Being a Christian First

The following homily was delivered by Deacon Paul Kurmay, of St. Mark Parish in Stratford on July 28, 2019.

They say that one should never talk about politics or religion in polite company. Well, I guess I am going to be very impolite since I will be speaking about both. It is also said that religion and politics don’t mix, but that is an utter impossibility, since religion finds expression in political action, and politics is dependent on the moral values which religion teaches. They are simply inseparable.

The Catholic Church and the countless encyclicals of popes throughout the ages have made that abundantly clear. No one did so more forcefully than Saint John Paul II the Great, who linked the basic tenets of our faith with the overthrow of atheistic Communism throughout Eastern Europe. When workers were being treated like slaves during the industrial revolution, Pope Leo XIII spoke out against such abuses and outlined the fundamental human rights of all workers in his famous Encyclical entitled Rerum Novarum. It became a virtual blueprint for the world-wide labor movement of the late 19th and 20th centuries. Many condemned him for it, claiming that religion should have no part in forming labor laws and that market forces alone should dictate labor policy.

Pope Francis has spoken out courageously and forcefully about the need to save the planet from climate change and to respect the fundamental human rights of all immigrants, both legal and illegal. He also condemned capital punishment and, like all the popes before him, condemned abortion on demand, surely the hottest political issue of our time. Is there anyone here who believes the Church does not have a moral duty, imposed by Christ Himself, to speak out against every evil in our society?

So you would think that by now we would have gotten it straight. Political action devoid of basic religious principles is humanism at best and barbarism at worst. Political action devoid of divine Grace and supernatural love is simply and utterly sinful.

Two of the most contentious issues of our day are immigration and racism. Everyone knows that our immigration system is broken and that innocent children and families are suffering terribly as a result. None of us would ever want our children separated from us or held in virtual cages. It is a national disgrace that both political parties have failed to remedy the situation, each one passing the buck to the other. I fault them both, as do the American bishops. Do you think the Lord is happy with the way His children are being treated?

While we can legitimately take different approaches to the problem, from the left to the right, the Gospel demands that they be grounded in love, not hatred, trust in God and not fear of the foreigner. I think we can all agree that racism should have no part in the national debate and that we as Christians should never give tacit consent to public expressions of racism. As Cicero said ages ago, silence gives consent.

We as American Catholic Christians can hold strong and different views on any political subject, but the Church condemns the use of racially-loaded phrases like “Send them back” in promoting one policy or another. That is more than innocent name-calling. Taken in historical context, it is the classic expression of racism.

The use of that phrase comes out of the darkest pages of American history. At the turn of the 20th century, it was hurled vituperously against the Irish, Italians, Jews, Catholics, Eastern Europeans, Asians, blacks and Hispanics — in fact anyone who wasn’t a WASP, a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. How could we ever have forgotten that our own ancestors were the victims of racism and were repeatedly told to “go back to where you came from.”

Not everyone who utters that phrase is a racist. I am not saying that. Only God knows what is in each person’s heart and only He can judge them. I am not. But if someone held a gun to your head, do you think you would be asking whether his interior intentions were good? Would you be asking whether he had bullets in the chamber? No, the sight of the gun itself would be a terrifying assault on your psyche. The same with words.

In his last speech to the nation, President Ronald Regan recounted the story involving the aircraft carrier, the USS Midway, on patrol in the South China Sea. The crew spotted a little leaky boat on the horizon, crammed full with refugees from Indo-China, hoping to get to America. As the ship’s launch approached the little sinking boat, one small refugee stood up erect and called out to an American sailor: “Hello, American sailor! Hello, Freedom Man!” The President called that “a small moment with a big meaning,” one he would never forget.

As preachers of the Gospel, we have a moral obligation to preach the words and commands of Christ our Lord, whether they are popular or deeply unpopular. His most compelling commandment was this: to love our neighbor as ourselves and to treat everyone the way we would want to be treated. Is that the way the national debate is being framed, do you think?

If someone disagreed with our own individual political views, is there anyone here who would want to be told to go back where we came from? What would you think if someone didn’t like what Father Birendra said in a homily and told him to go back where he came from? Would you remain silent or speak out against such a racist slur?

The Lord told us to expect persecution, ridicule, harassment and scorn, and He condemned those who said, “Lord, Lord” and dressed themselves in the clothing of a Christian but failed to live the Gospel message of love in their lives. He said it would go easier for Sodom and Gomorrah than for them — and we know what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah!

St. John said, “the man who claims ‘ I have known Jesus ‘, without keeping his commandments is a liar; in such a one there is no truth.”

My friends, we cannot afford to be sucked into outlandish displays of raw partisanship from any quarter, from the right or the left. Our Lord expects us — commands us — to have the courage to be Christians first and political animals second.

Have we not all prayed the beautiful words of the Our Father a zillion times? Have we not prayed that His Kingdom come and that His Will be done on earth as it is in heaven? Do you think people are shunned in heaven due to the color of their skin or their criticism of perceived injustices in their nation?

If we really mean what we say to God every day, then we know deep in our hearts that love of neighbor and trust in God is the only solution to every problem in our lives, no matter how difficult or contentious, and that, in the end, Love will always triumph over hatred and fear.

So, shoot me if you like. I said what I had to say. Our Lord was the One who told me to say it.