Monday, July 07, 2008

Homily for Independence Day, Fourth of July, Fourteenth Sunday Cycle A

In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus says:

“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for your selves; for my yoke is easy, and my burden light." (Matthew 11, 28-30)

A yoke is a symbol of submission. A yoke with a plow was attached to oxen. Farmers used the oxen to plow their fields

Jesus is not promising that faith in him will take away all our troubles, but despite the troubles we experience in this life, we can have peace of mind, heart and conscience. Living a Christian life entails taking on burdens and responsibilities, but the yoke of Jesus is far easier to bear than the yoke of sin and guilt. Christ also promises his faithful followers eternal happiness in heaven.

Submission to Christ leads to true freedom. Submission to unjust authority is oppression. America cast off the yoke of England to become free and independent States, later united under the Constitution.

On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence to declare to the world the reasons America was separating from her mother country.

In a recent poll, less than 50 percent of students could identify the phrase "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal" as a line from the Declaration of Independence. Many even thought it was a line from the Communist Manifesto. President Ronald Reagan, in the tradition of other warnings in past Presidential Farewell Addresses, said in his Farewell Speech “I'm warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit.”

It is likely that very few young people today know that God is mentioned four times in the Declaration. The Founding Fathers of America believed in a Creator and in a natural law. John Adams, our second President and President of the Second Continental Congress once said “You have rights antecedent to all earthly governments: rights that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws; rights derived from the Great Legislator of the universe.”

It is likely that both Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and James Madison, the architect of the Constitution, were familiar with the writings of the Jesuit saint Cardinal Robert Bellarmine. Bellarmine argued against a Divine Right of Kings. This was the idea that Kings received their authority directly from God, and thus to obey the King is to obey God. Instead, Bellarmine argued that all power, including political power came from God and was given to the people. The people then entrusted this power to their leaders.
That is why we should take our responsibility to vote very seriously, and not base our vote on such superficial reasons as charm, looks or mere party politics, but instead on character, integrity, experience and where the candidates stand on the most important issues, especially involving human rights.
Bellarmine's ideas were later adopted by our Founding Fathers and expressed explicitly in the Declaration of Independence and implicitly in the United States Constitution.
In the Declaration, Jefferson wrote “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

The first right he mentions is the right to life. In a letter to citizens in Washington County, Maryland in 1809, Jefferson wrote “The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only legitimate object of good government.”

Without first securing a person’s right to life, all other rights are meaningless. That is why Pope John Paul II said in Chistifidelis Laici, his letter to lay people in 1988,

“The inviolability of the person which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God, fĂ­nds its primary and fundamental expression in the inviolability of human life. Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights-for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture- is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination.”

Sadly, we know that America for over 70 years in the first years of our nation, we failed to live up to those noble principles expressed in our founding documents by tolerating legalized slavery. Even after slavery was abolished, African-American were denied their God-given rights. More work needs to be done, but we have made great strides in modern times in overcoming racism and unjust discrimination.

In his struggle for civil rights, Rev. Martin Luther Ling, Jr. chose not to attack America for her failings, but to challenge her. He called America to live up to the noble ideals expressed in our Declaration of Independence.

Today in our nation, the right to life is denied to pre-born children growing and developing in their mothers’ wombs. The Supreme Court declared in Roe v. Wade in 1973 that the word person as used in the Fourteenth Amendment does not include the unborn.

Just as Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. did in the 1960s, the pro-life movement calls on America to live up to the noble ideals expressed in our Declaration of Independence and acknowledge and defend the rights of all human beings to their God-given right to life.

Every time Pope John Paul II came to the United States he never neglected to speak up for the rights of the unborn as he did when he visited Washington in 1979 and on his last visit to St. Louis in 1999. Before he left the United States in his Farewell Address at Detroit Airport in 1987, he said something I think is prophetic about the right to life and America when he said:

"Every human person - no matter how vulnerable or helpless, no matter how young or how old, no matter how healthy, handicapped or sick, no matter how useful or productive for society - is a being of inestimable worth created in the image and likeness of God. This is the dignity of America, the reason she exists, the condition for her survival - yes, the ultimate test of her greatness: to respect every human person, especially the weakest and most defenseless ones, those as yet unborn."

Each of us has a responsibility, as Christians and citizens, to work for the protection of human rights, especially the most basic human and civil right that we have which is the right to life. To do so is to be faithful both to God and the vision of the Founding Fathers of this nation. If we succeed, we will restore the foundation of our Republic as one nation under God with liberty and justice for all.

(Based on homilies given by Father Peter West at St. John the Evangelist Church in Honesdale, Pennsylvania July 6, 2008 and at Holy Cross Church in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee July 2-3, 2005.)