31 Sunday A #148
Ex 22, 20-25
1 Thes 1, 5-10
Mt 22, 34-40
University of Rochester
October 26, 2008
Deacon Tom Cornell
I have here a long sermon, about 2,000 words, five pages single-spaced. When I showed it to Fr. Brian he said, “Oh, no, Tom! These are college students. Give them a break! They’ve been lectured at all week! Have mercy!” Okay, here, I’ll put it down.
In a week and two days we go to the polls, many if not most of us for the first time. Our bishops have instructed us to consider “the life issues” as we decide how to vote, abortion and embryonic cell research, euthanasia, intrinsic evils, and the death penalty, and unjust war and the stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction. And our unjust immigration policy, poverty here and abroad and the threats to the earth and sea and sky, the very air we breathe by climate change and our part in it.
The right to life covers a broad area. The right to life does not end at birth. And the right to life includes by necessity the right to the means to life. That means food, clothing and shelter and medical care. But it also means the right to education and training for an honest job that pays a living wage because without these there is no decent life for us or our children. And let me add torture. Torture is also a crime against life, condemned by the Second Vatican Council.
Our bishops have not addressed issues that address the political order as such, for instance the erosion of civil liberties in the so-called “War on Terror.” In a university setting, it is not inappropriate to take note of the expansion of the powers of the President these past eight years, usurpation of powers to put it more accurately, under the concept of the unitary executive and how that affects human dignity: the power to override Congressional oversight in every aspect of government from energy policy to health care, the power to wage undeclared war, the power to create military courts to try civilians, the power to seize and transport anyone to secret prisons in foreign lands, to authorize torture. Never has the Constitution been under such attack, and few seem to notice. In these days of economic turmoil, our attention is on matters closer to home.
No party and no candidate fills the bill when it come to our needs at home or our foreign policy. Neither party comes clean on Iraq and Afghanistan. We have to weigh matters and all too often we have to choose the lesser of two evils. No candidate and no party has offered a full employment goal or a living wage policy. A family should be able to live on the salary of one full-time working parent. That has been the teaching of the Catholic Church in this country since World War I. And yet we still don’t have it. In fact, for the past thirty years, under Democrats and Republicans alike, we have been going backwards.
The American worker is the most productive worker in the world, we like to boast. For every hour of work the value of what the worker has produced has increased. In the past, wages and productivity have risen together, more or less in step. If workers produced more, then they earned more. But not for the last thirty years. The buying power of all but the top 10 percent of our population has actually declined since 1973. The minimum wage, if it had kept up with increased productivity over the past thirty years, would now be close to twenty dollars an hour instead of less than the seven dollars it is today. Everybody’s wages would rise as we shared the product of our own labor! Take a guess where the extra profit has gone. It’s gone to the same people who engineered the economic crisis we are now entering, the worst since 1929. Democrats as well as Republicans have allowed this to happen. The blame lies at both their doors, and at our own too because we let it happen. We were asleep at the switch.
No matter who wins on November 4th, our country, our society will have much the same problems we have today. Our problems are at base spiritual. Because our problems are at base spiritual they must be addressed spiritually, with the weapons of spirit. The weapons of the spirit are first of all prayer, the prayer we say with or without words alone in quiet and the prayer we pray together here today as we break open the Word of God in Scripture and share the Sacrament of the Altar breaking bread together, the Body and Blood of the Savior.
Then the works of mercy, the corporal and the spiritual works of mercy, feeding the hungry, giving shelter to the homeless and the rest. We must cultivate a merciful and loving attitude to those in need, not a judgmental one, not a “Why don’t they pull themselves up by their own bootstraps?” way of thinking. Pray God’s mercy upon us. Pray that he take away our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh. And the spiritual works of mercy. The spiritual works of mercy are as important as the corporal: instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, comforting those in grief, pointing out their errors to those who are on the wrong path in the spirit of charity, forgiving those who have hurt us and praying for them.
