Here, for your consideration, is my homily for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Some of you know that I went to law school in North Carolina. I’m grateful for my time there. As a state, North Carolina is breathtakingly beautiful, from the Outer Banks in the east to the Appalachians in the west. It’s also where I learned about sweet tea. What I learned is that teameans iced tea – and iced tea that’s been sweetened to within an inch of its life. If you make the mistake of asking for unsweetened tea they’re going to look at you like you were from Mars: “Y’all must not be from around here….”
There are lots of little towns across North Carolina. They’re mostly charming. Most of these little towns are oriented around a central square. That’s where you’ll usually find the library or the post office or the courthouse. If there’s a courthouse there will be statues, including – almost as a requirement – a statue of a Confederate general or, more commonly in my experience, of a glorified Confederate trooper in some heroic pose. On the base of the statue will be written something to the effect of, “To Our Glorious Dead.”
As we’re all aware, statues like these have become the stuff of controversy. In larger cities they’ve been defaced and pulled down. And it’s not just statues of Confederate soldiers; protesters have also taken out after images of the men I grew up thinking of as great Americans, men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Teddy Roosevelt. As at Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota, where sixty-foot high images of Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and Teddy Roosevelt have been carved into the native granite. That’s where our president was on Friday, anticipating Independence Day with his supporters in a taxpayer-financed campaign rally, complete with a military flyover.
Historical aside: The figures at Mt. Rushmore were sculpted by the American artist Gutzon Borglum. The child of Danish immigrants, Mr. Borglum was an accomplished sculptor – and a member and supporter of the Ku Klux Klan. He was also the man initially chosen to design and sculpt the figures of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis for the (unabashed) Confederate Memorial at Stone Mountain, Georgia: the site, incidentally and in 1915, of the Klan’s official rebirth on the heels of D.W. Griffith’s silent film Birth of a Nation (1915). And there’s more: The park at Stone Mountain officially opened on the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. When people talk about “systemic racism?” This is the stuff they’re talking about.
Back to South Dakota and Mt. Rushmore. Mr. Trump’s speech for the occasion included these words: “Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children…. Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our founders, deface our most sacred memorials and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities.” That Mr. Trump would engage in divisive fear-mongering is hardly surprising. His words on this occasion were notable only because they amplify sentiments that other Americans have expressed.
Sometimes the argument is made that we ought not insist that our heroes be perfect. Fair enough. But we should insist that they be heroes. Sometimes the argument is made that these were great men who were also “flawed human beings.” With that I disagree, or at least disagree with what is meant in saying that a Confederate general is a flawed human being. You see, I know a flawed human being when I see one. In fact I see one every time I’m foolish enough to look in the mirror. As a Catholic priest, I’ve been privileged and humbled – mostly humbled – to hear the confessions of hundreds of flawed human beings. Let me tell you, flawed human beings do all kinds of crazy things. Maybe they’ll, I don’t know and by way of example, get more back in change at the store than they should have and keep it – and then feel bad about it. Or they’ll, I don’t know, say something thoughtless or mean to someone – and then feel bad about it. Or they’ll cheat at checkers – and then feel bad about it. But racism? Misogyny? Homophobia? Those aren’t flaws. They’re mortal sins. Actively and knowingly participating in and defending institutionalized torture, dehumanization and brutality? Those are mortal sins. Teddy Roosevelt – one of those put forward as a great though “flawed human being” – is famous for championing the idea of national parks. For that I’m grateful. He also went on record saying that in his opinion, it was pretty much the case that the only good Indian was a dead Indian. National park system or not, that’s not a flaw. That’s a reason why he should not be immortalized in granite or represented in a so-called “sacred memorial.”
This movement is not about wiping out our history and our heritage. It’s about telling the truth about our history and our heritage. It’s about claiming and owning our heritage in all its aspects. It’s not about erasing our values. It’s about valuing the right things. It’s not about indoctrinating our children. We’re way past that. You’re looking at someone who was indoctrinated as a child: Someone who was taught that slavery, though misguided, was a benign institution intended to lift up and civilize those of African descent.
