Sometimes you come upon a line in the Bible that surprises you.
I have been attending daily Mass every day for the last eight years, and Sunday Mass for every Sunday for the last twenty. The Catholic lectionary being what it is, this means that I hear 13.5% of the Old Testament and 71.5% of the New Testament every two- or three-year cycle. That may seem low on paper, but if you think about how many prophets say the same thing in two-hundred different ways, I am actually exposed to all the principle ideas and themes of every book every couple of years.
Anyway, yesterday there was a striking line in the Gospel and, as I stood at the ambo, I had to look at it a few different times to ask if I had ever read that line before.
They will expel you from the synagogues;
in fact, the hour is coming when everyone who kills you
will think he is offering worship to God.
Notice that nothing that Jesus says here is conditional. They will expel you. When they kill you. Jesus is commenting on the persecution and death of his disciples as though it is a foregone conclusion, which, apparently, it is.
Well, it was impossible for me to read this line and not think about the ongoing religious liberty debate in this country.
Of course, there are plenty of people who consider Christian concerns about religious liberty to be fake news (at best!), and they are not entirely wrong. Christianity is still, by far, the dominant religion in the United States, and we certainly continue to enjoy wide-spread societal acceptance and, in some senses, pseudo-establishment (consider, for example, that everybody gets Christmas off of work). We are far from “persecuted”, and Muslims, Jews, and other religious minorities have it much worse in every way.
So let me provide a refresher on what Christians mean when we talk about religious liberty concerns.
Our story begins with the Affordable Care Act, sometimes known as Obamacare. While there were some issues with abortion coverage in the original bill (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stupak–Pitts_Amendment), the real conversation about religious liberty began in 2011 with the contraceptive mandate. The Catholic Church, you will remember, opposes the use of contraceptives and, while it has been a very long time since we have made an argument against their legalization, we did not appreciate the idea that we might have to purchase them through our insurance plans.
But this debate was not, at the end of the day, about contraceptives. It could have been anything. The debate, at its core, was about how to define “religion”, because the Obama administration was claiming that it was providing a religious exemption so that the Catholic Church would not have to pay for something it objected to on religious grounds.
Here is where things got complicated. In the mind of the Catholic Church, any of our Catholic institutions should be granted the religious exemption, because they are all expressions of our religious identity and mission. This means that Catholic schools, Catholic hospitals, and Catholic charities should all be considered “religious”.
But for the Obama administration, only houses of worship should have qualified for religious exemptions. Specifically, the Obama administration required that:
a religious employer must: 1) inculcate values as its purpose; 2) primarily employ members of its own faith; 3) serve primarily members of its own faith; and 4) be a nonprofit organization as defined in Internal Revenue Code § 6033(a)(1) or § 6033(a)(3)(A)(i) or (iii).
This definition excludes, for example, food banks, outreach centers, Catholic schools (with non-Catholic teachers OR non-Catholic students), Catholic hospitals, Catholic orphanages, etc. In other words, by committing to helping the poor regardless of religious affiliation, these Catholic entities excluded themselves from being religious employers.
The history of fighting this mandate in the courts, the myriad different rules that came out over the next two years, the Hobby Lobby case, and even the changes made under the new Trump administration, are relatively unimportant. What is important is that we began to have two different approaches to religious liberty, which are often referred to as “freedom of exercise” and “freedom of worship”. In the battle between the Catholic bishops and President Obama, the bishops essentially believed that any exercise of religion (including serving the poor) was “religious”, whereas the Obama Administration believed that only worship or teaching the faith qualified as “religious.”
And then this distinction began to spill over into the public square, especially regarding gay rights. Catholic orphanages had to close for refusing to allow same-sex couples to adopt. Christian bakers, florists, and photographers were sued for refusing to service same-sex weddings. There are also various conversations about conscience protection involving Christian pharmacists. Freedom of worship has never been threatened, but a lot of questions began to be asked about the proper extent of freedom of exercise.
The upshot is that we now have concrete legal challenges to the exercise of religion in the public square. The arguments are strong on both sides: the first clause of the First Amendment, which is so essential to the meaning of liberty in the country, protects the free exercise of religion; but it is dangerous or impossible for courts to determine what qualifies as legitimate religion (though RFRA made a reasonable stab at it, IMHO), and so markets and the public square appear safer and more open if religion is removed entirely as a factor in commerce or politics.
So when Christians are worried about religious liberty, we are not (yet) worried about being killed in the streets. But we are concerned that the First Amendment is being reinterpreted very narrowly and that religion, which affects every aspect of our lives, will only be allowed to exist inside the walls of our churches. From the perspective of Christians, there are certain things we are unwilling to do, even while acting as public entities, and we are concerned that the direction of the courts is to force us to do these things anyway or to be fined out of existence.
So returning to the Gospel, we are beginning to experience our own American version of being expelled from the Synagogues. Though I do not think we are in any danger of being killed, I do believe we will soon begin to face fines that will be so crippling that our buildings and institutions will have to be sold or abandoned. Again, Jesus did not say “if” this happens, but “when” this happens.
What is most interesting about the Gospel message, though, is that Jesus says that those who persecute us will believe that in doing so, they are offering worship to God. This is absolutely correct. Everyone I know who disagrees with me, who disagrees with the Catholic interpretation of Christianity, who opposes Catholic influences or ideas in the public square; every single one of these people is doing so out of a deep pursuit of justice. They truly and authentically believe that fighting for abortion and fighting for gay rights are the most important justice issues of our time. They are convinced that they only way society can function, the only way we can have pluralistic peace, is if our societal institutions are protected from religion (not the opposite, where our religious institutions are protected from society). These are people who have the same religious fervor for their political and societal beliefs as I do for my religion, and in opposing religious influences in the public square, they absolutely are offering worship to their gods. And I cannot blame them for it.
More important than his description of the reality of persecution is Jesus’ explanation of it:
They will do this because they have not known either the Father or me.
Now if we wanted to be self-justifying, we could read this line as “they are a bunch of pagans who refuse to accept Jesus as Lord and are opposing God with their every breath,” but this interpretation reveals a lot more about us than it does about our interlocutors. Instead, I think it is fair to say, at least in our current American context, that they do what they do because they have not seen Jesus or his Father in us.
Bluntly, we dig our own graves with our behavior in the culture wars. I watch so many people (and I am sure I have been guilty of this in my life too) who oppose same-sex marriage or abortion out of anger rather than out of love. If we are standing in front of a clinic yelling angry things and holding horrific images (rather than telling women in crisis that God loves them and that we will give them the help and support they believe they lack), why are we surprised when we are opposed with the same anger and vitriol? When we are telling gay people that God condemns them to Hell (rather than telling them we want them to happy, and that we believe life in the Spirit of God is the surest path to happiness), why are we surprised when our opponents refer to us as godless hypocrites who ignore the message of Jesus?
Ultimately, Our Lord is telling us that if we are concerned about religious liberty, about being persecuted for the faith, then our only hope is to help the world know him and his Father. If we think political machinations are going to save us, we are dead wrong. Instead, we have to be loving without exception. We have to allow others to spit in our faces and pluck our beards, and still love them in the end. This is what Jesus did, and we are no better than our master. The only way we will ever be free, both in our country and in our souls, is if we never abandon the message of Jesus, if we love without exception, and if we live in such a way that others can come to know Jesus and his Father through us.
[Featured image found here.]