Choosing to be countercultural

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As we enter 2020, most of us are dreading the political rancor and divisiveness that grip our nation. We’re fatigued, angry, frustrated. To make matters worse, the American church is in the grip of division as well.

Any trip to Catholic social media sites brings criticisms of Pope Francis and other Catholic figures that are abhorrent and rooted in a frightening evil.

When I was a young teacher, the priest who served at the Catholic high school where I taught often ended Mass by saying not, “Go in peace,” but “Go in the unrest of Christ.”

That has stayed with me as a reminder that although Jesus does promise us “a peace which the world cannot give,” he, in that same statement, foretold that the world would not give us such peace. Nor can we avoid the tension and unrest that we inevitably experience when we practice the countercultural call, which is Christianity.

One weekend, a priest at my parish talked about how Jesus was mocked during his passion by calls to “Save yourself.” Scripture reports passersby, the chief priests, even the “bad” thief crucified with him, chided him to save himself. But Jesus knew that in order to save us, he had to sacrifice himself.

That’s about as countercultural as you can get. We live in a world where taking care of ourselves, and our interests are number one. St. Ignatius’ advice to practice “indifference” to wealth or poverty, health or sickness, a short life or a long one, is a turnoff to many.
But many have followed Jesus’ example.

Jesuit Father Frans van der Lugt? He had chances to leave his mission in Syria many times. His superiors offered a one-way ticket out. He didn’t leave and was dragged out of his residence in 2014 and shot.
Father Stanley Rother (now Blessed Stanley Rother) was an ordinary Oklahoma parish priest who volunteered for service as a missionary in Guatemala. When the civil war started, a death squad put his name on a list, and his bishop urged him to come home. He stuck around and was martyred in 1981.

The four churchwomen who died in El Salvador in 1980? The Jesuits executed there in 1989?

All had chances to save themselves.

Martin Luther King, Jr., in “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” wrote, “I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.”

That is the unrest to which Christ beckons us, the tension with which we pray.

What does this have to do with an election year and the ignorant use of social media, which will no doubt continue into this season?

I think, as Christians, we are called to a deeper prayer life during this year. Not a sugar-coated prayer life that provides an escape from the tensions (although prayer should offer us peace), but a prayer life that helps us to understand how we are called to live productively in the tension of the moment.

I think we are called to listen to those with whom we disagree. We are called to pray for – and with – those whose views we disparage. This is not easy. But the example of men and women who sacrificed everything for truth should help us to have a little more humility when it comes to our own ironclad views.

We might consider fasting from social media as well.

Prayer is the best – maybe the only – way to get through the coming year. Pray with the saints and martyrs. Pray for our nation, our Church, and our wonderful Pope Francis.


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