The truth about all those Confederate memorials? They weren’t put up during or even at the end of the Civil War. In fact they have nothing to do with the Civil War. They were mostly put up in the early decades of the 20th century, when lynching was at its horrific peak, when the Klan was enjoying a resurgence across the nation, and when Black Americans were being summarily stripped of every bit of freedom granted them by the 13th Amendment. Those memorials were weapons, meant to terrorize Black Americans and to remind them that things in fact had not changed. They were neither sweet nor sentimental. To the contrary, they were raw and, to their intended audience, unvarnished and unmistakable assertions of white power. White power. Where have we heard those words recently? Oh, yes. At the parade of golf carts in Florida that was in the news at the beginning of this very long week.
So, onto flesh. It’s helpful to understand what Paul meant by “the flesh.” We’ve been trained to associate flesh with sex. That’s not it. For flesh Paul used the Greek word sarx, as distinct from soma, or body. Both sarx and soma can be translated as body or flesh, but they’re not the same. The word for a resurrected, glorified body is soma. The human person properly understood is soma and spirit. Flesh as sarx refers to the body as fallen and not oriented to God; the body driven by earthly desires that if not controlled lead to sin. St. Ignatius included among these the desires for wealth, glory, and power. Which, not coincidentally, is what racism and slavery were and are about: Wealth for white Americans; glory in the form of dominion born of a claimed natural superiority; and political and economic power. As we do well to remember, slavery was primarily an economic institution: Unprincipled capitalism at its most destructive.
Scripture has something to say about the love of wealth and the lust for earthly power. In opposition to these Scripture posits wisdom. In the New Testament, wisdom consists in knowing Jesus, the one who reveals God fully and completely. And the God Jesus reveals does not exist in splendid isolation but in relationship and in community. Which takes us back to the Trinity, which can seem to be little more than a theological abstraction, designed to confuse. Not so: the Trinity shows us that essential to the nature of God are relationship and community.
The way of wisdom is the yoke of Christ. For the Hebrews of the first century a yoke was a shorthand term for a body of teachings. That’s what Jesus meant when he said to his followers: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am meek and humble of heart.” The yoke of Christ is what the first Christians meant when they called their movement the Way. The Way; not just a way of life, but the Way of Life in capital letters; the yoke.
The way of Christ – the yoke of Christ – is the way of mercy, compassion and justice. Looked at in one sense, it’s not easy. Like any way of life, it requires discipline, commitment and persistence. But it’s also grounded in love and in community. The other day Fr. Pat and I carried a heavy trash can, loaded down with old metal fittings and scraps of wood, upstairs from the rectory basement. I had already tried to carry the thing by myself. I didn’t get very far. But then Fr. Pat grabbed the other handle and we manhandled our collective burden up the stairs and outside. What made the difference was that I was not carrying the load by myself. “My yoke is easy; my burden light.” That’s one piece of it. Here’s the other: Think about being a parent. There’s not a parent out there who hasn’t been worn out: Tired, overburdened and entirely not in the mood to be told about the joys of raising a family. What makes the burden bearable? What helps you shoulder the load once again? Remembering why you took on such a mammoth project in the first place: Love. Not love in the abstract but love as concrete as it gets, and indeed you cannot love someone in the abstract. Love. Grounded in love and community, “my yoke is easy; my burden light.”
There is a different way and a better way. Because we are loved beyond all telling, there is a way forward. These hard and terrible times offer us, by God’s grace, the chance to be born anew. More and more of us have a sense for that and even long for it, whether or not we can put it into words. But there are words: “For if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” “See, your king shall come to you; a just savior is he…. He shall banish the chariot from Ephraim, and the horse from Jerusalem; the warrior’s bow shall be banished, and he shall proclaim peace to the nations.” Praise God.