Summer has officially started and for many of us—children included—it is a time to break from the mundane activities of school and work in order to recharge our energy and to refresh our spirit. It is normally a time for vacations, beach outings, summer camps, and poolside BBQs. Unfortunately, this summer is very different from summers of the past in many ways.
First, COVID-19 came like a plague of biblical proportions. Our lives were turned upside down and we have to live with the new reality of keeping physical/social distancing, wearing face masks, and regular handwashing.
Second, the tragic death of Mr. George Floyd made us more aware of the injustice that is commonly experienced by our fellow African-American citizens. The message that came from protests and demonstrations over the last few weeks cannot be any clearer: we need to reform the areas of our justice system and institutions that are broken or unjust. However, riots, looting, and violence perpetrated against innocent peace officers, business owners and fellow Americans are not the right way or the Christian way to bring about the needed changes to our country and society.
Sadly, the history of our nation is marred by slavery, segregation, and prejudice. But it is important to remember that the history of our nation is also the history of humankind. Like our ancestors, we were born into a world that is scarred and damaged by original sin. All of us are victims of the sinful and evil choices of those who have gone before us—victims in the sense that all bad actions have bad consequences or reactions. However, this is the reason why our Lord Jesus Christ came into the world. He came to save us from ourselves and to show us a better way to live if we are open to him.
Recall the story of Onesimus, a slave who ran away from his master Philemon. This story is memorialized in St. Paul’s Letter to Philemon, a letter he wrote while being imprisoned himself. In the letter Paul begged Philemon to take Onesimus back after he had ran away. Because Philemon and Onesimus were both converted to Christ, Paul asked Philemon to receive Onesimus back, “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you, as a man and in the Lord” (Phil 16).
Saint Paul and the persecuted Christians were in no position to attack the accepted institutional practice of slavery during their time, but they pointed us to the right direction of what social reform and what a just society should look like. This is certainly a long and arduous process.
Onesimus was a doulos, “slave” or “servant” in Greek. Jesus used this word when he said, “I no longer call you slaves [doúlous], because a slave [doulos] does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends [philous], because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father” (NABRE 15:15). Through Jesus, a slave and a master now become friends. As a matter of fact, Jesus went a step further by saying that if a person wants to be great he/she must be a servant of all (Mt 20:26). Greatness or holiness is not tied to title, power or authority; rather it is about love and service.
This July 4, let us once again recall the ideals of the Founders of our nation who were able to articulate the philosophy in which our nation is to be anchored. This philosophy very much aligns with what Jesus preached and what the Catholic Church continues to teach, that 1) all men are created equal; 2) that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; 3) among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; 4) and that governments are instituted to secure these rights (Preamble to the Declaration of Independence).
We are far from being the people and the society that Jesus has called us to be this July 4, 2020. However, we have come a long way. No matter what we do, the sins of our past will always be with us. Although we may not be able to celebrate or do many of the things we like this July 4th, we can at least come together as a family to thank God for creating us equal and for enshrining our rights and liberty in our nation’s Declaration of Independence and Constitution. The challenge has always been and will always be: how do we stay true to the spirit of these great historical documents? Better yet, how can we be better brothers, sisters, and friends to one another as Jesus would want us?
Happy July 4th!