Dean Baxter: “The Vital Witness of Saints For Our Times”
We live in an extraordinary time. Think of it: most of our children and all of our grandchildren will not know a time when humans were not traveling or living in space; when the progress, comfort and security our culture was not shaped by the wonders of computer technology. Just think of it: a generation that cannot even imagine a world with out a global economy, or human life not shaped in some way by genetic engineering or a nation that tolerates overt institutional barriers to race or gender. Extra-ordinary, isn’t it?
But I am also reminded that our new generations will also be the first generation to know a world where abortion, sex selection, HIV/AIDS and global warming are among the accepted realities. Even more sobering is considering American generations in which organized religion is not a part of the average person’s life. These also could be the first generation not to value the spiritual gift of sainthood!
Even in our own times we clearly see great suspicion of morals standards, great character apathy, and character assassination seen as simply a way of doing business. Relativism is a virtue and ethics an after-thought–a matter deferrable to political, scientific or economic progress. We live in a culture that fears affirming one value over another, lest we be vulnerable to judgment, held accountable for our failings, if not our sins. It is not a question if we are virtuous or not, but that virtue is irrelevant if we are personally advancing. Sin is to digress; immorality is not to be relevant.
As uncomfortable as these observations may seem, I believe them to be true. As the Church we are not only losing too many of our children, but we are losing our place in the world. What concerns me is not simply institutional survival. No matter what happens, that will probably go on for centuries. There will always be a remnant. But institutions have a role in society; they embody institutes, values to be communicated from one generation to another. As the arguments go, certainly prejudices and injustices also are communicated by institutions, as well. But I think we all might agree, we are losing more than our prejudices in the process of post-modernization. The values–the deeper principles or core values of our common life–which have helped us challenge and rectify injustice are the deeper values of democracy and religion. They are spiritual and have been preserved and communicated by institutions, especially the Church, from one generation to another. I speak of values that are more than well intended human inventions such as respect for human dignity, social responsibility for the common welfare, faith in God. For example, the power of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s message and its enduring quality is that he challenged America–including government and religion–with it’s own deeper and enduring virtues to cause fundamental change in our society, if not our hearts.
However, before those values can be communicated to a culture or society, they must be believed and treasured by the institute. For example hospitals must treasure healing and health. If they are seen as simply a commercial enterprise, a value is lost in society and we become a different people. Healing and health care becomes segmented as only a matter of an emergency or personal enhancement; not as an integral value in our daily lives. At best health care becomes a popular novelty of individual herbal quackery primarily intended to elevate some physical sense: memory, sexual performance or physical energy for a body already stressed-out by the demands of an inordinate lifestyle and schedule. Healing and health are not values that we hold as essential for ourselves and the least of our community. And our heath institutions, which once led the way, struggle to hold onto integrity and purpose in a world of political rhetoric, HMOs and corporate interest. Advertisers market directly to consumers and appeal only to the privileged. For their job is not to shape the values of a society, rather to appeal to the self-interest of a privileged few for the sake of profit.
As an institution in our society, Christianity is no different. It matters not what our denomination–if we feel smug because our particular denomination is doing something that another is not, we are playing into the individualism that plagues the larger society. Yes, to be sure, politics is a part of religion. Wherever there is power or currencies of power, its use must be brokered and managed. However, the Christian community must ask, Have we put more emphasis on religion as politics than religion spiritual? Are we seen by the world around us as more an institution obsessed with who’s in and who’s out than what power there is in prayer; a community of faith shaped by the converting and transforming power of divine love? Are we seen more as the battleground for political issues and alliances than as communities where the holy can be found? We must be places where virtue is prized and the power of faith in God is believed, lived and transmitted in the worlds in which we live, work and play. The spiritual good must be found alive among us.
Paul encouraged the Church at Philippi to embrace this perspective–or community psychic–when he wrote to them: “Beloved, whatever is true, whatever is pure, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing [to God], whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things…. And the God of Peace will be with you” (Phil. 4:8, 9).
Given this admonition we must ask, when it comes to spiritual virtue have we become a community of the lowest denominator? I often hear talk about everyone who is baptized is a saint. Not so. But I do believe that everyone who is baptized is called to prize and strive for holiness (another way of speaking of saintliness). I often hear talk by leaders in the Christian community that seeks, with great enthusiasm, to emphasis the faults and imperfections of the saints as a way of saying, “They were no different than we.” Sometimes it seems as though we wish to demonstrate that there is no such think as “holy” so that we might feel comfortable with our unholy lifestyle and aspirations.
But saints were venerated not because they were perfect but because the believed in God and lived like it. They became illustrations for us and to the world of the holy, of enduring values of goodness and faith, of the graces of compassion and courage. We see in the witness of their life and living–despite their failings and sins–were and are (including contemporary saints) glimpses of the holy, of the beauty of God working and loving among us for healing, justice and peace in the world and in the Church. The saints are examples for us, inspiration for us to live and preserve in our lives and the Church spiritual qualities, which not only hold the promise of fulfillment far beyond what the world can imagine but are essential to the future of civilization.
