By Rev. Mark Creech
During the 1960s, the ten blocks surrounding Eighth Avenue in New York was the heart of the city’s multi-billion dollar sex industry. It was a place that people said the Big Apple was rotten to the core. It was here that Franciscan Priest, Father Bruce Ritter, opened a crisis center for teens. These were mostly runaway teens – many having left their homes to break away from discipline and authority. They had insisted on their liberty and their so-called right not to have to follow anyone’s rules but their own. But strangely, in their pursuit of freedom, they found themselves slaves of drugs, alcohol, crime, abuse on the streets, and sex trafficking.
Father Ritter said, “We had hundreds of distraught kids coming, really wiped-out youngsters…Many of them died, some jumped out of windows, some were killed, and some went home.”
Since then, what Father Ritter started, which came to be known as Covenant House, has helped tens of thousands of homeless and trafficked youth in 31 cities and 6 countries around the world. Some say that Covenant House came to “stand for hope on a dead-end street called ‘Freedom.’”
There is a similar and unforgettable story in the Bible, one told by Jesus, commonly referred to as the parable of the Prodigal Son. It’s the story about a young rebellious profligate who left his Father and family. He started traveling down the road one bright day, his mantra in life being “Don’t fence me in.” No one was going to tell him what to do. There were to be no rules to suppress his merriment, and especially no stuffy religion to interfere with his rights. He was leaving it all behind for something different – a place of no moral restraint or moral judgment – no religious responsibility. He was in pursuit of freedom.
Yet he discovered that these so-called rights that he so tenaciously touted weren’t paying off as he had thought. The more he got of everything he wanted, the less he wanted what he got. And one day, suddenly, after he had lost everything and was reduced to a disgraceful servile state of slopping pigs, Jesus said, this young man came to himself – the truth hit him hard. He realized that freedom isn’t merely a matter of rights, but also a matter of being right. He learned that to indulge freedom at the expense of what is right, or to act as though right was something relative and not absolute, is not liberty. It just turns out to be another form of tyranny. So in humility and with a contrite and repentant spirit, he decided to return to his loving father, who was unbeknownst to him, longing for his return. And upon his arrival, the father ran to him, forgave him, and ordered the son be dressed with the royal robe and ring. The fatted calf was slain, and there was a great celebration, for the young man was restored to abundance, genuine happiness, and real freedom.
Seneca, Emperor Nero’s first-century tutor, said, “No man is free who is a slave to the flesh.” In other words, no one is truly free who believes and lives as though right is only relative. No one is truly free who believes that right is simply a matter of social convention. No man, no woman, is truly free who believes that everybody gets to decide for themselves what is right. Nothing ultimately comes out of that but famine, loss, and a life “fenced in” with the moral muck of beasts.
In preparation for my time with you today, I thought to myself that even pigs want the right to live and be happy. Even pigs want the right to be free. Yet they possess no higher purpose for their freedom other than to socialize with other pigs, consume as much as possible, and breed and wallow in the pleasures of mire and filth. Sometimes, when stressed for various reasons, they will savage and kill their own piglets, if you catch my drift.
Several years ago Denver Catholic Archbishop J. Francis Stafford posed some poignant questions. He asked, “How does one evaluate a society in which 40% of marriages end in divorce, in which millions of innocents die in abortions, in which hundreds of thousands are born out of wedlock, and in which every imaginable ‘lifestyle’ is culturally affirmed…no matter what its moral, psychological, or social consequences? How shall we read the moral temperature of a society and culture in which the abuse of drugs and alcohol testifies to a pervasive loneliness and informality, and in which permanence of commitment often takes a back seat to the next available thrill.”
Eighteenth Century poet Alexander Pope, I think, has described in a few lines what we have become as a culture today, when he writes:
“Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
As to be hated needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.”
Is this not what we have done? And all the while, were we not doing it in the name of “freedom?” Were we not doing it in the name of “rights?”
The Bible, however, speaks of freedom differently. The former freedom insists on unhitching itself from its ethical rootage.
