America and Its False Gods
Sunday September 16, 2001 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Twenty-fourth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I (Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14) Reading II (1 Timothy 1:12-17)
Gospel (St. Luke 15:1-32)
Over this past week, the people of our country have experienced many tragic and saddening things. The vast majority of Americans have watched, over and over again (as they saw on videotape and even many saw live), these terrorist attacks that took place in New York. We know that, initially, there is the shock, then there is the disillusionment, and then there sets in rage. Right now, America is described as having a "quiet rage" that is growing within as we look at the enemy and we try to determine whom it is. We have declared that there is war, but we do not know whom the war is against. We know that there is an international effort, now, to try to deal with international terrorism. We can point our finger at all these awful things; and yet, I think we need to look, now, a little bit deeper. Having the initial shock over, we need to ask ourselves, "Why?"
Many people have been doing that. "Why would God allow something so horrible to happen? After all," we say, "these are innocent people. They were civilians; they were family people; they were mothers and fathers; they were good people." But I think that we need to recognize that the enemy is within, it is not without. There is no doubt, indeed, that there is an enemy on the outside. We can look at the fact that the FBI has a list of twenty-five organizations that they consider to be international terrorist organizations. We can say that, yes, there are countries that are providing safe haven for these people who are doing these heinous things. But we need to look a little beyond it and ask why. Why does God allow these kinds of people? Why does He allow these awful things to happen? Why do these things occur?
I think if we look upon this, we need to look back to ancient Israel. We need to see, first of all, that God used the people of Israel to try to deal with people who had gone astray completely. When they came into the land of Canaan, God told them that they were to destroy the people who lived there. Most of us think it sounds a little odd that God would actually order the destruction of peoples. The Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, the Jebusites, the Girgashites, and the list goes on - all those people who lived in the land, they were to destroy them. They were to show no mercy. They were not to make a pact with them, no covenant, no agreements - they were to be destroyed.
The reason is that God said their sin had become so horrible that they could no longer be tolerated. "If you make any kind of an agreement with them," the Lord said, "what is going to happen is that you will fall into their sins. You will begin worshiping the false gods and you will do what they do." And we know the history. We can look, for instance, at the first reading today and we hear about the golden calf. It is not part of today's reading, but we know that when Moses asked Aaron, "How could you do this?" Aaron said, "Well, I do not know exactly how it happened. I collected all the gold, I threw it in the fire, and this is what came out."
I think we need to look at ourselves and say, "We did not throw the gold into the fire; we threw ourselves into the fire - and this is what came out." What has come out in America is a string of false gods that we worship on a regular basis, but they do not have names like the false gods the Israelites worshiped. We all know about the golden calf and we all know about Baal. But the Israelites also worshiped Asherah, Milcom, Chemosh, Molech, and so on. The list could go on. We need to recognize what some of these false gods required. Molech required the sacrifice of children. Some of them required fornication; others required various other forms of sexual practices. Some required burning of incense; some required bowing down - all these different things. And the people did them.
When we remember the reason God allowed the Babylonians to destroy Israel and bring the Israelite people into the exile, it was because they sacrificed their babies to Molech. Right outside of Jerusalem, in the Hinnom Valley, a place that the Lord calls "Gehenna", was the place where the people sacrificed their babies to a demon.
Now, if we look at what happened in New York - and not trying to suggest in any way that the things that happened there are at all, on the human level, acceptable or permissible or justified, but trying to look at this from another perspective - I find it rather interesting that the country is in mourning. We are flying our flags at half-mast. We are outraged because the same number of people died at the World Trade Center Towers as we kill every day in the womb in this country. Nobody seems to be outraged about that.
But isn't it interesting that in the two buildings, where 50,000 people work, that only about 5,000 died in such a hideous attack? That, by itself, is quite miraculous if you think about God's mercy. But also, in God's Providence, approximately the same number of people died in this one day as die every day in this country by an even more heinous attack. And so we have people who are outraged at a terrorist attack against innocent civilians; yet, yesterday in Highland Park, in Robbinsdale, and in many other places in the Twin Cities and throughout this country, babies were killed routinely in what could truly be called the worst of the terrorist attacks: the most innocent of human beings and the most heinous of crimes. But we do not mourn for our little baby dead. We do not fly the flag at half-mast for them. We are not outraged about that.
When we look at the history of Israel and the history of the way God works with His people, we need to be able to see the correlation: that this did not happen out of the blue; that this did not happen because we were such innocent, God-fearing, and good, loving people. This happened because this country has sold itself out to false gods. Pure and simple. We can look around today and see Masonism and Communism all over the place. We see Neo-paganism and we have the New Age movement going on. Those are the religious elements of it.
But think about the various things that we have gotten into. Ask yourself, "What happened to the people of Israel? Why did Solomon, for instance, go down?" It was because of greed, the multiplication of money. It was because of adultery and his 900 wives. And it was because of a lust for power in the multiplication of horses and chariots.
Look at America and ask yourself, "What about greed? Have we seen any of that in our society? How about lust, fornication, adultery, pornography? " Maybe we do not have 900 wives, but we do not seem to have a problem with serial adultery. That is, just get a divorce and get remarried. You can do that as many times as you want in this country. You just cannot have two at once, but you can have as many as you want as long as it is just one at a time. What about homosexuality? Not only is our society no longer condemning it, but it endorses it. And then there is the lust for power. We can look at contraception, euthanasia, abortion, cloning, embryonic stem cell research. The list can go on. Can we suggest that we are an innocent God-fearing country who has been doing what is right and we do not understand why something so hideous could happen in our society? I would suggest not. And while we do, indeed, need to look at the enemy from without, we need especially to look at the enemy from within.
