Earlier this Spring, Roman Catholic Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, Illinois, took the opportunity of a sermon at Mass to liken President Obama’s policies as a “radical, pro-abortion and extreme secularist agenda” that violates the First Amendment and proves the president’s “intent on following a similar path” as Nazi Germany’s Adolph Hitler and Soviet-era dictator Joseph Stalin.

During the 2004 presidential elections, ads by moveon.org also likened the sitting president (at that time George W. Bush) to Adolph Hitler for his foreign policy.

Haymarket Riot

Haymarket Riot (Public Domain).

This has got to stop.

I don’t think any survivor of the Holocaust would see Hitler’s familiar face in Barak Obama or George W. Bush. To imply that a president we (meaning most Americans) elected is of the same moral fabric as men who slaughtered tens of millions of people, conducted mass genocide in the name of political power, and pushed civilization to the brink of extinction insults not only the premise of democratic judgment, but the honor and memories of all those whose lives were needlessly sacrificed.

It is time to stop the madness of hyperbole as we negotiate the uncomfortable friction points where religious conscience meets secular governance. The uncontrolled, irresponsible rhetoric that dominates today’s discourse betrays the joyful message of the Gospel and does little to solve the problems we face.

As Catholics who are required to believe, act, and (I would argue) think as we pray Christ would have us behave — we must know that attaching the antichrist label to any who disagrees with Catholic teaching encourages the faithful to discount the value of all God’s creations (including the creations who have yet to discover the Truth).

“Hear the other side”, said St. Augustine. “Be completely humble and patient, bearing with one another in love” said St. Paul. I don’t think either would be invited as a ‘talking head’ on MSNBC or Fox News – and both would struggle mightily to use UPPER CASE LETTERS TO SCREAM at others on Facebook.

Conflict is part of being human. In the US, we have frequently struggled as we play with the constitution’s words to justify confrontations with our neighbors. And anyone who thinks a religious community is free from strife should brush up on Paul’s writings to the Phillipians where he basically urges a couple of the church’s early leaders, Euodia and Syntyche (yes, women) to get along better.

But while the issue of conflict has always been with us, the power of technology to disseminate ideas (good and bad) so quickly has given all persons a phrase or two in the public conversations of any topic. With such widespread empowerment comes the temptation to do things to have one’s message stand out –  to exaggerate, to play loose with the facts, and to proclaim messages designed not to inform, but to draw attention by playing on human fear and mistrust of others.

Even if you agree with Bishop Jenky’s broad-brushed strokes that paint the White House Nazi-red, one must consider the words of John Duffy, English professor at Notre Dame who was roundly criticized for his argument that the Bishop’s words went too far:

“Our politics, I am trying to say, are crippled by an impoverished public language. And this impoverishment of language makes us a tribal people, each side in its territory, firing rhetorical rocket shells at one another. The blasts are emotionally satisfying, but the wars go on. … The Bishop’s language was a powerful blast but did nothing to end ongoing conflicts.”

We all know that the issues we are dealing with as a faith community are real and have serious implications for the future of both our Church and nation. But one of the unspoken contracts we accept as Americans is that if we want to live in a society where we can worship and believe as we wish, we also accept the responsibility to figure out how to live along-side those who worship and believe differently.

One might reflect on the words of Dr. Mark Roberts, Senior Advisor and Theologian in Residence at Foundations for Laity Renewal in San Antonio (don’t bother reading this if you don’t think Presbyterians count) –

“…in times of conflict we must stand solidly upon Scripture because God’s ways of dealing with conflict are generally very different from the world’s ways. When we’re in the midst of some church battle, we’re tempted to adopt the ways of the world. Chief among these ways is the desire to win. We can also be tempted to use human schemes to defeat our opponents. We spin like we’re in the middle of a dirty political campaign. We rally the troops. We get out the vote. We defend ourselves. We play the victim. We undermine our opponents. We conveniently ignore facts that don’t support our side. We hold grudges, and so forth and so on. It will feel natural to us to use the world’s ways to win church battles, and, as we do, the world around us will cheer. But rarely are these the ways of a God who says to us, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways” (Isaiah 55:8). “

There is no easy way through the conflicts that people of conscience must deal with. But name-calling and finger-pointing are the tools of children.

As Catholic Christians we are called to act as we see the Truth; we should never turn away from our message and our beliefs. But our message will never be received by those who we consider as little more than objects of derision.

If the Church’s history is of any value here, then we should explore the tactics of the apostles who experienced the challenge of introducing the Good News to a world accustomed to a much different sense of morality and beliefs. Those real founders led by example and by a message of joy and hope. There is little evidence that the apostles won the day by by belittling and passing judgment.

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Coda….

I am writing this as we approach Memorial Day – when we stop to remember the sacrifices made by men and women who, from Lexington to Fallujah, gave the “last full measure” to their country’s service.

So, for one brief moment, let’s play a game of pretend.

Let’s pretend we are Catholics and Americans. And for one moment, all those brave men and women who died for our precious rights of freedom of speech, separation of church and state, etc… get to watch what we are doing here and now –  in our modern media that emphasize talking (but no listening), and new forms of expression covering everything from Facebook tirades to insulting ‘twits’.

Let’s pretend we can look into the eyes of each family member who lost someone in battle, sacrificing countless futures, raising families that would forever be incomplete, and children whose parents survive only in the form of memories and photos; let’s pretend we we get the opportunity to show them what their sacrifices were for.

Let’s pretend we Catholics, after we are finished verbally assaulting those who disagree with us, and after we’re done pretending that today’s disagreements are on-par with the Auschwitz death camp and the Kolyma Gulag, we look into the eyes of those who have gone before us, those who really know the meaning of life and death struggles, and we tell them…

“Thank you for making our behavior possible.”

We can be better than who we are.


References and supporting sites:

http://fratres.wordpress.com/2012/04/18/video-podcastfull-text-of-bishop-jenkys-homily-comparing-obama-to-hitler-and-stalin-4-14-12/

http://www.adl.org/PresRele/HolNa_52/4435_52.htm

http://www.ndsmcobserver.com/viewpoint/why-i-signed-the-letter-1.2863970#.T8LTD2zFR_k

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/markdroberts/series/gods-guidance-for-christians-in-conflict/

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