Putting religious suffering in context

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For the past few years a battle has been waged in our beloved country. Thankfully no one has been slain thus far. Nonetheless some of the combatants, at least on one side of the present conflict, claim that they have been made to suffer.

A Catholic news commentator recently described it as a culture war, a struggle for the very soul of America. It takes place on several fronts: religion, morality, art, education, family, law and politics. It can be described as a conflict between two groups with different ideals, beliefs and philosophies. The sides standing athwart one another are the secular world on one hand, and the religious on the other.

Inasmuch as some of the combatants are Christian/Catholic, let me recall for you several examples. A few years ago Hobby Lobby, a privately-held arts and crafts store, brought suit before the Supreme Court asking that it be allowed to opt out of that part of the federal health care mandate requiring them to make available to their employees forms of birth control that could cause early abortions. The owners said that the law, if passed, would cause them to violate their Christian beliefs. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled in their favor.

That suit opened the door for other individuals of faith and faith-based institutions, hospitals, universities and religious communities, even to such private businesses as wedding vendors, entertainers and photographers to bring similar lawsuits against the government. Again, their claim was that they did not wish to be compelled by law to participate in activities that would violate their Christian conscience.

Let us explore another fundamental issue of suffering addressed in the Scriptures for this Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time. In the first reading we hear of the suffering of the prophet Jeremiah, a man who endured suffering of personal threat and insult at the hands of the religious and cultural authorities of his times because of his conscience-call from God to defend the Sacred Word.

In the Gospel of Luke we likewise read of the extraordinary suffering Jesus accepted at the hands of cultural and religious groups for his determination to bring fire upon the earth. “How I wish it were already blazing,” he said.

So how much do Christians/Catholics of our own country suffer for what they hold dear? Speaking out of my own experience, my sense is that American Christians/Catholics generally do not suffer as much for their faith, at least not in comparison to the overwhelming suffering of our Christian brothers and sisters in the Middle East and Africa. These are countries where a deadly battle between culture and religion is going on at this very moment and causing untold suffering. In each of these countries Christianity is slowly being wiped out, conceivably never to rise again.

Perhaps the proper question to ask at this point is whether we Christians are willing to engage the culture of our times, not fundamentally as warriors ready to subdue our adversaries but rather to use the many means still available to us to persuade and then invite them to join a common effort to “set the world on fire” as Jesus said.

The writer formerly served the Anchorage Archdiocese as director of pastoral education. He now lives in Notre Dame, Indiana.


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