For almost as long as we have been a church, Catholic ritual for Palm Sunday has dramatized that people who greeted Jesus with “Hosannas” and palm branches on his entry into Jerusalem were in the crowd calling for his crucifixion days later.
Holy Week reminds us that religion can as easily distort consciences as illuminate them. This year, the entry of the Affordable Care Act into the Supreme Court invited Palm Sunday-like displays of acclaim accompanied simultaneously by dark threats of rejection. The final court decision is not on a par with Jesus’ passion, nor is Obama to be confused with the Messiah, but just because we consider ourselves God’s friends we are not exempt from the sin of distorting the Gospel message.
I’m troubled that public opinion so easily characterizes religion as only right-wing Republican politics. (Catholics like Rick Santorum probably falls into this category, so my critique is ecumenical.) The question of health care insurance is an example of how persons professing to be the most religious among us can nonetheless violate basic teachings of Jesus. We Christians are called to care for material needs of our neighbors (Mt. 25) without imposing evangelization as a condition. In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk:10:25-37), Our Lord criticized the temple priest and the Levite who passed by an injured man. Jesus praised instead the non-believer’s material help to his neighbor, while condemning the religious leaders’ escapism in the name of religious purity. Direct action for mercy is valued over abstract passion for piety. Logically then, it goes against Christian discipleship of Christ to repeal the Affordable Care Act without offering a substitute that will provide for 40 million uninsured, most of them children. Talk of “government take over” or “use of abortifacients” does not relieve the Christian’s need to be keeper of our brothers and sisters. Yet, we are treated these days to the irony of religion being invoked as reason to avoid Christian responsibility for health care.
Similarly, God’s friends say they want to remake the U.S. government in the model of Christian values. That clearly would include spending public tax dollars to perform the corporal works of mercy: food for the hungry, housing for the homeless, health care for the sick, etc. Yet the construct of their “Christian government” removes these functions from legislative action. Ironically, today’s so-called “secularists” promote Jesus’ values in government while the “Christian nation” folks largely oppose them.
The Paul Ryan budget endorsed by the Republican party is built upon the principles of atheist Ayn Rand. The Catholic League assails atheists and secularists for offenses like not illuminating the Empire State Building with red lights for Cardinal Dolan, but is meekly uncritical about Randism and uncharacteristically silent about Ryan’s individualism that contradicts centuries of Catholic social justice teaching.
Other “Christian” politics include legislating for more guns and opposing restrictions on their sale. I am waiting for one of these believers to explain how being pro-gun fulfills Jesus’ teaching on “turning the other cheek” (Mt. 5:39). Why do they promote laws like Florida’s “Stand Your Ground: in other states? “Claims of justifiable homicide in Florida have tripled since the law’s passage in 2005” with the result that murder goes unpunished more often. The death of Trayvon Martin should not be required to condemn laws that violate the teachings of Jesus both in word and deed. Why would any Christian be silent about such abuses?
Jesus told us to take in “strangers,” and Catholic teaching has applied this to the need for humane immigration reform. Yet “super-Christians” favor deportation of all the undocumented, even to the extreme of Republicans in Congress ridiculing medical attention to those imprisoned.
When God has friends like these, why worry about His enemies? In the reading of the Passion on Palm Sunday, we in the pews are required to shout out “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” Maybe we should ask ourselves whether this is merely a ritual or if we are betraying Jesus all over again in our politics.