Rejoicing and religious liberty

“They rejoiced at being found worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.”
Acts 5:41

This phrase from today’s first reading got me reflecting on the complaints I hear from church people about the world being anti-religious.

From afar, I have watched how for many years many churches in the US have been complaining about threats to their religious liberty. Frankly, I find this self-serving and mistaken.

There are, and have been, serious threats to religious liberty. I think of the martyred lay people, religious women, and priests in Latin America in the seventy years as well as those martyred in Africa and Asia. I’d also include members of other religions who suffer persecution and harassment.

But to identify religious liberty with the ability of the church to do whatever it wants to do even if based on a theological position, however flimsy, is – in my mind – pure arrogance. In these days of shelter-in-place I am especially disturbed by those who see the closing of churches for health concerns during the COVID-19 crisis as a threat to religious liberty. But that’s not the only case.

The first Christians rejoiced at their suffering for the sake of their profession of faith. They were arrested, held in jail, flogged – and later killed. But they rejoiced.

Self-serving complaining was not part of their make-up. They experienced the life of the risen Jesus and the victory over sin and death and they wanted to live fully and joyfully.

They saw that bearing witness to the truth of God is not easy, especially when it moved them to speak out and to bear witness to an alternative way of living their faith, welcoming the outsider as Jesus did.

What if those who cried out for religious liberty really lived that faith?

But I think the problem is that what is perceived as an attack on religious liberty is often a reaction to a narrow understanding of faith. It is not the message that is attacked but the messenger.

I often ask myself when I encounter opposition, “What am I doing to provoke such opposition?” Do the people really reject what is essential in what am I saying? Or, are they reacting to the way that I am stating what I perceive as the truth? Or, is there something in the lives of the persons opposing me that provokes this reaction?

Jumping to the conclusion that a critique of religion is a violation of religious liberty is to consider oneself free of all sin, all blame, all responsibility.

When I find it in myself, I recognize that I am not acknowledging my sinfulness, my faults, my need for God and for others.

And this can be freeing. Even more, this can make real suffering for the sake of the Name a cause for rejoicing.

Peter released from prison

Peter released from prison, Vatican Museum

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