Sunday, September 08, 2013

Eating the Evil Elephants of this World “One Bite at a Time”


(Twenty-third Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on September 8, 2013 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read the Letter of St. Paul to Philemon.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-third Sunday 2013]


“How do you eat an elephant?” so the old question goes.

The classic answer, of course, is, “One bite at a time.”

Which gives us an important insight as to how major changes—both good and bad—usually happen in the world.

In 1990, for example, according to an article I read the other day in the Harvard Magazine online, “roughly seventy-five percent of Americans deemed homosexual acts immoral, only twenty-nine percent supported gay adoptions, and only ten percent to twenty percent backed gay marriage.”

Well, we’ve come a long way in twenty-three years, haven’t we?  Actually, I think it’s more accurate to say that we’ve “fallen a long way into the pit of immorality” in the twenty-three years since that survey was done.

But it didn’t happen instantaneously, did it?

The change in public opinion on this particular issue was slow, and steady, and incremental.  The “elephant” of opposition to homosexual acts, in other words, was devoured “one bite at a time”.

Much of it was orchestrated (at least in the physical dimension of things) by the media and the entertainment industry.  For example, according to professor Gary Gates from UCLA (a recognized expert on the subject), only 1.7 percent of Americans identify themselves as gay or lesbian—but you’d never know that from the number of openly gay characters on primetime television these days.  You’d think it was about thirty to forty percent of the population.

Which is precisely what they want you to think!

Another bite of the elephant!

And have you noticed that on these programs the characters who openly oppose homosexual activity are always mean and nasty and vulgar—and, of course, religious!

Trust me, that’s not a coincidence; it’s just another bite of the elephant.

And you can’t argue with the effectiveness of the strategy.  It’s the strategy that led to the full legalization and acceptance of contraception and abortion in the 1960s and 70s; and, given its recent success with gay marriage, this strategy will no doubt eventually lead to the acceptance and legalization of things like polygamy and group marriage (because if marriage isn’t between one man and one woman, why can’t you have two men and one woman, or three men and five women?).

This is the bad news—which I always like to give before I share the good news!

And yes, there is some good news here.  The good news is that this philosophy of “incrementalism”—of working for change by eating the elephant (so to speak) one bite at a time—can also be used (and often has been used) to achieve positive changes in our society and world.

Take, for example, racism.  Has racism been completely eliminated from American society in 2013?  No, it hasn’t.  Like any other sin, it will never be totally eradicated until the end of time.

But things are certainly a lot better, generally speaking, in most places than they were 50 years ago when Martin Luther King made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. 

Efforts have been made—especially by religiously motivated Christians like Rev. Dr. King—to attack the problem incrementally, by slowly changing people’s hearts on the matter.

And some credit for this positive shift can also go to people in the media (and that’s noteworthy because normally I don’t give them credit for much!).

So the “elephant” of racism is by no means “fully eaten” in this country, but that elephant is certainly a lot “thinner” than it was in 1963!

In a famous passage from his encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II indicated that this “eating-the-elephant-one-bite-at-a-time” approach is sometimes acceptable in trying to reverse laws that presently allow abortion.  He said that when it’s not possible to change such an unjust law all at once, it can be permissible to support a law that will serve to limit the number of abortions (as they did in Texas recently when they outlawed all abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy).  Obviously that’s not where pro-life efforts should end, but it is a valid way to approach the problem when it’s not possible to pass a Constitutional amendment supporting life.

Now why do I speak about all this today?

Well very simply it’s because all that I’ve just said can help us to understand the phenomenon of human slavery, which is the issue at the center of today’s second reading from St. Paul’s letter to Philemon.

This, by the way, is a problem that’s still with us!  The forced enslavement of human beings is definitely not a phenomenon that’s totally consigned to the past.  We just call it by different names nowadays, like “human trafficking.”

Sometimes it’s said that the New Testament (and especially this Letter to Philemon) supports slavery, but that’s not true.  In fact, we need to clear about it: the Catholic Church has never officially endorsed the practice of human slavery!  Quite oppositely, many popes—including Eugene IV and Paul III who lived at the time when the slave trade was in high gear—have vigorously condemned it.  So does the contemporary Catechism of the Catholic Church—in paragraph 2414, to be exact!

Now, have individual Catholics and other Christians—including some members of the clergy—supported slavery over the centuries?  Of course!  It’s just like today: we have Catholic laypeople and even some Catholic priests who support a lot of things that the Church officially condemns!  You know the list of those things, I’m sure.    

Regarding the writers of the New Testament, remember that they were members of a religion that was quickly made illegal in the Roman Empire.  Consequently they had no power to change existing laws regarding slavery (or anything else for that matter!).  They had no choice but to tolerate the legal situation as it was, while at the same time trying to change people’s minds and hearts incrementally (one “bite” at a time)—which is precisely what you see illustrated so beautifully in this Letter to Philemon. 

But to understand this you need to see the letter in its historical context!

To summarize the situation: Onesimus was Philemon’s slave.  Philemon was a wealthy Colossian man who had become a believer in Christ through St. Paul’s missionary efforts.  Now he probably had slaves long before his conversion—as many wealthy people did back then.  Like it or not, slavery was pretty much a universal phenomenon in the ancient world—although Christian slave owners were told by St. Paul in Colossians 4 and Ephesians 6 to treat their slaves with fairness and kindness (which was an extremely radical idea for the time!).

Well at some point prior to the writing of this letter, Onesimus had escaped from Philemon—and he had taken some of his master’s “stuff” in the process!  That made Onesimus a thief as well as a runaway slave.

But then he met St. Paul, who happily converted him to Christ.  (Paul at the time was in prison.)  The apostle then sent Onesimus back to Philemon; he sent the runaway slave back to his master—along with this letter.  

Does this mean that St. Paul approved of slavery? 

Not at all!  In fact, it’s quite clear from what he says in this letter that he detested it!  You can sum up Paul’s message in this way.  He said to Philemon, “Look, I could order you to do the right thing here and free Onesimus, since I’m your spiritual father: I’m the one who brought you to Christ.  But I’m not going to do that.  I want you to do the right thing of your own free will.  I want you to choose to act virtuously here.  So I’m honoring the law of the Roman Empire—unjust though it might be—and I’m sending Onesimus back to you.  But please understand that after he escaped from your service, I brought him to the faith.  He’s also my spiritual child now.  And if he’s my spiritual child and you’re my spiritual child that makes the two of you brothers: brothers in the Lord.  So I ask you to receive him back as your brother and not as your slave.  And if he owes you anything because of what he stole, charge it to me.  As his father and friend, I’ll be more than happy to pay his bill.”

Let me conclude my homily now by inviting you to apply this idea to the situations you are currently facing in your life.  We all have “elephants”—problems—in our personal lives that we need to get rid of, especially concerning our relationships with other people.  It might be an “elephant of anger” against a coworker who offended you; it might be an “elephant of unforgiveness” against a spouse or relative who betrayed you.  There are lots of possibilities.  It’s highly unlikely that your relationship with this other person can be made right in a single instant.  That’s not the way it usually works.  Things normally improve incrementally, over time, by taking positive steps to address the problem.

So I ask you to spend a little time during this coming week identifying your problems—your personal “elephants”.  And then, of course, ask the Lord to help you to see what he wants you to do to start devouring them.