In the middle-eastern culture at the time of Jesus it was customary for the eldest son to be held responsible for the care of aging parents; the eldest would remain in the home with his parents and manage their property and provide care for them including insuring their proper burial upon their deaths. If that was the situation here, then the request might not have been to attend to an immediate funeral but for one well into the future.

This changes our understanding. Jesus is telling the potential disciple and us that there can be no excuse for hesitation or reluctance when he calls us to be his disciples; when he tells us that it is our obligation to go and proclaim the kingdom of God. If you hesitate or find an excuse to postpone responding to his call you are in effect saying, “I’m not interested in following you right now.” What’s more, in all likelihood you never will.

St. Paul tells us that “For freedom Christ set us free;” but he admonishes us to “not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love. … live by the Spirit and you will certainly not gratify the desire of the flesh. For the flesh has desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; these are opposed to each other.” Unfortunately in our culture and society today the flesh has quite evidently overcome the spirit as far too many seek only what satisfies this mortal flesh.

Cultural and Societal Divide

What is perhaps most remarkable, beyond the temporal and cultural gulf that separates us from first-century Palestine is how great a divide now exists neighbor to neighbor, between those chosen to govern and those who have chosen to be governed, between natural rights endowed by our Creator God and rights granted by man.

No doubt we face serious cultural and societal challenges yet the biggest problem we face isn’t what makes the headlines or the evening news. Issues such as gay marriage, abortion, euthanasia, mass murders, terrorism, joblessness, economic instability, and even the continuing decline of faith and morals are all serious cultural and societal issues but what underlies them all is a thing oddly similar to our common misunderstanding of the Gospel: a crippling inability to communicate clearly and effectively with one another due primarily to a lack of a common shared vocabulary, eerily reminiscent of the Tower of Babel.

As Archbishop Charles Chaput explains:

…we use words like justice, rights, freedom and dignity without any commonly shared meaning to their content. We speak the same language, but the words don’t mean the same thing. Our public discourse never gets down to what’s true and what isn’t, because it can’t. Our most important debates boil out to who can deploy the best words in the best way to get power. Words like ‘justice’ have emotional throw-weight, so people use them as weapons. And it can’t be otherwise, because the religious vision and convictions that once animated American life are no longer welcome at the table. After all, what can ‘human rights’ mean if science sees nothing transcendent in the human species? Or if science imagines a trans-humanist future? Or if science doubts that a uniquely human ‘nature’ even exists? If there’s no inherent human nature, there can be no inherent natural rights—and then the grounding of our whole political system is a group of empty syllables.1

Equality under the Law

This unique experiment which we like to call the Great American Experience, was first and foremost founded on self-evident truthsthat all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Our foundational document, the Declaration of Independence declares and affirms that a Creator God, through his power and grace gifted all men with certain ‘unalienable Rights’, rights that can neither be taken nor given away.

Since God gave these rights to man, no individual, group, or authority may take them away. They are unalienable by virtue of the fact that man is made in the image and likeness of God. Therefore all men are endowed with certain attributes, powers, freedoms, and legal protections as part of our human essence. They are gifts from our Creator God and thus impossible for any government to alter or nullify man’s divine inheritance. But those with the power to govern are too often want to try to usurp the will of God.

Our American heritage is one of freedom and our most cherished freedom is the right to freely worship according to our conscience. In 2012 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty suggested that the fourteen days from June 21st—the vigil of the Feasts of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More—to July 4th, Independence Day, be dedicated as a ‘Fortnight for Freedom’—a great hymn of prayer for our country. In their inaugural letter they stated that Religious Freedom:

“…is the first freedom because if we are not free in our conscience and our practice of religion, all other freedoms are fragile. If citizens are not free in their own consciences, how can they be free in relation to others, or to the state? If our obligations and duties to God are impeded, or even worse, contradicted by the government, then we can no longer claim to be a land of the free, and a beacon of hope for the world. … 

In his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in 1963, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. boldly said, “The Goal of America is freedom.” As a Christian pastor, he argued that to call America to the full measure of that freedom was the specific contribution Christians are obliged to make. He rooted his legal and constitutional arguments about justice in the long Christian tradition:

I would agree with Saint Augustine that ‘An unjust law is no law at all.’ Now what is the difference between the two? How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of Saint Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.
It is a sobering thing to contemplate our government enacting an unjust law. An unjust law cannot be obeyed. In the face of an unjust law, an accommodation is not to be sought, especially by resorting to equivocal words and deceptive practices. If we face today the prospect of unjust laws, then Catholics in America, in solidarity with our fellow citizens, must have the courage not to obey them. No American desires this. No Catholic welcomes it. But if it should fall upon us, we must discharge it as a duty of citizenship and an obligation of faith.”2

Dignitatis Humanae

The Second Vatican Council, in its Declaration on Religious Liberty (Dignitatis Humanae) and promulgated by Pope Pius VI, makes it absolutely clear what the Church’s teaching is concerning religious liberty:

The human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that in matters religious no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs … whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits. …This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed. Thus it is to become a civil right.”3

This year we observe the fifth ‘Fortnight for Freedom’ which began last Tuesday, June 21st and will continue through July 4th, Independence Day. Five years ago the bishops closed their letter with an appeal to us all:

“To all our fellow Catholics, we urge an intensification of your prayers and fasting for a new birth of freedom in our beloved country. We invite you to join us in an urgent prayer for religious liberty.”

And so we pray:

A Prayer For Religious Liberty

Almighty God, Father of all nations, For freedom you have set us free in Christ Jesus. We praise and bless you for the gift of religious liberty, the foundation of human rights, justice, and the common good. Grant to our leaders the wisdom to protect and promote our liberties; By your grace may we have the courage to defend them, for ourselves and for all those who live in this blessed land. We ask this through the intercession of Mary Immaculate, our patroness, and in the name of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, with whom you live and reign, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

1   Charles J. Chaput, Archbishop of Philadelphia, Of Human Dignity: The Declaration on Religious Liberty at 50, First Things, March 18, 2015.
2   USCCB, Our First, Most Cherished Liberty: A Statement on Religious Liberty, March 2012.
3   Second Vatican Council, Declaration on Religious Liberty (Dignitatis Humanae), no. 2, in The Documents of Vatican II, ed. Walter M. Abbott (New York: Guild Press, 1966).

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.

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