Saints were and are those who acknowledged their poverty in spirit. The do so not as an resignation to human frailty but as a way of continually acknowledging their utter dependence upon God, whether fighting for social justice, doing charitable work, evangelizing, advancing spiritual renewal or defending the faith. Do we, in our personal, professional or avocational life seek the guidance and grace of God? When did we last pray before a difficult decision in our work place? Does prayer have a place in marriage, our parenting or other intimate roles? Is there more passion than faith in the causes to which we may be committed? Recently a bumper sticker caught my attention. It read, “If God is your co-pilot, change seats.” It caught my attention because I know that often in my life I want God to assist me in achieving choices and decisions I have made. I want God to be my assistant, not my guide! But I shall never know the vision of God–THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN–if I do not acknowledge my own spiritual inadequacy; if I do not acknowledge my need for divine vision, direction and strength.
The saints were and are those who both believe in sin and evil and grieve its effect upon the world and the Church. Grieving is a way of refusing to accept evil as the way things must be, of not giving in to the power and influence of evil. As we have vowed in the Baptismal Covenant: “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” Saints grieve the reality of evil and sin but refuse to give into its inherent tragedy.
The saints were and are the meek. Meek does not mean timid but rather the quality of being humble, as distinct from pride or arrogance. How easy it is to succumb to arrogant ambitions, to have a sense of pride in our achievement or privilege as a way seeing ourselves distinct from the humanity of others. But the saints are those who have not lost their sense of kindredness with the least of humanity. There is a phenomenon in Protestantism today called “prosperity gospel.” Christianity is about blessing plans and “godliness” being equated with “gainliness.” A radio “prosperity minister” was once challenged about his lavish lifestyle in contrast to his poor adherents. He replied to the reporter: “The best thing I can do for the poor is not be one of them.” However, Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it in a more saintly context when he said: “More important than being my brother’s keeper is that I understand that I am my brother’s brother.” True humility helps us not to disassociate ourselves from others, especially those most in need or unlike us.
The saints were and are those whose greatest hunger and thirst–whose greatest passion in life–is for justice, for a world that is fair, equitable and respectful of the dignity of all. Whether in their home and marital relationship, in business, courts, employment, education, diplomacy, they are not shamed or deterred by the values of contemporary culture; nor are they satisfied by whatever benefits or advantages they may receive because of privilege in an inequitable society. But every time a stride is made for justice and fairness, they rejoice. Whether a law, a social policy, a social mores advancing justice or simply seeing fair play and equal opportunity at a kiddie soccer game, they are filled with joy, hope and satisfaction in a way that others may not understand.
The saints were and are those who, regardless of their pain and history, refused to be satisfied by vengeance and retribution. Today there are too many places here and abroad where hostilities are historically held and culturally nurtured from one generation to another. Just think of the situations you know in your own experience where the quality of ones national patriotism, or race loyalty or political faithfulness is determined by how much hate you can remember and avenge. It takes courage to nurture a spirit of mercy. It is in the witness of the saints that we experience peace making done with justice with mercy. For until we learn mercy as forgiveness our communities will never heal–and the pain, violence and mistrust will continue forever.
These were hard sayings in Jesus’ day and they are hard sayings today. We only believe them possible because we see them in the imperfect form of the lives of saints. A few years ago when talking with a Christian businessman about the influence of saints in early life, he told the story of his Southern Baptist auntie who, though strict and fundamentalist, show the light of Christ with true sincerity. She believed deeply in Jesus as Lord and Savior, “the way, the truth and the life” as she would put it. She believed and taught that one’s way of living should reflect one’s faith. When he returned home from college she challenged him about having indulged in alcohol. He, with sophomoric audacity reminded her that Jesus turned water into wine. She replied with undiminished piety, “Yes, and I would have thought even more of him if he had not done that!!” I am sure we all have saints of like blessed memory. And though my businessman friend still favors the wine of Jesus’ miracle, she is still a saint in his life who inspires and anchors his faith. Through her faith and life he clearly saw the loving and faithful reality of God. Where is holiness evident in our lives? Where is what we believe evident to the world? I was once asked, “Nathan, if you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” What more powerful challenge can there be to live our faith, not only before God but before the world.
Saints echo the call of baptismal covenant, the call to holiness. As the writer of Hebrews wrote: “Follow peace with all persons and holiness, without which no one can see God.” Through holiness in the lives of ordinary and extraordinary Christians, God becomes visible for us and the world. This is not always easy living, in fact it can be counter-cultural living and can being about consternation among people important to us. But at the end of the Beatitude Jesus said when you are persecuted for my sake, remember the prophets who were persecuted before you. This is Jesus’ way of saying remember the saints, for their life, faith and witness will lighten your way to my truth, my purpose, my kingdom. The witness of saints is vital for our time. May we too strive for holiness of life in our own day. Amen.</P