“Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd (clever/cunning/
crafty) as serpents and simple (innocent) as doves (Matthew 10:16).” The greater the evil
that we fight, the more important to hold ourselves to a higher standard of behavior. On
Amazon I saw a book called “In Defense of Looting” that apparently suggested that looting
was an effective tactic of protest. (Wasn’t Amazon the group that de-platformed Parler?
But they allow this?) If we say that our tactics are justified because our cause is so right and
just, we want to remember that Everyone’s cause is right and just in their minds, and those
tactics may be used for causes we don’t approve of. Many have pointed to those who
defended the rioting last summer as making it easier for others to believe they should break
into the capital. I highly recommend Ann Garrido’s book “Redeeming Conflict.” Her habit
4 is “Undo the knot of intention.” Good intentions do not guarantee good actions. The
scribes and Pharisees who opposed Jesus certainly thought of themselves as the good guys,
but they lacked self-reflection. They had a mighty lens for seeing any hint of fault in
others, but were blind to their own shortcomings, or dismissed them because they
considered themselves so good.
Of course, the Bible has some helpful stuff. Ephesians 4: 26 “Be angry but do not sin; do
not let the sun set on your anger, and do not leave room for the devil.” James 1:19-20
reminds us to be “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath” and that our wrath “does not
fulfill the righteousness of God.” Matthew 12:36: “You shall be held accountable for every
idle word that you utter.” When we are about to say something or type something, imagine
talking with Jesus on the last day and explaining how this comment is serving the kingdom
and showing His goodness. Jesus was sometimes fierce, but He wasn’t mean for the sake of
being mean, no matter how much someone deserved it. Jesus was very angry in Matthew
23, but he didn’t stay there; he moved to sadness and mourning for Jerusalem. Then He
went to work.
In Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” he says, “In any nonviolent
campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices
are alive, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action.” He knew that their efforts needed
to be based on facts that would stand up to skeptical scrutiny. He did not just grab a few
tidbits of information that seemed to support his narrative. He describes their purification
like this: “We started having workshops on nonviolence and repeatedly asked ourselves the
questions, ‘Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?’ and ‘Are you able to endure
the ordeals of jail?’” This was disciplined and they held themselves to a very high
standard. They showed their power not with physical force but by imitating Jesus.
After the murder of George Floyd, there was a lot of consensus in this country, and a great
moment to have some serious conversation about how to prevent such things in the future.
There could have been serious steps taken so people could be confident that when they
interact with the police their lives would be protected and their dignity respected, as well as
the police being confident that if they do their jobs wrong there will be consequences and if
they do their jobs right their superiors and the community will stand by them. Then there
were riots night after night. The country was divided, and the moment was thrown away.
That may be the greatest tragedy of all.
I think we can heal as a nation. It will take a lot of self-examination. It will take many
deciding to look beyond their anger at what is wrong, to some well thought out strategies
for solving problems. It will require being clever as serpents and innocent as doves.
This is Sanctity of Life Sunday.
The biggest life issue now is, of course, the killing of unborn children. This stands out for
- The huge number of victims, tens of millions, many times that of any genocide that I
- It is direct killing of the innocent. That is different in kind from capital punishment,
from killing in a just war, or from the indirect killing that accompanies many activities
(driving carelessly is wrong, and has resulted in deaths, but it is not the same as directly
intending to kill).
- Proponents have set apart a group they classify as untermenchen (a term used in
Germany in the early 20
th century, it referred to humans they consider lesser, and therefore
not as entitled to protection). This has been done in the past to Native Americans, to Jews,
to African Americans, and other groups. It is a tool used for the greatest human atrocities.
Some have even referred to unborn children as “non-living fetal tissue.” Where is the
science behind that?
That said, it is essential that we not neglect other areas where the sanctity of life needs to be
affirmed. Many see the lives of the elderly, the disabled and the infirm to be of less value,
and advocate for euthanasia. We must recognize that their lives are precious, and not only
protect them from being killed, but make sure they are not marginalized or forgotten.
We have a constant need to care for the hungry, the homeless, and those trapped in
poverty. There is room to disagree about how, but no room to say that it is not our
We must do something about human trafficking. I don’t know what, but we must do
The Catholic Church has long accepted capital punishment as a proper tool of law
enforcement, but, starting with Pope Saint John Paul II and continuing with Pope Francis,
there has been a movement away. There is a strong body of thought that suggests it does not
help deter crime, and with proper incarceration, it would not be necessary to protect
people. I suggest we can be a better society if we hold precious even the lives of vicious
murderers. That said, I have a very hard time being patient with those who say it is
contradictory to oppose abortion and favor capital punishment. How come I never hear
people saying that if we favor incarcerating criminals, we must therefore favor the
legalization of kidnapping? Honestly.
I recently listened to Daniel Goleman’s book Social Intelligence. He speaks of the
“thingification” of other people, in which they are considered not in terms of their dignity,
their needs, their thoughts or their feelings, but only how they affect us. They are seen not
as people, but as things, as objects. Celeste Headlee in her excellent book We Need to Talk:
How to Have Conversations that Matter, mentions that studies show that empathy is on the
decline. It is easy to figure that the widespread use of social media rather than personal
contact makes things worse. The enormous use of pornography has to be a huge factor. I
see a lot of conversation showing contempt for people who disagree. That can’t help. How
do we build empathy in our society?