But in a dialogue recorded in John chapter 8, Jesus said to the leaders of his day, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples, then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” And just as so many leaders of our own day would resist that definition of freedom, the leaders of Jesus’ day erroneously resisted it too, saying that’s not our heritage. We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we will be set free? And Jesus added, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” Later in that same chapter, Jesus said in so many words, Abraham knew what I’m talking about, while you, the leaders of this nation who should know don’t.
May I suggest to you that, generally speaking, the Founders of our great nation also embraced Christ’s definition of freedom, while we have almost completely abandoned it. Freedom results from willingly submitting to the authority of Almighty God. The truth that sets us free is the truth of the living Word, Jesus Christ, and the written Word, the Bible, both from which we discover God’s high purpose for moving, living, and breathing on his planet.
The rights to which our Founders and early American patriots appealed did not rest on laws created by human governments. They were based on the theory of natural law. Natural law refers to rights inherent by human nature and endowed by God. The great English legal mind of that time, William Blackstone, said, “This law of nature…dictated by God himself, is, of course, superior in obligation to any other…No human laws are of any validity if contrary to this…”
These “rights” became the basis of American constitutional government, and the evidence to this end is voluminous.
But this is no longer generally believed. Rights today are often referenced as human rights, which must be given equally to everyone without a religious premise or reference to God.
Deborah Orr put it this way in an article in The Guardian: “For many, these days, religious belief is seen as one of the greatest bars to the spread of human rights…For human rights to flourish, religious rights have to come second to them…People need to answer on Earth to our fellow humans. We can square things with our God, if we have one, when and if that day arrives. Compliments of the season, whatever that means to you.”
There is a serious problem, however, with this approach. If the way we define rights excludes Judeo-Christian tradition, if we in this country continue ruling this out as the basis for our determination of a morally ordered society and replace it with a secular humanism – values and rights determined by whatever broken and sinful human reasoning concludes, then we are apt, more often than not, to get it morally wrong.
Furthermore, there is no higher authority other than our own characteristically piggish ways to which we may appeal. And despite any claim to the contrary, such rights are not inalienable – because they may shift and change with the winds of the times – with the opinions of men. “The result, quite literally,” said Richard John Neuhaus, “is the outlawing of the basis of the law.”
Let me add to that; it also means a recipe for the worst of injustices and the end of real liberty. It means a Prodigal nation denying its birthright for a mess of pods that swine eat.
We are already, more so than even most Christians realize, swiftly moving down this course with each passing day. So swiftly and so profoundly is this trajectory downward that I sometimes despair as to whether we will ever make it back home to the Father. While I still have not given up on my country, bringing our state and nation back to biblical values may not prove possible. Nevertheless, one thing I do know, each of us here, who claims to know the resurrected Christ, must be willing, in a day when we have become the minority, to bravely welcoming the unpopularity and sacrifice that comes with a true profession of faith. Each one must commit himself/herself to seize every opportunity to bring true freedom and hope to the countless casualties of a false freedom with no God and with no recognition of the limits he has set for our peace, protection, and prosperity. We must commit our lives afresh, anew, or perhaps even for the very first time, to standing for hope on a dead-end street called freedom.
Rev. Creech was asked to pray for our state and national leaders and lead in the following prayer:
Gracious Lord, whose kingdom is everlasting and power infinite; Have mercy upon our whole land, and so rule the hearts of those who serve our state and nation.
We pray for our President, Donald Trump and our Governor, Roy Cooper, and all others in authority, that they may above all things seek your honor and glory; and that we present here and all the People, may duly consider their authority over us, and faithfully and obediently honor them, according to the instructions of your Holy Word.
We pray that you will guide them and grant to them special gifts of wisdom and understanding, of counsel and strength; that upholding what is right and following what is true might be established.
Lead them and each of us in the ways of justice and peace; inspire us to break down all tyranny and oppression, to gain for every man his due reward, and from every man his due service; that each may live for all and all may care for each, through Jesus Christ our Lord we pray.