When we look at today's Gospel reading, we can apply it again to what has been happening in our country in the last couple of days. We see the Prodigal Son coming home after he has wasted himself on dissolute living. This country has wasted itself on dissolute living. But we see many, many people who are being truly heroic in their charity this week: People standing in line for six or eight hours in order to give blood, in order to lend a helping hand; heroic people walking into the midst of these buildings that have been destroyed, knowing that they could fall on top of them at any moment, but doing that in order to try to save anybody who may still be alive.
As a side note: I find it interesting also, hearing the truly sickening description of what it looks like on the inside. Once again, we cannot help but stop to think that what these people are describing of the carnage inside of these buildings is exactly what happens inside an abortion mill. Body parts literally torn, one from another, lying all over the place. Exactly the same thing that happens to little babies.
But when we look at the heroism of these people and the charity that so many are offering and the prayer of so many people coming to the Lord, we can see the Prodigal Son in the number of people who have realized that they had gone astray. Someone told me the other day that there was a radio station host who said that he was very happily surprised by the number of emails that he has received from young people who said things like: "I was an MTV teenager and now I realize that the way I was living was completely wrong. When I see that life can be snuffed out in a moment, I realize that I need to change my ways and I need to look at my priorities." He (the radio host) said, "I received hundreds of these." He was surprised because he had not asked anybody. He had not said, "If you are out there and have changed your life, please write me." These are just young people who are writing on their own. So we see that there are lots of prodigal children who are coming back to the Lord.
But we need, now, to look at the next step and ask ourselves, "How many, because of this situation, are at least turning to the Lord in prayer, to pray for the victims, to pray for their families; but are doing absolutely nothing to change their own lives?" They will continue with their greed and with their lust for power, with their fornication and with their adultery, with contraception and with abortion. We might be outraged about what happened in New York and Washington. We might be afraid that there is more to come, and I can guarantee you that if this country does not change its ways and truly turn to God and repent, there will be more - and it will be worse.
God, in His mercy, always gives warnings before He wipes things out entirely. We have not heeded the warnings that God has given us over and over and over and over again in the last 50 years. Now, it is being stepped up. If you look at Scripture once again, every time when the people refused to recognize God's calling in the midst of their sinfulness, it only gets worse. In this country it will do the same, unless we repent.
It is not enough just to try to pray for the victims. It is not even Christian to look for revenge. It is not enough to try to retaliate and say, "We need to do something about international terrorism," because we can look at many other things that have been going on for years. Look at the natural disasters that have happened. Look at the weather patterns. Seven of the ten worst natural disasters in human history have occurred within the last 20 years. The number of tornadoes in the middle part of the country was less than 500, thirty years ago. It was more than 1,500 a year ago. Look at the people who are being killed in weather-related things. And the bizarre things that are going on that are unexplainable by science, things that we have never even seen before that are out of our control.
Yet, we ignore them. We just blow them off like it is no big deal. Now, we watch as an airplane goes into a building filled with civilian people, good people, and we are outraged by it, understandably and rightly so. But we need to look beyond that to what is underlying, to the spiritual ailment in the individuals and in the collective whole of this society and we need to repent. It is not enough just to be outraged. It is a good thing, but it is not enough merely to pray for the victims and their families; it requires a change of heart. It requires a change in the way that we are living in this country. And it requires that the turning to God to pray must not only be in the face of a horrible disaster, but it must be a daily thing. And it must result in the fruit of a change of heart and a change in the way that we live our lives.
God is trying to call to us. He is trying to make a point. Are we listening? Saint Augustine, in his Confessions, says that when he was deaf, God shouted and broke through the deafness; and He flashed and He shone to break through the blindness. When one is hard of hearing, a whisper does not do. When one has difficulty with sight, something that is tiny or vague is not going to be clear - it must be made obvious. God has been calling for many years and those who are willfully blind and willfully deaf have not seen or heard. Now, He is getting very obvious in what He is allowing.
And it is not anybody else's fault - it is the fruit of our own choices. This is the flowering of what it is that we have planted in this society. Are we willing to listen? Are we willing to see? Are we going to be like those that Isaiah spoke of: "They have eyes, but they do not see; they have ears, but they do not hear." We have a choice to make. People do not like change. We have chosen to worship the gods of selfishness, of pleasure, and of comfort. We need to learn from Moses: In the first reading when God said, "I will wipe out these people and I will make of you a great nation," Moses said, "No." He rejected any kind of selfishness, any kind of self-aggrandizement, and he humbled himself for the sake of others.
God has sent His mother repeatedly to ask for prayer and for penance. All that we have done is had more amusement, more pleasure, more sin, more selfishness. We have heaped sin upon sin in our society. We are now beginning to see the pangs of labor as we are going to give birth to the hideous form that we have conceived in this society. We have a choice. Are we going to continue with sin, or are we going to change? God is sending a message and it is very clear. If we are like the Prodigal Son, God will welcome us with open arms; but if we refuse, then we will long to fill our belly with the husks used to feed the pigs. We have a choice. God's call has not changed. It is still loud and it is still clear, screaming in our deafness and shining in our blindness: Repent and believe the Good News.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.