I’ve been a news junkie since the fourth grade, reading the daily newspaper Chicago’s American every afternoon after school, first because I liked the comics but later because I found other “comics” elsewhere in the paper. Later I learned that those other “comics” were actually political cartoons. This section of the paper was the editorial page, which I devoured. Some addictions actually do start when you are young.
I also started reading the Bible in the fourth grade, when Sister suggested we start with the Gospel according to Matthew. Sure, the Christmas story part was pretty familiar, but the stories about John the Baptist and Jesus in the desert seemed a little weird and hard to understand. Yet the stunning jolt in chapter five still gives me pause today as it did in 1967: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” From that time on I’ve been fascinated, indeed grasped by, the audacity of the preacher from Galilee.
The turmoil of the mid-1960s met the bold clarity of Jesus in the mind and heart of the little kid who ended up becoming the friar writing this now. Politics and religion, the two things Mom said we should never talk about in polite company, are still entwined passions. It’s amazing I still have friends.
A couple years before this personal epiphany, Time Magazine wrote the following tribute upon the retirement of one of the most famous Protestant theologians of the twentieth century, Karl Barth:
“Barth recalls that 40 years ago he advised young theologians to ‘take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.’ Newspapers, he says, are so important that ‘I always pray for the sick, the poor, journalists, authorities of the state and the church—in that order. Journalists form public opinion. They hold terribly important positions. Nevertheless, a theologian should never be formed by the world around him—either East or West. He should make it his vocation to show both East and West that they can live without a clash. Where the peace of God is proclaimed, there peace on earth is implicit.’” (Time Magazine, May 31, 1963)
At that time the world was consumed by the danger of a polarized world, the East-West conflict between the Soviet Communist bloc and the United States. The hope that East and West could “live without a clash” seemed remote at best, if not impossible. Today we live in a world that is polarized again, although the fault lines are not as clear, and many wonder whether and how we can move forward in our Church and civil society “without a clash.” Perhaps it is still possible to disagree without necessarily questioning one’s intelligence, religious faith, or patriotism.
The word “politics” has taken on such a foul association with corruption and power that we forget the classical meaning from Greek and medieval Christian philosophy that considered politics as the means by which people seek out a common sense of meaning and make plans to attain the common good. As religious people, we believe God has given us in Jesus a clear sense of meaning and purpose, not just for ourselves but indeed for all people everywhere. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that the Beatitudes are an essential foundation to that vision and that the Christian vocation demands we propose that way of life in the public forum. Millennia of the faithful witness of saints and martyrs attest it is possible.
Many of us are familiar with the phrase, “The longest distance is the path from the head to the heart.” It means that we need to be as aware of our emotions as we are about our ideas. Lately, it seems that many of us are moved neither from the head nor the heart, but from the gut – where reside anger and fear. In the United States, we are in the heat of another voting cycle. Though many people simply tune out, that is not an option for a serious Christian. Too many of us lurch instinctively from urges deep in the bowels, not thinking before speaking and hurting others. It seems critical thinking skills are as necessary as they are sparse.
In the next few weeks we are once again being called to our hearts — not to some mushy and sentimental place, but the origin of our deepest desires. Instead of asking ourselves what we are afraid of (the gut tells us that), or what ideas we find convincing (the head), we need to be clear about what we love. If our love leads us anywhere else besides the Gospel, then before we cast a ballot we should pray for the blessings of the Beatitudes
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