The first shall be last, and the last shall be first

On several occasions, in different contexts, Jesus swapped the first with the last. He said it both ways: “The first shall be last and the last shall be first,” and also, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.” In some contexts—such as the parable of the workers in the vineyard, in which twelve-hour workers were paid the same amount as one-hour workers—Jesus seems to be saying that all are equal, that no one is first and no one is last. That approach appeals to contemporary culture, where much emphasis is placed on the equality of all people. But a more careful study of the words of Jesus in their context, and in the teaching of his Church, shows more significance to his saying than merely, “No one is first and no one is last because everyone is the same.”

Most of us want to be first. Few of us achieve the humility of Paul, who called himself “chief of sinners” and “least of the apostles.” But none of us deserves to be first. We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We all have failed to meet our Maker’s specifications. We all need to be rescued from our sins and from evil, redeemed from the cost of our misdeeds and failures, and reconciled again to God who made us. We cannot rescue or redeem or reconcile ourselves. We need Jesus to do these things for us.

Jesus is the only-begotten Son of the Father, and the entire universe belongs to him. He became human, like us in every way except that he never sinned. Jesus is first in a way that none of us can be first—first in divine power and glory, and first in human purity and perfection. When rewards are distributed for a righteous life, not only is Jesus first in line—he is the only one who deserves a place in line.

But Jesus, who is first, becomes last for all of us. By making himself last, Jesus makes each of us first. He puts us in the front of the line by surrendering his position to us. Being last, Jesus takes upon himself our guilt and our punishment. He goes to the cross for us so we can be rescued and redeemed. He takes for himself death, the wages of sin, so that each of us can receive the free gift of everlasting life.

God is not fair. He makes the first last, and he makes the last first. But God’s injustice is not opposed to us. God’s injustice is in our favor. Jesus is generous and does not complain that our reconciliation with God is unfair to him. Jesus gladly cheats the system, taking away our sins and giving each of us the blessings earned by his perfect righteousness.

The first becomes last to make all of us who were last into the first. No longer enemies of God, we have become the adopted children of God. In that sense we all are equal. But the first and the last trading places leads to more than equality—it leads to rescue, redemption, and reconciliation. Jesus has done this for us, because of his holy love for us. J.

Racism without race (part four)

Governments create and enforce laws that limit and prohibit discrimination based upon culture, gender, age, and other factors. Bigotry and prejudice are not so easily controlled by law. Laws are passed against communication which calls for violence against groups of people on the basis of their culture or other status. As free speech does not permit anyone to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater (although shouting “Movie!” at a bonfire is not as harmful and therefore not illegal), so free speech does not permit anyone to advocate hurt or harm to other individuals or groups of people. On the other hand, communication that expresses disapproval of certain cultures or other minority groups without calling for violence can and should be permitted as free speech. Bigotry is more easily recognized as harmful thinking when it is openly expressed in the marketplace of ideals than when it is driven “underground.” As past expressions of bigotry and prejudice can be shown to be illogical and silly under contemporary standards, so present and future expressions of bigotry and prejudice can be revealed for their failings in the same manner. Censoring present expressions and editing former statements that left their mark in history does not advance the process of justice and fairness. Open and honest conversations on such topics, conducted without malice or anger (as difficult as that goal might be to achieve), accomplish far more than restricting freedom of speech, altering the historic record, and demanding that every past and present communication meet certain arbitrary standards of justice and fairness.

Voluntarily and involuntarily, millions of people have migrated over the centuries, carrying their cultures with them. Sometimes people maintained their own cultures secretly while pretending in public to blend into the majority culture. Sometimes majority and minority cultures shaped one another, often in subtle ways. Migration will continue to happen, as people seek better lives for themselves and their families. They seek safety from enemies, better jobs, more access to food and to clean water, freedoms offered by certain governments, and many other good things that are lacking in their homeland. Governments exist to protect their citizens; opening the borders to all immigrants is not a responsible option for any government. But monitoring and regulating immigration, establishing and enforcing laws regarding immigration, is a responsibility of every government. Such laws are less the result of bigotry and prejudice than they are the result of the government’s duty to protect and defend its citizens.

Seeking equality does not mean making everyone the same. Culturalism can continue to convey pride in each person’s heritage. We can celebrate the differences that make each culture unique—differences in language, in food, in clothing, in music, and in many of the other elements of life and civilization. Saying “my way is good” does not have to be the same as saying, “My way is better than your way.” Saying “my way is good” can lead to saying, “Your way is also good.”

