Bumper Sticker Wisdom
by Rev. Jerry Pokorsky
Reprinted by permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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Mark wrote to explain Christ
to the new Gentile converts.
When Jesus returned to Capernaum after some days, it became known that he was at home. Many gathered together so that there was no longer room for them, not even around the door, and he preached the word to them. They came bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. Unable to get near Jesus because of the crowd, they opened up the roof above him. After they had broken through, they let down the mat on which the paralytic was lying. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Child, your sins are forgiven." Now some of the scribes were sitting there asking themselves, "Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming. Who but God alone can forgive sins?" Jesus immediately knew in his mind what they were thinking to themselves, so he said, "Why are you thinking such things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Rise, pick up your mat and walk? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth" - he said to the paralytic, "I say to you , rise, pick up your mat, and go home." He rose, picked up his mat at once, and went away in the sight of everyone. They were all astounded and glorified God, saying, "We have never seen anything like this."
Bumper stickers often are encoded with a message for purposes of advocacy, "consciousness-raising" or mere humor. The phrase, "We Vote Pro-Life" is easy to decipher. Familiarity with television commercials is necessary to crack the code of humor on a bumper sticker that reads: "Energizer Bunny Arrested; Charged With Battery."
Breaking the code of some bumper stickers can be more difficult. For example, what was really behind the once fairly common "Visualize World Peace?" has been displaced by "COEXIST," a montage of symbols - Islamic crescent, Christian cross, 1960s peace sign and other symbols only the well-read might recognize. Again, who would object to the appeal for coexistence? Most of us, after all, are inclined to "live and let live."
As Christians we recognize Christ as the "Prince of Peace." But the Gospels rarely depict peaceful scenes. From the confrontation with the Pharisees to the Crucifixion itself, Christ appears to be more on the losing side than the winning side. The Gospels document very few conversions and even those appear to be short-lived. After the miraculous multiplication of the loaves the crowds press on Christ until He reveals that He is the "Bread of Life." But they quickly abandon Him when He insists, "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you." (Jn 6:53) The public ministry of Christ comes to an end with the crowds screaming, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" Apparently not many were willing to "Give Peace a Chance."
But if peace is defined merely as the "absence of war" or the "absence of strife," such peace can be found without Christ. When Christ exorcised the two demoniacs in the country of the Gadarenes, the demons begged to be tossed into the swine: "And he said to them,'Go,' So they came out and went into the swine; and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and perished in the waters." (Mt 8:32) The swineherds were at peace with the fact of demoniacs living among them. It was an acceptable price of their livelihood. They had made peace with the devil and were not pleased with the unsettling ministry of Christ. Hence they begged the Prince of Peace to depart from their midst. (Mt 8:34)
Perhaps the problem with "Visualize World Peace" and "COEXIST" is the assumption that definitive peace is possible with radically conflicting opinions. For example, pro-life Americans and pro-abortion Americans might be encouraged to live without argument in the same neighborhood. This is possible and, up to a point, desirable. But in the end, the neighborhood peace may be only a distraction while the violence of abortion continues to take its toll in silence and secrecy. If world peace is to be envisioned, why exclude peace in the womb?
On the other hand, perhaps the peace desired is lockstep secular uniformity according to a particular ideology. At best, this is the peace of what has become known as "political correctness" under which dissenting opinions are isolated, demonized and forbidden. At worst, it is the peace of a police state. It is likely the peace we may be visualizing might be summed up in another phrase chanted by exuberant crowds: "Sieg Heil!" Fits nicely on a bumper sticker as well.
But if the quest for peace included a desire to minimize human suffering, it is a noble pursuit. Our faith teaches us that human suffering is the outward sign of original sin and our personal sins. Hence, the drama between good and evil within individual souls is inextricably linked to human suffering. Sometimes the link is obvious (as in the consequences of uncontrolled appetites related to food, drink or sexuality). Sometimes the link is not as obvious (as in the innocent suffering of children as well as Christ on the cross).
In this week's Gospel, because the faith of the paralytic and his companions was already strong, Christ immediately strikes at the heart of all discord: "When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, 'Child, your sins are forgiven." (Mk 2:5) But the peace was not instantaneous. If the faithful paralytic rejoiced in the forgiveness of his sins, the same could not be said of the scribes. "He is blaspheming. Who but God alone can forgive sins?" Hence it was necessary for Christ to demonstrate His divine authority by healing the physical paralysis. The passage concludes with everyone, if only for the moment, marveling in peace.
If world peace is elusive, it is because our collective response to the grace of Christ is either absent or too fleeting or too marginalized. In truth, it is very difficult - nay, impossible - to "visualize world peace" and "coexist" without reference to Christ and the forgiveness of sins. The message is simple and might even fit on a bumper: Faith in Christ is the true gateway to world peace. No Christ, no peace. More positively: Know Christ. Know peace.
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