Be a ‘but’ person and externalize the Sermon the Mount

What I need more than anything right now is a little Sermon on the Mount.

As Catholics, we believe in transubstantiation, the sublime mystery in which the priest, impelled by Jesus’ words and example at the Last Supper, transforms unremarkable bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, the crown jewel and eternal banquet of our faith.

Why, then, can we not believe in the words Jesus spoke 2,000 years ago to the hungry thousands, sitting in ascending positions on the mountainside that hugs the shore of the Sea of Galilee: “Love your enemies”?

Anyone with the ability to fog a mirror is aware of the ugly times in which we live. Through an accident of birth or through immigration, we live in a country founded on the ideals of freedom of religion, speech, assembly and petition.

But these are dangerous times in America and in the world. Archbishop Aymond reflected several months ago on the toxic political culture in our country, noting that “unfiltered thoughts slice hearts.”

My morning routine, I have to admit, has been a bit uncloistered lately. With one push of a button, the home screen on my iPhone, docile during the night because I’ve made the conscious decision to turn it off – yes, I am in control here, not Apple CEO Tim Cook – starts cranking up from seven hours of REM sleep.

Forty-five seconds later – I’ve timed it – bells, whistles and mischief create the Twitter equivalent of a controlled nuclear explosion, a friendly reminder that I need to turn down the volume to a dull roar. The nice Apple lady behind the Genius Bar told me doing that would keep my blood pressure under control.

And there’s an app for that.

The texts and tweets and counter-recriminations come from all sides – from left field, right field and the cheap seats. Every morning rings in an Evelyn Wood speed-reading version of the apocalypse.

Who said what last night? What did they say he said last night? Where did that tweet come from? What did they tweet back? Wait, he didn’t really say that, did he? (He probably did.) What in the name of all human decency has happened now that Twitter has doubled the size of its poison-pen quiver from 140 to 280 characters?

Let’s make this clear: America is in such a state of polarization these days, Congress probably would filibuster Mother Teresa. She was a subversive, you know. Comforted people. Didn’t ask for any birth certificates. And her ceiling fans weren’t wired to code.

The incivility in public discourse has made straight the path to unfettered hatred. Those who disagree with my policy position on, you name it, immigration, the unborn, social justice, nuclear war, Russian collusion, fossil fuels, the deep state, race relations, are not simply those who have differing views on policy. They are the evil “other,” those who do not have standing in my world, those who easily can be dismissed because they are somehow subordinate to me or even subhuman.

America now is home to public, barroom discourse, gasoline verb for arsenic adjective, tweet knife for email stiletto. It’s all so anonymous and insidiously destructive.

Political operatives associated with one party are mob-muscled out of a public restaurant while trying to eat with their families. In New Orleans, we certainly can’t claim any moral superiority on that score. Wasn’t there a groundswell from Saints fans during Super Bowl 47 in New Orleans in 2013 decrying the punishment meted out by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in the Bountygate scandal? Didn’t more than a few restaurants place Goodell’s picture in their window next to their menu with the consumer warning: “Do Not Serve This Man!”

In the end, how can this bitter meal of pejoratives and animus possibly move forward our conversations on race, immigration, unborn life, defense and taxes?

It cannot.

Love your enemies.

Mahatma Gandhi was said to have read the Sermon on the Mount twice every day, providing him, a non-Christian, with the fuel he needed to persevere in his marathon struggle for nonviolent revolution. “Love your enemies” is the primer for the Christian life, and it is something with which we as Catholics must clothe ourselves as a suit of armor and of honor.

Over the course of many decades, Catholic convert G.K. Chesterton and playwright George Bernard Shaw, who expressed a liking for Mussolini and Stalin and eschewed organized religion, exchanged their differing views on a wide range of topics, but always in an amiable way.

“He is something of a pagan,” Chesterton once wrote of Shaw, “and, like many pagans, he is a very fine man.”

I’ll never forget a three-minute homily the late Jesuit Father Harry Tompson gave on the sharp sword of “calumny” – tearing down someone’s reputation by promoting character assassination or slander. Father Tompson said Catholics have a responsibility to be sowers of kindness, not flame-throwers.

“I want you all to be ‘but’ persons – that’s b-u-t, not b-u-t-t,’” he said. “How refreshing would it be if you were involved in a conversation with someone, and the guy you’re talking to is tearing to shreds another person for something he did, like constantly being late for meetings. What I want you to say is, ‘But, did you know Joe moonlights a second job so he can afford to pay for his kids’ tuition? But, did you know he’s been going through some real rough times lately?’”

Father Tompson’s point was that we need to cut the calumny chain by defending and honoring the absent.

His other, hidden message was this: Absolutely no one knows, with 100 percent clarity, what is going on in another person’s life. Maybe your friend’s parents are getting divorced; maybe your dad lost his job; maybe there’s a death or an illness in the family.

Our responsibility as Catholics, Father Tompson said, is to be “but” persons, lifting people up, not tearing them down.

That was Father Tompson’s three-minute Sermon on the Mount. Maybe it’s something worth retweeting.

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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