The bigger problem includes descendants of migrants who have not achieved equality—economically, politically, and socially—with the majority culture. Education of the entire population about diverse cultures is of some benefit, but education alone will not create equality. In the United States, we can use cultural holidays—including Chinese New Year, St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, and Juneteenth—not as paid holidays nor as reasons to drink beer, but as times to learn about other cultures. Summer street fairs, cultural gatherings in parks and museums, broadcast specials about various cultures on television and the Internet—all of these contribute to a solution against bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination, but they cannot solve these problems on their own.

Our goal is to lift all ships, not to sink some ships for the benefit of others. Statistically and historically, white privilege has existed and does exist in the United States. Attempts to counter white privilege over the last sixty years include laws against discrimination, desegregation of schools, busing of students to distant schools, and “affirmative action”—legally setting quotas of minority representation in student bodies, work places, and other arenas of public participation. All of these practices have been controversial. They seem to work in some situations, but they seem to worsen bigotry and prejudice in others. Better answers include guaranteeing high quality public education in every school and every neighborhood, enforcing laws against discrimination without setting quotas for hiring, and providing opportunities for the poor (regardless of cultural background) to have equal opportunity for advancement through job training and community-strengthening programs.

 The problems of bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination did not appear overnight, and they will not disappear overnight. In some ways, hiding these problems under the label “racism” only makes them stronger and harder to fight. To affirm that all people are “created equal” and are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” including “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” allows us to study our society, to identify inequalities, and to address them effectively. “Black Lives Matter” can be more than a slogan: it can be genuine work to make life in America fair for all Americans without disintegrating into class warfare, into the determination that, “to give this person more, that person must receive less.” By strict definitions, racism does not exist. Yet by greater awareness of bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination—all of which do exist—Americans can continue working toward the goal of equality for all people, a goal upon which our country was established from its very beginning. J.

We remember

The primary national holiday of the United States of America is the Fourth of July, Independence Day. This holiday remembers, not a military battle or victory, but a document and the ideas it contains. The Declaration of Independence solemnly states that “all men are created equal” and are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” namely, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

But a nation based upon ideas must still exist on the world stage, where wars and violent attacks are a way of life. Our national anthem, the Star Spangled Banner, remembers a British attack upon Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland. This anthem is the first stanza of a four-stanza poem written by Francis Scott Key, who observed the shelling on September 13 and 14 of 1814 and saw that the national flag (at that time consisting of fifteen stripes and fifteen stars) was still flying at the end of the attack. Since that time, Americans have challenged one another to remember the Alamo, remember Gettysburg, remember the Maine, remember the Lusitania, remember Pearl Harbor, and remember 9-11. We also remember non-military tragedies, including the Hindenburg, the Titanic, and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

These events loom in our mind as landmarks of history. We commemorate the lives lost, and we consider how our nation has responded to the attacks of our enemies. The sinking of the Lusitania and the bombing of Pearl Harbor were strategic military actions, but they drew us into World Wars. The terrorist attack of 9-11, on the other hand, was a deliberate act to oppose the ideas upon which the United States is based. Those who attacked were opposed to freedom, particularly freedom of religion and freedom of expression. They were opposed to the principles of human rights and the equality of all people. They chose the World Trade Center as a target because they fear economic opportunity which brings with it exposure to the American ideas of freedom, democracy, and liberty.

The War on Terror is different from the World Wars. In the World Wars we could identify our enemies, target their forces, and move toward victory in just a few years. Fighting the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and ISIS required different strategies and different goals. What is now America’s longest war remains a defense of liberty and freedom. We seek to preserve these ideas for ourselves, and we also offer them to all the people of the world.

We prevailed in the Cold War because our ideas were better than the ideas of the Soviet Union and its allies. We will prevail in the War on Terror because our ideas are better than those of Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Military strength alone does not win wars; it provides, at best, temporary victories. The final victory belongs to those who are defending what is good and opposing what is evil.

We will not forget the three thousand victims of 9-11. We will not forget the police officers and fire fighters who fell while rushing into danger to save others. We will not forget the passengers of Flight 93 who refused to allow the airplane which held them to be used as a weapon against their country. They inspire us to continue to treasure the ideas for which our country stands. They inspire us to continue to support all those who battle to protect our nation and its principles. They inspire us to continue to pray for God’s blessings on our land and on all who live here. J.