Last Friday a group of friars attended the rally outside of HHS headquarters here in Washington to protest in favor of religious freedom. There were speakers and prayers, bloggers and journalists, members of the media, religious, priests, and just ordinary people.
For those of us at the rally it was clear what an injustice it is that churches and the hospitals, universities, schools, social services agencies, and publishers they operate will be forced to buy contraceptive and abortifacient drugs for their employees and students. For supporters of the contraceptive mandate it is just as clear that the ability to postpone or completely avoid pregnancy is so obviously fundamental to women’s rights that all employers should provide it for their employees.
Rallies and slogans do allow for a show of unity. They express to government officials and media that some people are serious about certain issues or truths. The trouble is, though, that the rapid exchange of slogans is unconvincing. We interpret short, context-less statements based on our own presuppositions. This is good for energizing crowds and showing strength, but it is not a means of sharing the truth.
Jesus faced just such a sound-bite opposition in his trial before the Sanhedrin. Mark reports:
Many gave false witness against him, but their testimony did not agree. Some took the stand and testified falsely against him, alleging, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with hands and within three days I will build another not made with hands.’” Even so their testimony did not agree. (Mark 14:56–59)
Just like posters, slogans, and bumper-sticker arguments, the testimony against Jesus relies on triggering existing assumptions rather than rational argument. Look at the main accusation: “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with hands and within three days I will build another not made with hands.’” Every Christian knows that this saying refers to Jesus’ death and resurrection, but taken out of context by men looking for a revolutionary to put to death it can be twisted.
Before he faced the Sanhedrin, St. John reports that Annas, the deposed high priest and father-in-law of Caiaphas the reigning high priest, questioned Jesus about his teachings. Christ’s answer is telling: “I have spoken publicly to the world. I have always taught in a synagogue or in the temple area where all the Jews gather, and in secret I have said nothing. Why ask me? Ask those who heard me what I said to them. They know what I said” (John 18:20–21).
The Gospels show that Jesus carefully revealed himself over the course of his ministry. He taught publicly. Remember what he said when they arrested him: “Day after day I was with you teaching in the temple area, yet you did not arrest me; but that the scriptures may be fulfilled” (Mark 14:49). The chief priests could have heard Jesus teaching, but they already had an agenda. Caiaphas had given the unwittingly prophetic advice that one man should die for the sake of the people (John 18:14).
Christ’s refusal to defend himself helped to bring about the divine plan. Catholics and indeed people of all religions are right to rally for religious freedom. But it is important to remember that the Gospel isn’t spread by pithy retorts. Our short-term outcry cannot replace the long-term efforts of preaching.
The Gospel radically challenges our assumptions. As we see in the Gospel, the chief priests were not ready to let go of their assumptions, and neither are our many of our contemporaries. If we want to lead all mankind to Christ and the ultimate freedom that comes from God, we need to make the slow case and challenge the assumptions that underlie those things we protest.
Image: Michael F. Kolendowicz, Jr., Self-Portrait as Christ Before the Sanhedrin