I have to apologize…hmmm…apologize…it’s like I am using that word on purpose, to shamelessly promote a presentation I am giving tomorrow. But I do have to apologize, because today we are going to talk about politics. I know, the Church should be a refuge, and we are all exhausted from Facebook and Twitter and the news, but it would be a grave dereliction of duty if the Church ignored what was happening outside of her walls.
In case you were unaware, these last two weeks have been a mixed bag for Catholics in the United States. On the one hand, this new administration seems to be very serious about limiting abortion funding, and the Supreme Court nominee looks to be solidly pro-life and pro-religious freedom. On the other hand, the President has signed Executive Orders that follow through on his campaign promises to build a wall with Mexico, accelerate deportations, make it much more difficult for refugees to enter this country, and to cut off Syrian refugees altogether. Many Catholic bishops in the United States have condemned these Executive Orders, including our own Archbishop here in Chicago, and so I feel compelled to talk about them, because I am just a deacon, and our bishops are our leaders.
Now, as a pastoral minister, my job is not to comment on policy. My job is to comment on values, and it is the job of the laity to turn those values into policies. My concern, and the concern of the United States bishops, is that these new policies towards immigrants and refugees represent an abandonment of the very values that make our country so special.
First, let me state this unequivocally: our nation has every right to regulate our borders and to protect our national security. How we do this is a matter of policy, and good Catholics can legitimately disagree about policy. Whether you support or oppose these Executive Orders as matters of policy, you are still a good Catholic, and God still loves you. Okay? Can we all agree on that?
Now, I want to start with a story. In 1625 Charles I became king of England. This was important because almost 100 years before, King Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church, but not really with Catholic theology, and since then the English throne had been caught between Catholic theology on the one hand and radical Protestantism, like Calvinism and Puritanism, on the other. When Charles became king, he looked too Catholic. He was not Catholic, because he liked being in charge of the Church of England, but he started persecuting the Protestants as much as Catholic had been persecuted previously. Because of this, between 1630 and 1640, 80,000 Puritans fled England, 20,000 of which ended up in the New World, mostly in New England. An important leader of this movement was John Winthrop, a well-to-do lawyer and leading Puritan who in 1630 started the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Winthrop knew the dangers. It was a two-month journey from England to the New World, and any number of things could happen in that time, including running out of provisions or being shipwrecked. He also knew that, only 10 years before, half, half of the settlers that came over on the Mayflower died during the first winter. And yet, Winthrop endured these dangers because he thought that the situation back in England was even more dangerous. Now, Winthrop knew he and his settlers had been given a fresh start, away from the arguments and politics and wars of Europe, so on the journey he wrote a sermon where he tried to lay out the rule of life for his new community. By what standard would they live? He decided that Christian Charity, that is, generosity, was the measure they should live up to. In Winthrop’s eyes, the Massachusetts Bay colony, blessed with a fresh start, was called to be a perfect society of love and support. Famously, he concluded his sermon by alluding to today’s Gospel passage. “We must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill,” he wrote. “The eyes of all people are upon us.” In other words, the world would watch his noble experiment in Christian living: if they succeeded, they would bring glory to God; if they failed, the world would mock all who tried to live out God’s commands.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, I have no love for the Puritans. For one, I had to study them, like, every year in middle school social studies, which was no fun. And for two, they mercilessly persecuted Catholics during the colonial period. And yet, I deeply believe what Winthrop said. I absolutely agree that America is called to be a light to the nations, a city on a hill, a beacon of hope and inspiration for all people.
But if we are going to think of ourselves as exceptional, we have to remember why we are exceptional. We are not exceptional because of the size of our army, because the size of our army does not matter if we do not use it to protect the oppressed. We are not exceptional because of the size of our economy, because our economy does not matter if we do not use our wealth to serve the poor. We are not exceptional because of the many liberties we can count for ourselves, because those liberties do not matter unless we use them to show forth the dignity of humanity. And we are not exceptional because of our beautiful landscapes, because our landscapes do not matter if our society becomes ugly.
So what does make us exceptional? Look to our first reading:
Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them… Then your light shall break forth like the dawn.
If you remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech; if you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; then light shall rise for you in the darkness.
It is through love, through charity, through generosity that we will shine forth, that we will set an example for the world. And listen further:
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer.
What does this mean except that, if we look after those in need, then the Lord will look after us when we are in need?
We are an incredibly generous nation. Our government and our private citizens send more money overseas to those in need than all of the other countries combined. We have sent our brave men and women to die for the freedom of other people. There is nothing more generous than this.
So the question is not about the policies. Our country not only has the right, it has the obligation to regulate our boarders and protect our national security. The question is, when we make these policies, what is the spirit that motivates them? Are we motivated by a spirit of fear? A spirit that forgets that all of our blessings come from God? A spirit that believes that we must hoard our blessings to protect them, and that we cannot share them lest they be taken from us? Or are we motivated by a spirit of generosity? A spirit that remembers that every blessing comes from God? A spirit that remembers that every blessing that comes from God must be shared? A spirit that knows that only by sharing our blessings will they be multiplied, will we begin to be again, and remain, a city on a hill?