The gospel for the 26th Sunday in Cycle B is about the strange or alien exorcist whom the disciples try to hinder because he was not, they said, part of 'us'. Scripture scholar, John Donahue S.J., in his commentary on Mark, notes; " The episode of the ' strange exorcist' is remarkable for the attitude of tolerance it counsels toward those who are outside the circle of Jesus.' Whoever is not against us is for us'. It is ironic that this advice appears shortly after another account of the disciples' own personal failure to cast out a demon in Mark 9:14-29. Read in the context of a gospel written for a small Christian community facing persecution, this instruction would have encouraged a postiive attitude toward adherents of other religions while reinforcing the absolute centrality of ' the name of Christ' ( in the passage about giving a cup of water in the name of Christ to little ones) in salvation. It would also serve as a critique of exaggerated Christian exclusiveness."
The passage set me thinking about the proliferating rhetoric in society and church exasperating an us versus them mentality. Too many of us only read blogs or journals which support one side of the arguments about economics and politics in our society. Similar closure to the other and its arguments is no less apparent in the church. Sometimes, as I read the screeds in certain Catholic blogs, both left and right ( and truth be told as I read some of the exaggerated or inflated claims and comments of some of our American bishops!), I sometimes think we especially now need to hear Mark 9:39-48 about the invitation to see that those who are not against us are for us. I was simply flabbergasted when the Archbishop of Newark on Sept. 25th told Catholics who supported a civil form of gay marriage that they should forgo receiving communion. He was even quoted on NPR as saying that either you are wiith us or you are not.
I do not assume that all those who oppose gay marriage are homophobic. They, I assume, presume that allowing the title marriage to be granted--note civilly ( There is no question of a sacramental marriage in the church except between a man and a woman)--somehow denigrates marriage or threatens heterosexual marriage ( but we need sociological evidence to back up any such, essentially empirical, claim!). Nor do I assume that a Catholic who supports civil gay marriages necessarily is dissenting from church teaching that Catholics, outside of marriage, should remain chaste. But more than Catholics are involved in approving gay marriages civilly. A Catholic who votes in favor of gay marriage is not counter-acting any clear church teaching about civil marriages ( is there such a thing?). Clear church teaching is that a sacramental marriage is between a man and a woman. There is no clear church teaching about what constitutes a civil marriage. The church opposes divorce but does not counter civil laws which allow divorce and also allow divorced people to re-marry ( the church does not allow divorced Catholics to remarry if their first marriage was a valid sacrament). Similarly, the church opposes contraceeption for Catholics but does not oppose civil laws which allow their sale and use more widely in society. To do so would violate others' religious liberty. Also, as Thomas Aquinas once argued, civil law need not ensrhine in law every virtue or punish every vice ( this would make for an overly intrusive government).
I actually tend to be in favor of civil gay marriage. The term, marriage, has a long history of secular meaning and resonances the way the term, civil unions, does not. It carries overtones of fidelity, mutual support and sustenance and monogamy. Whether the state should recognize civil marriage for gays and lesbians is not, it seems to me, a matter of clear church teaching, as such. Bishops and others can oppose civil gay marriage, to be sure. But to claim that to disagree with their, at best, ' prudential' reading of what is best in a pluralistic socciety is tantamount to denying ' authentic church teaching' strikes me as a little bizarre.
I actually had occastion, recently, to talk to a retired archbishop about Archbishop John Myers' letter. The archbishop said he thought Myers had better consult a canon laywer before he starts telling people to refrain from receiving communion because of their support for civil gay marriage. In some ways, Myers' comment tends to feed into that noxious us versus them mentality. He, even, somewhat unfelicitously, likened or compared allowing gay marriages to allowing incestuous marriages for tax purposes. Somehow, I prefer the bishop of Duluth who, when it was discovered that one of his priests gave $1,000 to support marriage equality, did not take any punitive action, although the bishop, himself, opposes a Minnesota bill that might allow gay marriages. The data from Pew polls shows that 53% of Catholics support gay marriage. This number rises to 72% among those aged 18-34.
I was reminded of a scene from Star Wars: Episode Three: Revenge of the Sith where Obi Wan Kenobi is sent by Yoda to contront and destroy Anakin Skywalker who has betrayed his comrades. Obi-Wan-Kenobi hopes, however, that he might be able to evoke some genuine reprentance from Anakin. Instead, the fallen traitor Anakin boasts that he had restored peace to the Empire. Obi-Wan reminds him that, for a Jedi, the primary allegiace was to the Republic. Anakin then blurts out: " You are either with me or my enemy". This is a clear and unmistakable sign to Obi-Wan-Kenobi that his former friend is, indeed, irretrievably lost. He retorts: ""Only s Sith Lord deals in such absolutes!"
Maybe I am unique in feeling that there has been a decided and unhealthy uptick in us versus them language among our Catholic population and episcopacy. Now, to be sure, we need not nor can not be simply relativistic. But compromise in a pluralistic society does not necessarily mean relativism. We have a right to plead our own vision of a pluralist society, even on the question of opposing gay marriage, if we believe it would somehow denigrate or undermine heterosexual marriage. But I find it distressing, as the church begins its Year of Faith to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Vatican II which did so much to encourage ecumenissm and inter-religious dialogue ( looking for connections and not just where we differ) and counseled us to work for the common good of society, even with unbelievers, in its document, The Church in the Modern World, that so much rhetoric in the church is tilting much more now toward an us versus them mentality.
Again, to cite John Donahue S.J., commenting on Mark 9:38-48. The good news " is that those who do Jesus' work without formally being his followers are ' for him' and those who have given evven a cup of water to those who ' belong to Christ' will be rewarded ( even if they remain unbelievers). Jesus' words are a challenge to read the signs of the times and to discern those who are confronting the power of evil in in our world and so are ' for us'". Jesus eschewed an overly strong Us versus them rhetoric.