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What is the worst ad campaign you’ve ever seen? When I was a boy, I was told about the Chevy Nova, then the best-selling car in America. The story goes that no one bought it in Mexico. Why not? Well, in Latin, “Nova” means “new.” In Spanish, however, “No va” means “doesn’t go.” Apparently, someone didn’t do his homework.
What is the worst ad campaign you’ve ever seen for the faith? When I was a new priest, I found a glossy campus ministry brochure addressed to incoming freshmen. It read, “Liturgy is ‘IN.’ Worship has no social cost!” (Can you imagine the disdain that such words would have stirred up in? In other words, going to Mass is what all the cool kids are doing this year! “Come join our Catholic hobby!” doesn’t seem to be a compelling rallying cry, does it?
In contrast, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was murdered by the Nazis, wrote in his haunting book, The Cost of Discipleship, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die.” How might many self-identified Christians respond to that bold and shocking statement? I think they might protest with words like these, “Why would Christ ask us to come and die? Doesn’t He know how busy we are? Doesn’t He know how important we are? We are doing vast and urgent things! Doesn’t He know that we are busy advocating for social justice, reproductive freedom, racial equality, gender equality, inclusion, diversity, tolerance and dialogue? Doesn’t He know that we are busy fighting against racism, sexism, ageism, speciesism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and Islamophobia? Doesn’t He know that we are busy raising awareness about safer sex, climate change, renewable energy, ethanol, recycling, sustainability and income inequality? Doesn’t He know that we are busy apologizing for the Crusades, Galileo, the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, the Middle Ages and the Dark Ages? Doesn’t He know that we are busy going to meetings at the United Nations? And now I hear that Fidel Castro is receiving visitors again, and there is ever so much wealth to redistribute, so, really, we simply must—graciously—decline Christ’s invitation to ‘come and die.’” I think many self-identified Christians might say that, or something like it. They seem to suggest as much by their behavior.
But I want to return again to the question, “Why would Christ bid us to come and die?” There can be only one reason. It is because Christ knows—and apparently He knows better than many Christians—that there is something so wrong with our world, something so wrong with fallen human nature, something so wrong with us, with you and me, that the only way out of the mess is to die our way out of it. The only human effort that can contribute to the betterment of the human condition, in this life and in the next, is to go to Calvary with Christ, to break the grip of Satan by means of a crucifying sacrifice, and to rise with Christ so that we might become a new creation.
In other words, Christ’s call to us to come and die is a perfect act of mercy. It is our only hope for human dignity in this life and eternal happiness in the next. Accepting Christ’s call to come and die, accepting the baptism which He undergoes, accepting the chalice which He must drink (Mark 10:38) is the only sane choice. All other paths, all other options, all other efforts, apart from union with Christ in His Cross and Resurrection constitute a blind and futile madness.
It is inevitable that Christ calls us to die to ourselves, die to our old way of thinking, feeling and acting. Bonhoeffer notes: “In fact every command of Jesus is a call to die, with all our affections and lusts. But we do not want to die, and therefore Jesus Christ and his call are necessarily our death as well as our life. The call to discipleship, the baptism in the name of Jesus Christ means both death and life.” Christ intends for us to die to sin and rise to life in Him.
So many in this world, alas, simply want Christians silent, afraid, or dead. To die to sin and rise with Christ (whether our blood is shed by enemies or not) is more and more coming to mean, even in the “tolerant” West, dying to our fear of persecution and rising to the defense of truth Who is Christ, rising to the defense of the Virgin Bride of Christ, the Church. Knowing human history, human nature and my own weakness, I suspect that we in our time do not love well enough Jesus Christ Who is “the Way, the Truth and the Life.” (John 14:6) Our lack of love may cause us to cower in the shadows, where our persecutors will eventually find us and have their way with us.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who suffered for years in the Soviet gulag, spoke with bitter eloquence of the consequences of lack of love for truth, leading to lack of courage, and thus to the emboldening of systematic and arrogant evil:
Let your credo be this: Let the lie come into the world, let it even triumph. But not through me…The simple step of a courageous individual is not to take part in the lie. One word of truth outweighs the world… In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousand fold in the future. When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from beneath new generations…
As the persecution of Christians in the West, led by both secular and sectarian sources, becomes more comprehensive and aggressive, we must be shaken to our roots by Our Blessed Lord’s searing question: “When the Son of Man comes, will He find any faith on Earth?” (Luke 18:8) The Son of God found scarcely any welcome the first time He came to Earth—who shall welcome Him as their Lord when He comes again in glory?
The fantasy with which we soothe ourselves tells us that at the moment of crisis, at the moment of greatest need, we will rise up, bear bold witness to Christ, and inexplicably become exemplars of supernatural heroism. But that is as likely as a “couch potato” running a marathon the first day that he buys a pair of running shoes. Honest people who train hard and train realistically (true athletes, musicians, pilots, soldiers) know that people don’t rise to the occasion, they fall to the level of their training. If we ourselves have so far lived our Christian discipleship without cost, without effort, without sacrifice, without discipline, without the Cross, then we will most likely betray Christ the first time that discipleship becomes difficult.
The preparation for fidelity to Christ during times of trial, persecution, even martyrdom, must begin today and continue daily. Soon, perhaps very soon, the comfortable and costless form of Christian discipleship so long common to the West will end. So many have already drifted from Christ—how many will run from Christ, hoping to save themselves? We commend all (including ourselves) to God’s mercy. But today, we have a debt to pay to the saints of the past, the martyrs of the present, and the souls of the future—we owe it to them all to live lives of sacrificial discipline starting right now. To show gratitude to forebears who secured the Faith for us, to honor Christian blood now being shed, to secure the twin torches of Faith and Reason for the next generation, we must be so faithful today that we can be faithful again tomorrow.
History will judge us, our posterity will bless or curse us, and Heaven is watching.
When I write next week, I will speak of martyrs of the present and future. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.
. is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry, and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, FL, and is known for his classes in both Rhetoric and in Medical Ethics.