Lay Claim to Your Freedom

See how the faithful city
has become a harlot!
She once was full of justice;
righteousness used to dwell in her—
but now murderers!

Your silver has become dross,
your choice wine is diluted with water.

Your rulers are rebels,
companions of thieves;
they all love bribes
and chase after gifts.
They do not defend the cause of the fatherless;
the widow’s case does not come before them. (Isaiah 1:21-23)

As I read Isaiah for the second Tuesday in Lent, this part of the extended reading struck me. God is telling us that we have not been faithful. God is calling us “to come and reason.” God is calling us to do justice for the widows, the orphans, and the poor—the defenseless, resourceless non-landed people.We could rewrite this passage today:

See how the faithful city, Washington,
Once the beacon light on the hill,
Has become a harlot,
Unfaithful to the promise of America.
Washington was once full of justice and hope—
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness
To be guaranteed to each and every person.
The silver of the promise has become dross for the many
As the few—rich and powerful— have amassed inordinate wealth,
As the gap between the rich and the poor widens.
The choice wine of hope for life and life in abundance
Has been watered down by oppression and exploitation
Of the least among us.
The rulers have become rebels,
Cowering to the dictates of mutlinationals
While 17 million children go to be hungry every night.
Rulers have stood by while Wall Street brokers
Have become thieves in broad daylight.
Elected leaders chase after bribes
And the gifts offered by wealthy lobbyists.
They do not defend the cause of the unemployed.
They do not afford education, shelter, food and healthcare.
They have forgotten the least among us.

Before we feel too smug about pointing the finger and casting blame on “Washington,” we need to heed Merton’s advice and look within. We need to look at our own complicity in this tragedy. Merton warned us to beware when “the poets are not heard and the prophets are not to be found.” He knew that he had to speak out against injustice from his contemplative perspective. He warned us about abdicating responsibility and our freedom. For Merton, the ultimate freedom, even beyond the freedom of the “four walls” of the monastery, is the freedom to live for God and for others.

In Seasons of Celebration, Merton wrote:

Our abdication of responsibility is at the same time an abdication of our liberty. The resolution to let “someone else,” the anonymous forces of society, assume responsibility for everything means that we abdicate from public responsibility, from mature concern and even from spiritual life. We retire from the public realm of freedom into the private world of necessity, imagining that the escape from responsibility is an escape into freedom. On the contrary, it is, in Erich Fromm’s words, an “escape from freedom.” But when we turn over the running of our lives to anonymous forces, to “them” (whoever “they” may be, and nobody quite knows), what actually happens is that we fall under the tyranny of collective fantasies and delusions. (Cited in Lent and Easter: Wisdom from Thomas Merton, Ligouri, MO: Ligouri, 2007, 28)

We abdicate the greatest gift the Creator has given us—our freedom. The anonymous forces of society today are the corporations and lobbyists that actually control and run our government. We can “Vote ’em out” and vote new ones in an they will still be marionettes of the military industrial complex.

They are so big and powerful. I am so small. Better just to retreat into the private world of my needs and priorities rather than get beat up. We forget mature concern and deny our spiritual heritage. We abdicate our responsibility to be in solidarity with all our brothers and sisters, including the least among us. We forget our responsibility to act on behalf of the common good—they might think we are socialists. We renege on our responsibility to form our consciences for faithful citizenship.

Merton was skeptical, to say the least, about mass society and mass media. He would be even more skeptical today. I think we can identify the “anonymous forces”—the talking heads. I recently met a woman and she prefaced every statement, “They said on Fox news.” Most people abdicate their responsibility to be informed citizens, to fact check everything the talking heads and government leaders say.

Bryan Massinagale, African American theologian from Marquette University, gave the recent Fourth Annual Black History Month Lecture at the Merton Center. His talk was entitled, “Engaging racism: Thomas Merton, the Church and the Ongoing Quest for Justice.” Massingale says that Merton got  it when the church did not. Merton was not paternalistic and he acknowledged Black agency. Coming from his contemplative understanding of the onenesss of all creation, Merton saw all people—black, white, red, yellow, and brown—as brothers and sisters in Jesus the Christ. Racism is not a Black problem. It is a white problem. My whiteness is properly defined by recognizing that I am one with every other person regardless of race, color, creed, national origin, or sexual orientation.

This is the counter narrative of the Gospel which was understood so well by Thomas Merton. We exercise our true freedom when we live this narrative boldly. We will feel hurt and pain when we are rejected and ridiculed for living our narrative—serve the least among us, work for the common good, be in solidarity, love one another, love your enemies, feed the hungry. But live it we must if we are to be truly free in Jesus the Christ.икони

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