30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
October 28, 2018
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church
Forgive me if I make some mistakes today.
I had another homily ready to go,
but last night I decided I had to say something else
—so this is not as well-crafted as I’d like.
But that is the nature of speech:
it often fails to communicate adequately,
and sometimes communicates poorly.
Which I will talk about later.
The events of this last week,
with the mail bombs and then the synagogue shooting,
along with the past shooting of congressmen at their baseball practice,
and mailing of ricin or anthrax to public figures,
all remind us of the sorry state of affairs in our country:
of the divisions that more and more radically separate us from each other.
In today’s Gospel, we find the story of Bartimaeus,
whom Jesus cured of blindness.
It seems to me this is the same problem so many Americans
and so many human beings around the world have today: blindness.
Not physical blindness, but a kind of mental and spiritual blindness.
They are blinded by their ideologies, by their unjust prejudices, their hatred,
and even by their corrupted religious views.
This can then lead to all sorts of distortions of political and social action,
to extremes of speech, then to grossly unacceptable physical encounters
—such as harassment of public officials in restaurants—
and even to the kind of extreme physical violence we’re seeing all too often.
The response to all this seems to be a near universal call
to calm down the rhetoric:
to scale back the harsh language we find in today’s public discourse,
especially in politics.
The idea is that such harsh speech leads to physical violence.
And I agree, but I also disagree.
Let me explain.
In Scripture Jesus twice repeats and affirms the 5th Commandment:
“you shall not kill.”
But Scripture makes clear, and the Church has always taught,
that this is not an absolute ban on killing human beings
in every single case.
For example, the Church has always taught in the case of self-defense,
and even just war,
we can morally use physical violence, and even kill an unjust aggressor.
But at the same time, the Church teaches this must be only as a last resort,
only when it’s truly necessary,
when all other non-deadly efforts have been exhausted or aren’t possible.
And it must only be used as a proportionate response:
if someone slaps you, you might be justified in slapping him back,
but not in killing him.
But if he comes at you with a knife, you could be killed, so you could shoot him.
Still, you should try to only wound him, if possible.
And again, you can only use physical force when other means don’t work.
Which means you first use words.
You discuss, debate, even argue, before you use physical violence.
But there’s a problem there too.
Remember in the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus says, “‘You shall not kill…’”
He immediately adds,
“whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment,
and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’
will be answerable to the Sanhedrin,
and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Hell.”
So does that mean we can’t have a heated argument with each other,
or never use harsh words?
For example, even though Jesus tells us not to call our brother a “fool”,
He Himself calls the Pharisees “fools” and “vipers” and “snakes”
Because that was what was necessary to get their attention,
that only thing that would make them understand the trouble they were in,
and also probably to communicate that to the people.
So it falls under the same logic as using physical force:
you can use the force that is truly necessary, and proportionate,
to defend yourself, or others.
So, where does this leave us?
Clearly we have to use physical violence against those
who use physical violence against us:
so the guy who shot up the synagogue yesterday
was justly subdued by the cops who shot him.
But that is clearly and absolutely not necessary in our political discourse today.
Even the physical confrontation of public officials and their families in restaurants
is clearly over the top, and not necessary or proportionate.
You see, we have this great country that enshrines, right from the beginning,
in our foundational principles and laws,
the safety value against violence.
As our founding fathers wrote
in the very first article of the Bill of Rights of our Constitution:
“Congress shall make no law ….abridging the freedom of speech….”
And so we can fight our fights, we can defend ourselves with speech, with words.
Can speech be hurtful?
But there’s a lot to the old adage, most of us learned when we were children,
“sticks and stone may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”
Now, certainly words can hurt us, but usually only if we let them.
And a reasonable mature person doesn’t have to let them.
And can hurtful words incite others to physical violence?
They clearly can, if the words actually call for actual physical violence.
Otherwise only the mentally ill are triggered to violence by harsh words.
So, we have to be careful and prudent, or proportional, in our choice of words.
But on the other hand we have to use the words we need
to communicate clearly, even if those words are hurtful.
Otherwise we’d all just have to remain silent,
lest we say something that might trigger a violent response
in some deranged person.
Again, just like in war or physical self-defense,
we should words proportionate with the words our opponents use.
Now, in the current political climate,
have the various sides always used proportionate language to fight with.
Certainly not, not always—some are way out of bounds.
But what’s worse: to compare someone Adolf Hitler,
or to call them “ugly” or “stupid”?
Is it worse to call someone a “bigot” or to call them a “liar”?
I don’t know.
But I do know that the protection of free speech
has allowed Americans to fight for what we believe in
without resorting to physical violence
and has held our country together for 242 years
—except with when ran out of words to argue for and against
and then we had to go to war with each other:
and 625,000 Americans died.
So let’s not be afraid of battling with words, now—even harsh words.
Because it seems to me that if freedom of speech is suppressed,
there will once again be nothing left
to defend yourself with,
or defend the opinions and beliefs of both or all sides,
nothing but bloody civil unrest, violence and even war.
The key seems to be never to speaking when we are blinded by
ideologies, unjust prejudices, hatred, or corrupted religious views.
And so the answer for us, for all Americans and for the whole world
is to be like Bartimaeus, who, after the disciples told him “to be silent,”
filled with faith in Jesus, begged him,
“Master, I want to see.”
And then, after he received his sight, it says, he then, “followed him on the way.”
The answer to all the violence is to follow Jesus.
To follow him and his teaching about violence, and about speaking.
To remember that our opponents may be our enemies,
but that Jesus calls us to “love our enemies.”
This won’t, can’t and shouldn’t force us to never say a harsh word
about them or to them,
but it will force us to never say anything that doesn’t really need to be said.
Of course, in the heat of anger, it’s pretty hard to control our words.
But if the love of God, and the reason and justice of God,
govern our tongues, it gets easier.
And with the grace of Jesus Christ,
who spoke the truth at all times,
even using harsh language when it was necessary,
all things are possible.
Now, I know that I’ve said this clumsily,
and the someone might here this and be offended.
That’s probably my fault for choosoing the wrong words.
Words are like that, and human beings are like that.
Which reminds us of another thing to remember about speech:
always listen to others with love and reason in Christ,
and charitably try to understand
even the most poorly articulated thoughts of others.
As we move more deeply into the mystery of the Mass,
let us ask our Lord to shower our nation with his grace and love.
Let us pray for our politicians that they may fight boldly for what they believe,
but fight only with words that are truly necessary,
and subject to the judgment of Christ.
And let us pray for each other and all Americans,
that we may never resort to physical violence to defend our beliefs,
but rather always forcefully speak up for what we hold dear,
never being blinded by the false values of the world,
but always seeing with the eyes of faith in Jesus.