Final thought: “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could
do only a little.” -Edmund Burke
Today we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord. If I understand correctly, the Feast of
Epiphany used to mark the coming of the Magi, the Baptism of the Lord, and the miracle at
Cana, and that marked the end of the Christmas season. It was apparently decided that the
Baptism needed its own feast, and this marks the end of the Christmas season, so tomorrow
we begin good old Ordinary Time.
When Jesus was baptized, He was not, of course, repenting of sin. He was sanctifying
baptism and it will be by the power of His pascal mystery that Christians will be born again
in baptism. It begins His saving work: His life as a manual laborer is over, and now He is
beginning the journey that leads to the Cross. He will refer to His death as a baptism (Mark
10:38; Luke 12:50) (see Catechism of the Catholic Church #536).
John 3:5 says, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without
being born of water and Spirit.” The Church has always understood this to refer to baptism.
Baptism has never been treated as a detail, and it is not an option or a matter of
preference. In Jesus’ final commissioning of His disciples at the end of the Gospels of
Matthew and Mark, Jesus’ very concise instructions include baptizing as a core part of the
work (Matthew 28:19 and Mark 16:16).
This leads to a question: what about those who are sincere but were not baptized. What
about children who died before baptism? This led to a theological theory called
limbo. Although the Baltimore catechism taught limbo as if it were a fact, limbo has never
been the official teaching of the Catholic Church. Pope Benedict finally laid it to rest and
said it is not a part of the Catholic faith. We now understand John 3:5 to be a mandate on
us but not a restriction on God. The God we have gotten to know in the New Testament is
not about keeping people out of heaven because of something they couldn’t control of have
not been properly taught. Unfortunately, in the meantime, many Catholics have come to see
getting sacraments as the ultimate end of the faith (sometimes literally the end, when they
drop out after getting confirmed because they are “done”). They have come to see the
practice of the faith as a pale shadow of what it is meant to be. The great danger is of people
being sacramentalized but not evangelized. They have helped convince a lot of other people
that Catholicism is superficial, mechanical and legalistic. Seeing the fruits of this is one of
the most heart-breaking things about being a priest.
How should we look at sacraments? St. Paul sees baptism as something we must live out.
“What then shall we say? Shall we persist in sin that grace may abound? Of course not!
How can we who died to sin yet live in it? Or are you unaware that we who were baptized
into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through
baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the
Father, we might live in newness of life (Romans 6:1-4).”
Our belonging to Jesus is meant to make all the difference. It is as drastic as dying. It is
meant to be the controlling, defining reality in our lives, by which all other things find their
meaning. We hand God our lives and invite Him to do whatever He chooses with us,
holding nothing back. Our faith and our response to God is, of course, imperfect, but if our
faith is real, our goal is nothing less than being completely His. Peter Kreeft’s book Jesus
Shock gets deep into this.
A question for 2021 is, “How are we living our baptism?”
It has been said that the task of a prophet is “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the
comfortable.” Reading the book of the prophet Isaiah, we see he can start with some fierce
“get your act together” talk, and then switches. Starting around chapter 40, he is talking to a
people in exile who are beaten down and discouraged and telling them wonderful things about
the tender love of God. Isaiah has some of the most beautiful and moving language in the
Bible about the tender love of God, and much of the imagery will be picked up in the New
God loves us very much, and in that love calls us to be the best we can be, what we were
created to be, and sometimes that means we need to hear things that are hard to hear.
Some people are alienated from the Church because they received hard sayings when they
needed comfort, and they were beaten down and fell into despair. We can try hard to avoid
that, but it is going to happen sometime.
There are others who are mad at the Church because they needed to hear something hard but
believed they should only receive comfort. Jesus was not shy about saying fierce things when
it was appropriate (see Matthew 5:29-30; Matthew 23; Matthew 25:41-45, John 6, etc.).
Some have drifted away from the Church because they have only received happy messages
and have never been challenged (how long would you keep going to a gym that had
Styrofoam weights that took no effort to lift? It would be more comfortable but wouldn’t
accomplish anything worthwhile). Eventually people decide they have better things to do
with their time.
A pivotal question for all of us, then, would be: How ready are we to hear and respond to hard
sayings? This question is trickier than it sounds.
Some people want more “fire and brimstone,” but are quite sure that it should all be directed
to other people. Some people spend a lot of time talking about what terrible people they are,
but if you point out a specific behavior that perhaps they should examine and change, they get
M. Scott Peck in his book “The Road Less Traveled” talked about some people who were
neurotic and believed that everything was their fault, and some people with a character
disorder who believed that nothing was their fault. There will always be people who tell us
we are wrong, and there will always be people who tell us we are right. If we are too afraid to
stand by our beliefs and decisions we will be paralyzed, and if we are too certain we are right,
we will never learn anything new. Discernment and balance is needed. If, when we were
younger, we received harsh and unproductive criticism, we will find it extremely painful to
learn that we are wrong, and the temptation will be strong to rationalize our position and reject
any negative feedback. If learning we are wrong is not an occasion for great agony, but
opportunity to learn and grow, we can be much more open. Jesus was very patient and gentle
with those who were willing to look at themselves honestly and change their ways, no matter
how bad their sins had been. His anger was for those who were sure they didn’t need to
change, but only other people.
How is God calling us to learn from our current situation? How is God calling us to respond?