Sunday, June 11, 2017

Aaron Hernandez and the Misuse of Religion

(Trinity Sunday 2017 (A): This homily was given on June 11, 2017, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read John 3: 16-18.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Trinity Sunday 2017]

John 3: 16

That’s a biblical reference which even many non-Christians know, because for years people have held up signs at professional sporting events with “John 3: 16” written on them in very large print.

I mention this this morning because the very first line of today’s gospel text is none other than John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”

This is a line of Scripture that we should always associate with hope and life, not despair and death.  But, unfortunately, some have done the latter since April 19 of this year.  That was the day that former NFL star Aaron Hernandez, who was serving a life sentence for murder, killed himself in his prison cell.  However, before he committed suicide by hanging himself with a bedsheet, he wrote “John 3: 16” on his forehead with red ink and on the wall of his cell with blood.

Exactly why he did it, no one knows.  Joseph Price, a professor of religious studies at Whittier College, said (and here I quote), “it might have been ‘an ultimate protest,’ a final act of defiance to use such an affirming verse at the culmination of such a violent life.”

Others have gone so far as to call it “an act of faith”—although if it was an act of faith it was definitely a perverse and misguided one, because in his teaching Jesus Christ always connected faith and love to obedience: “If you love me you will keep my commandments.”  One of those commandments, of course, is “Thou shalt not kill,” which forbids you to murder other people—or yourself!

But in either case—whether it was an act of defiance or a misguided and perverse act of faith—Aaron Hernandez’s suicide was yet another example of something we’ve seen far too much of in recent years: THE MISUSE OF RELIGION.

Religious beliefs that are rooted in truth move people to love God and one another.  They give birth to what we refer to as “the fruits of the Holy Spirit”:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness and self-control.  And because of that, religious beliefs rooted in truth are, without question, the most powerful force for good that we have in the world—despite what atheists will tell you.

But religious beliefs that are rooted in lies and half-truths can be used (and are often used) to motivate people in the opposite way—as we see with the radical Islamic terrorists who are wreaking havoc all over the world at the present time.

Atheists, of course, will say the problem here is “religion”.  They’ll tell you that religion itself is bad because it motivates some believers to do horrific things.  But that’s wrong.  The fact that the misuse of religion motivates some people to do morally heinous acts actually is an indication that religion itself—that is to say, true religion—is good.  You see, when something really good is perverted and becomes bad, it doesn’t just become “a little bit bad,” it becomes really bad—really, REALLY bad!

The best example of this is the devil himself.  Remember, the angel who eventually became the devil was created “good” by God.  He didn’t start off as Satan.  His name at his creation was Lucifer (which means “Light-bearer”), and he was one of the most brilliant and powerful angels the Lord made.  Consequently, when he rebelled and was thrown out of heaven by St. Michael, he didn’t just become a bad angel who had fallen from grace—he became the worst angel of all, and the leader of all the lesser angels who followed him into rebellion.

So don’t buy into the lie that religion itself is the problem.    

And, by the way, if an atheist ever does tell you that religion is (and always has been) responsible for most of the evils—and especially the murders—in the world, advise him not to keep score.  Because if he does, he’ll lose!  In the last century, for example, the most horrific atrocities against innocent human life were not committed by Christians, or Jews—or even Muslims.  In the 20th century the most evil mass murderers were either atheists or ex-Christian pagans. 

Here are three of them: Hitler, Stalin and Mao-tse Tung.

Millions—actually it’s more accurate to say tens of millions—died because of the actions of those three scoundrels alone.

Religion is not the problem, but its misuse is.  Here we have to be honest enough to admit that in the past 2,000 years some Catholics and other Christians have also been guilty of this.  They’ve twisted the message of Jesus and his Church for their own political or financial gain, or to try to justify some immoral activity that they were involved in.

By the grace of God, may we never be guilty of that kind of misuse in our lives.

I’ll leave you today with the words of a saint—Pope St. John Paul II—who addressed this issue a number of times during his long pontificate.  Too bad more people didn’t listen.  The world would be a much better place today if they had.  For example, in an address he gave to a group of Muslims in Syria way back in 1979, our former Holy Father said this:
It is crucial for the young to be taught the ways of respect and understanding, so that they will not be led to misuse religion itself to promote or justify hatred and violence. Violence destroys the image of the Creator in his creatures and should never be considered as the fruit of religious conviction.

And then in 1998 (almost 20 years later) the pope gave a similar message to a group of Muslim leaders in Nigeria.  He said:
Religion can be misused, and it is surely the duty of religious leaders to guard against this. Above all, whenever violence is done in the name of religion, we must make it clear to everyone that in such instances we are not dealing with true religion. For the Almighty cannot tolerate the destruction of his own image in his children.

St. John Paul II pray for us and pray for our world, that this destruction will finally come to an end, and that true religion and its fruits will ultimately prevail.  Amen.