God first!

Two stories: both true. They happened to me.

I used to be on call for the big city hospital in Austin, TX. One night I was called to come about 2:30 or 3:00 in the morning. The hospital was quiet. I got on the elevator, and one of the heart doctors were already on the elevator. He was a tall man. I think he was from India or Bangladesh or Pakistan. I didn’t know for sure, but I assumed so because of his appearance and accent. We saw one another in the hospital frequently, but we didn’t know each other.

Suddenly he turned to me and said, “God first!!  Then my patients, then my wife. My wife…She does not understand this!” The elevator stopped and he got off without telling me the rest of the story, which I am sure was interesting.

The second story. I was having breakfast a few weeks ago with a Holy Cross bishop from India. He was very concerned about his country. . India is about 2-3% Christian. There are 200 languages, with 20 official languages. There are Muslims, but most are Hindu.  The current prime minister of India is pushing very hard with the theme: “One nation! One language! One religion!” He wants to unify the nation by having everyone speak only Hindi and being Hindu: no English, no Muslims, and no Christians.  Whether by law or by social pressure, all would speak only Hindi and be Hindus.

Political leaders over history and even today often use religion as a way to unite the country, and usually put it under their rule or influence.

The Chinese today have no problem with Catholicism, as long as it is part of the Chinese national Catholic Church. Foreigners—like a non-Chinese pope—should not be naming Chinese bishops, and the Church should be under the control of the Chinese, at least in their opinion. China and the Chinese Church should be for China.

Our closing hymn today will be “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” as a way of honoring veterans. Do you think they will be singing that hymn in Catholic churches in Alabama, Louisiana, and Arkansas? I don’t know, but probably not.

This is exactly what was going on in the first reading. The king wants to maintain control over his people. They are to obey the king first. Just obey the law—disobey God by eating a tiny bit of pork, and all will be well. But the seven brothers insist, “God first! God is more powerful. His rule extends even beyond this life into eternity.

This question is before us. In church we pledge loyalty to God. We profess our Faith. But there are other voices: political, social, economic that clamor for our loyalty.

In American Grace, Robert Putnam of Harvard and David Campbell of Notre Dame, study American society and the role of religion in American society. They point out that when Americans have a conflict between what their churches teach and what their political perspective says, they solve it by changing religions.  God first?

Glenn Beck of Fox News would tell Catholics that if their priest was preaching social justice, it was a code word for socialism or communism, so they should change parishes. I don’t know how he accounted for Pope Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict and now Francis all having a Secretariat for Social Justice, but I find it so ironic that U.S. Catholics would get their Catholic social teaching from a fallen away Catholic who became a Mormon.  God first? Or a political position first?

When we look at the issues before us, is it God first? When we say all human life is sacred from conception to natural death, is it all human life, or just the ones that my political position likes? Does it include the unborn, the undocumented, and death row? If God is first, both liberal and conservative causes stand in God’s judgment.

We are the Catholic Church, a universal church that embraces all peoples, from the rising to the setting of the sun. We believe God’s love is extended to all, regardless of borders, regardless of citizenship, regardless of social status, regardless of race.

Pope John Paul II made a distinction between nationalism and patriotism. As patriots we are called to love our fellow countrymen and women. We are called to help them. But we are not nationalists. Our love—and God’s love and concern—are not extended only to our country. We love our country, but it is God first.

 

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