Some of you may know the short story, “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. If you don’t, I need to spoil the ending to make my point. But I promise the story will still be worth reading.
“The Lottery” is set on a summer day in a small town in 1940s America. The people are assembling for a very old annual ritual. The ritual has something to do with imploring a good corn harvest -- but there’s no mention of any God, and no clergy anywhere in the picture.
Each person in the village lines up to draw a slip of paper from an old wooden box. Tessie Hutchinson, a young wife and mother, draws a slip with a black mark.
From that moment, the story moves quickly to its conclusion. The lottery official gives the word, and the villagers move in on Tessie. And they stone her to death.
“The Lottery” is one of the most widely read stories ever published in my country. And for good reason. It’s well told. The ending leaves you breathless. Teachers like it because it provokes sharp classroom discussions.
Or at least it used to.
A few years ago, a college writing professor, Kay Haugaard, wrote an essay about her experiences teaching “The Lottery” over a period of about two decades.
She said that in the early 1970s, students who read the story voiced shock and indignation. The tale led to vivid conversations on big topics -- the meaning of sacrifice and tradition; the dangers of group-think and blind allegiance to leaders; the demands of conscience and the consequences of cowardice.
Sometime in the mid-1990s, however, reactions began to change.
Haugaard described one classroom discussion that -- to me -- was more disturbing than the story itself. The students had nothing to say except that the story bored them. So Haugaard asked them what they thought about the villagers ritually sacrificing one of their own for the sake of the harvest.
One student, speaking in quite rational tones, argued that many cultures have traditions of human sacrifice. Another said that the stoning might have been part of “a religion of long standing,” and therefore acceptable and understandable.
An older student who worked as a nurse, also weighed in. She said that her hospital had made her take training in multicultural sensitivity. The lesson she learned was this: “If it’s a part of a person’s culture, we are taught not to judge.”
I thought of Haugaard’s experience with “The Lottery” as I got ready for this brief talk. Here’s where my thinking led me:
Our culture is doing catechesis every day. It works like water dripping on a stone, eroding people’s moral and religious sensibilities, and leaving a hole where their convictions used to be.
Haugaard’s experience teaches us that it took less than a generation for this catechesis to produce a group of young adults who were unable to take a moral stand against the ritual murder of a young woman. Not because they were cowards. But because they lost their moral vocabulary.
Haugaard’s students seemingly grew up in a culture shaped by practical atheism and moral relativism. In other words, they grew up in an environment that teaches, in many different ways, that God is irrelevant, and that good and evil, right and wrong, truth and falsehood can’t exist in any absolute sense.
This is the culture we live in, and the catechesis is on-going. But I don’t think this new kind of barbarism – because that’s what it is; a form of barbarism -- is an inevitable process.
It’s not easy to de-moralize and strip a society of its religious sense. Accomplishing the task requires two key factors: First, it takes the aggressive, organized efforts of individuals and groups committed to undermining faith and historic Christian values. Second, it takes the indifference of persons like you and me, Christian believers.
I want to focus on the second factor, because it involves us.
Christians in my country and yours -- and throughout the West, generally -- have done a terrible job of transmitting our faith to our own children and to the culture at large.
Evidence can be found anecdotally in stories like Kay Haugaard’s. We can also see it in polls showing that religious identity and affiliation are softening. More people are claiming that they’re “spiritual,” but they have no religion.
Religion is fading as a formative influence in developed countries. Religious faith is declining in Western culture, especially among Canadian and American young people. This suggests that the Church is actually much smaller than her official numbers would indicate. And this, in turn, has implications for the future of Catholic life and the direction of our societies.
What’s happening today in the Church is not a “new” story. We find it repeated throughout the Old Testament. It took very little time for the Hebrews to start worshipping a golden calf. Whenever the people of God grew too prosperous or comfortable, they forgot where they came from. They forgot their God, because they no longer thought it was important to teach about him.
Because they failed to catechize, they failed to inoculate themselves against the idolatries in their surrounding cultures. And eventually, they began praying to the same alien gods as the pagans among whom they lived.
We have the same struggles today. Instead of changing the culture around us, we Christians have allowed ourselves to be changed by the culture. We’ve compromised too cheaply. We’ve hungered after assimilating and fitting in. And in the process, we’ve been bleached out and absorbed by the culture we were sent to make holy.
If our people no longer know their faith, or its obligations of discipleship, or its call to mission -- then we leaders, clergy, parents and teachers have no one to blame but ourselves. We need to confess that, and we need to fix it. For too many of us, Christianity is not a filial relationship with the living God, but a habit and an inheritance. We’ve become tepid in our beliefs and naive about the world. We’ve lost our evangelical zeal. And we’ve failed in passing on our faith to the next generation.
The practical unbelief we now face in our societies is, in large measure, the fruit of our own flawed choices in teaching, parenting, religious practice and personal witness. But these choices can be unmade. We can repent. We can renew what our vanity and indifference have diminished. It’s still possible to “redeem the time,” as St. Paul once put it. But we don’t have a lot of time. Nor should we make alibis for mistakes of the past.
Sixty years ago, when Shirley Jackson wrote “The Lottery,” she could count on her readers knowing what right and wrong were. She lived in a culture that reflected a broadly Christian consensus about virtue and moral integrity. That’s no longer the case.
The culture we live in today proselytizes for a very different consensus -- one based on political and moral agendas vigorously hostile to Christian beliefs.
A recent article in the New York Times went directly to this point. It was about a new ad campaign launched by supporters of homosexual “marriage” in New York. The campaign features politicians and Hollywood celebrities making a series of reasonable-sounding arguments.
One example is from the actress, Julianne Moore. Her ad begins, “Hi, I’m Julianne Moore, and I’m a New Yorker. We all deserve the right to marry the person we love.”
The New York campaign is misleading and ultimately ruinous to real marriages and families. But when Christians don’t understand the content or the reasons for their own faith, they have no compelling alternative to offer.
The points I’ve been making are these:
First, either we form our culture, or the culture will form us. Second, right now, the culture does a better job of shaping us than we do in shaping the culture. And third, we need to admit our failures, and we need to turn ourselves onto a path of repentance and change, and unselfish witness to others.
The central issue in renewing Catholic catechesis has little to do with techniques, or theories, or programs, or resources. The central issue is whether we ourselves really do believe. Catechesis is not a profession. It’s a dimension of discipleship. If we’re Christians, we’re each of us called to be teachers and missionaries.
But we can’t share what we don’t have. If we’re embarrassed about Church teachings, or if we disagree with them, or if we’ve decided that they’re just too hard to live by, or too hard to explain, then we’ve already defeated ourselves.
We need to really believe what we claim to believe. We need to stop calling ourselves “Catholic” if we don’t stand with the Church in her teachings – all of them. But if we really are Catholic, or at least if we want to be, then we need to act like it with obedience and zeal and a fire for Jesus Christ in our hearts. God gave us the faith in order to share it. This takes courage. It takes a deliberate dismantling of our own vanity. When we do that, the Church is strong. When we don’t, she grows weak. It’s that simple.
In a culture of confusion, the Church is our only reliable guide. So let’s preach and teach our Catholic beliefs with passion. And let’s ask God to make us brave enough and humble enough to follow our faith to its radical conclusions.
Thanks for your attention. God bless you.
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