Our national problems, our societal problems can be laid out on the grid of the seven deadly sins. The same vices that beset our private lives bedevil our common life: pride, greed, envy, sloth, lust, anger and gluttony. The cure for them can be laid out on a grid too, the virtues that are their opposites: for pride humility, for envy kindness, for anger patience, for lust self-control, for gluttony temperance, for greed liberality, for sloth diligence.
Both Senator McCain and Senator Obama mentioned greed in their last debate. They might have gone down the list to include each one of the vices. Gluttony! If everybody on earth wasted as much as the average American does the earth’s resources would run out in a very few years. Our bishops pledged that they would voluntarily abstain from eating meat on Fridays as a sacrifice for peace. Meatless Fridays are no longer obligatory, except in Lent. That’s why it’s even better to skip meat on Fridays, because you don’t have to, you want to. And it’s a good idea to skip a meal or two every week and send what you save to a soup kitchen or a food bank. Fasting and almsgiving cancel out sins, so the ancient fathers taught.
Voting is important, a duty, but it is not enough. This country has never made any social advance unless the people rose up and demanded it. So we learned in the labor movement, so we learned in the Civil Rights Movement. So we learned during the Viet Nam war on the streets and in jail cells and in prison.
The kind of struggle we need, this country needs, will be long and hard and it’s going to cost. The kind of struggle we need can not be sustained by weak tea, I mean by a watered down faith. We need a strong and deep faith, strengthened and deepened by prayer and the sacraments.
Let me tell you a story. My friend Igal Roodenko was born in Philadelphia of a secular Jewish family in 1911. His first language was Yiddish. Igal was very well loved in our Catholic Worker community, although he was an atheist. He earned a master’s degree in plant pathology at Cornell University before World War II so that he could go to Palestine to help establish a Jewish state there, “a land without people for a people without a land.” That’s the founding myth of the modern Israeli state, “a land without a people for a people without a land.” But then as Igal completed his course work, it occurred to him: there are people in Palestine. They are Palestinians. They have been there for thousands of years. They would resist having their land, their homes and farms and businesses taken from them. The Zionists would have to kill lots of Arab Palestinians to control Palestine! Igal could not eat meat. He was a vegetarian. He couldn’t even eat a fish! How was he going to kill an Arab?
Igal went to prison in World War II for three years for refusing to kill Germans and Japanese. He told me more than once that he would have loved to be able to join the army and take part in the great adventure of his generation. But he couldn’t go. He just couldn’t. In prison he met men he would never have found in the course of ordinary life, men who thought as he did. There were, and are, few of them, but more of them today. Together they studied the nonviolent theory and practice of Mahatma Gandhi. These men studied and argued about nonviolence and about our country’s social problems, and came to the conclusion that race is the fault-line in this society. They determined that after the war, after they were released from prison, they would apply Gandhian nonviolence to the race issue. The first Freedom Ride was not in 1960 – the photos you may have seen of the bus burning in Anniston, Georgia. The first Freedom Ride was in 1947, and every man on that ride spent World War II in prison for refusing military service. Igal served thirty days on a chain-gang in Virginia for sitting next to a black man on a bus. Those men sparked the great movement that finally dismantled the legal structures of racial segregation in this country, and, it is not too much to say, they saved this country.
Not long before he died, Igal reminisced. He said to me, “I’ve been in the Movement for a long time.” (He meant the labor movement, the civil rights movement and the peace movement.) “The Thirties, the Forties, the Fifties, the Sixties, the Seventies and the Eighties. There were all kinds of radicals. There were Communists and Trotskyists and Socialists and anarchists and you Catholic Workers. Now they’re all gone. All gone but you. And you are stronger than ever. You know what it is, I think, what keeps you going?” “Tell me Igal, what is it?” “I think it’s your religious faith!” Igal did not die an atheist.
Today’s Gospel has Jesus restate the Two Great Commandments of love, love of God and love of neighbor, and in the parable of the Good Samaritan he expands neighbor to include even the foreigner, even the enemy. If we love God with all our hearts and all our minds and all our strength and our neighbors as ourselves, then we will not be content just to vote. We will want to take our part in the struggle for peace and justice with all our hearts and minds and strength, the nonviolent struggle for the beloved community, the only struggle that can truly claim to have God on its side.