Justice is with the Lord, our God; and we today are flushed with shame, we men of Judah and citizens of Jerusalem, that we, with our kings and rulers and priests and prophets, and with our ancestors, have sinned in the Lord’s sight and disobeyed him. We have neither heeded the voice of the Lord, our God, nor followed the precepts which the Lord set before us.
Baruch 1: 15-8
The role of the Prophets in Israel was that of witness to conscience and reminder of the covenant with God which constituted the People’s identity. In today’s passage from Baruch, we hear that justice is with the Lord. It is by heeding “the voice of the Lord” and by following “the precepts which the Lord set before us” that the nation will live in justice and peace. The prophetic voice is one that speaks those precepts as an instrument of the Lord’s voice and as a means for personal and communal appraisal and discernment. To the perennial human question of what is the measure of the human person, the scriptural and prophetic answer is the voice and precepts of the Lord.
All of this is quite fine, we might think, in a theocracy. Even though the experience of the Biblical peoples is replete, as all human experience, with sin and disobedience to God’s word and precepts, there is a common god against whom they are able to measure themselves. They thus share a common sense of direction, despite all the variances in interpretation and differing degrees of fidelity. But we whose entire lives have been lived and formed in liberal democratic societies, with radically different systems of belief and ethics, how do we appraise a common direction and purpose? Is there at all the possibility of society, let alone community, with such diversity?
It seems that globally we are currently experiencing a reaction to our ever-increasing mobility and technological connection. While decades ago many projected that our advancing technologies would create “a global village,” instead we are experiencing an age of extreme racism, xenophobia, and nationalism. In Myanmar there is the genocide of the Rohingya, in parts of Africa and the Middle East there is the persecution of Christians, in Europe there is the rise of far right political parties, and in the United States there is a level of racial unrest and the closing down of borders not seen in decades. In the so-called secular world, far from the universalism once predicted there is rather the increased attraction and influence of fundamentalism in almost every sect.
In today’s reading we hear of how the people of Israel shared a common measure against which they would, as a body, feel shame when they lived in violation of God’s precepts, which they understood to be their call. In the secular and neoliberal project that is the prevailing ethic in the developed world, and even among the leaders of the developing world, it seems as if the only common ethic is that of comfort, success, and affluence. The measure of a person’s place in the culture and society is their level of wealth. Has this come about because of our inability to find a deeper and more distinctively human common ground and purpose? Has the individualism that we have largely unconsciously assumed led us to lose all sense of our common life and shared destiny?
In very earliest years of Christianity, the Church struggled with the question of universalism versus sectarianism. Through great controversy it discerned that its identity was inherently universal. Some would maintain that our modern secularism is, in large part, an outgrowth of Christianity. As the Jesus of John’s gospel says to the Samaritan Woman: “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks” (John 4:23). So, there must be a common ground from which “true worshippers” can discern direction and can appraise their fidelity.
Jim Wallis writes that it is by “default” that we human beings “identity ourselves by the things we own.” It is our lack of “a clear sense of self, a strong identity, and a community of purpose” that is the proximate cause of our identifying ourselves and marking our worth by the least common denominator of possessions (Rediscovering Values, p. 49). As we now seem to be experiencing the impoverishment of such self-identification, we are seeking refuge in sectarianism and xenophobia. We would like to retreat back to the day when the Samaritans worshipped on Mount Gerazim and the Jews on Mount Sion.
Throughout history we continue to experience how radical is the call of Jesus. Throughout the gospels Jesus shows that true faith is not tribal. Those he praises for their faith are those of other tribes from his own. Despite his summons, however, we human beings remain as tribal as ever. We do not immediately recognize in the one who is dramatically other to us one like ourselves. We are, perhaps, somewhat programmed to key in on differences and to interpret them as threats. The call of Jesus to become “true worshippers” may still be at odds with our human evolution, and so a summons to transcend the pre-transcendent impulses, manifest in our fears and prejudices, that can readily control our behavior.
Pope Francis consistently calls on all of us to work to create cultures of encounter. By this he means that we are to practice, in every human encounter, reverent and appreciative listening to the transcendent call and appeal of the other person. Our task, he says, is to “keep alive the thirst for the Absolute in the world.” Jesus says that “true worshippers worship the Father in spirit and in truth.“ We are all in relationship to the “truth,” but none of us and no segment of humanity contain the truth. The Prophets of Israel continually called the people’s attention back to the truth, as that against which they were to measure their lives and in which they were to find direction. Pope Francis says that there is “an openness to the transcendent that is inscribed in the human heart.“ We have access to this truth in the experience of true encounter, when the truth of things is revealed the the space between us.
In a world that settles for so much less than the “openness to transcendence that is inscribed in the human heart” and which, thus, relates far too often with dispositions of arrogance and dominance, we are called to prophecy to the truth by a listening heart that allows the others’ openness to transcendence to reveal itself. Pope Francis has a radically traditional and profoundly true vision of the Church. It is to be those who in a world of fear and division create spaces for the transcendent to emerge, who discover in the depth of encounter a worship “in spirit and in truth.”
The Catholic Church is aware of the importance of the promotion of friendship and respect between men and women of different religious traditions. I want to repeat this: the promotion of friendship and respect between men and women of different religious traditions. [The Church] is also aware of the responsibility that we all bear to this our world, to all of creation, which we should love and protect. And we can do much for the good of the poorest, of the weak and suffering, to promote justice and reconciliation, to build peace. But, above all, we must keep alive the thirst for the Absolute in the world, not allowing a one-dimensional vision of the human person, in which humanity is reduced to that which it produces and consumes, to prevail. This is one of the most dangerous pitfalls of our times.
We know how, in recent times, violence has produced an attempt to eliminate God and the divine from the horizon of humanity, and we feel the value of witnessing in our societies to the original openness to the transcendent that is inscribed in the human heart. In this, we also feel close to all men and women who, although not claiming to belong to any religious tradition, still feel themselves to be in search of truth, goodness, and beauty, God’s Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, and who are our precious allies in the effort to defend human dignity, in building a peaceful coexistence between peoples, and in carefully protecting creation.
Pope Francis, Greeting to Delegates from Christian and non-Christian Religions, March 20, 2013.