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Conscience and Christianity

Being a Christian is beautiful for many reasons.

Chief among these reasons: Christianity is a faith rooted in history. Every Christian has access to an experience well beyond their own experience which can easily be constrained by the circumstances of one’s own life.

For every Christian, the foremost event of history is the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, Savior of the World. This event transports every Christian back 2,000 years. Even then, Christ Himself—the Word of God—draws the Christian further back into world history and beyond, for: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God” (Jn. 1:1-2). As we hear elsewhere in the Book of Revelation: “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘the one Who is and Who was and Who is to come, the Almighty’” (Rev. 1:8).

The draw into world history is readily accessible through Scripture. Scripture reveals to every Christian the history of salvation—the story of God’s loving pursuit of His people, and the story of God’s people in loving pursuit of and rebellion against Him.

As Scripture draws each Christian into history, it also instructs and motivates. As the Apostle Paul wrote: “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

The foregoing is what struck me after hearing last Sunday’s first reading from 2 Maccabees 7. This Scripture passage, written at least 2100 years ago, entails a “problem of conscience” faced by the Jewish people at a time when Jewish Palestine was “struggl[ing] against the invasion of paganism and Hellenization,” as Scott Hahn explains. The passage specifically recounts “seven brothers with their mother [who] were arrested and tortured with whips and scourges by the king, to force them to eat pork in violation of God’s law” (2 Macc. 7:1).

While the reading was limited to the response of three brothers, the entirety of 2 Maccabees 7 details the responses of the seven brothers and the mother, all of whom refused adherence to King Antiochus’s coercive threats to consume pork in violation of the Mosaic law. In the words of the youngest brother: “I will not obey the king’s command, but I obey the command of the law that was given to our fathers through Moses.”

These eight heroic witnesses to the Jewish faith demonstrated their refusal to reject God and their courage to suffer and die for Him. They were unwilling to violate their conscience, which dictated to them the supreme truth of God’s love for the people of Israel.

Convicted within their own heart, they each were willing to lose limbs and life for the sake of the Kingdom, knowing full well God, in His mercy, would repay them through a resurrection (2 Maccabees 7:9).

This historical experience is like another historical experience, that of the Nebraska Catholic Conference’s patron, St. Thomas More. Unable to obtain an annulment from the pope for a marriage he no longer wanted, King Henry VIII took matters into his own hands. Henry sought to declare himself head of the Church of England. As Lord Chancellor to Henry, More was asked to consent to Henry’s self-willed declaration. More refused to violate his conscience by approving Henry’s act, a refusal which would lead to More’s beheading. Through this ordeal, More stated: “I die the King’s good servant, and God’s first.”

For the “seven brothers with their mother” and for More, the believer’s conscience was confronted with a dilemma: to reject God or to love Him with one’s “whole heart, mind, and soul” (Deut. 6:5). In particular, for the brothers and their mother, this dilemma occurred in the context of the “invasion of paganism and Hellenization” into Jewish Palestine.

Today, Christians face a similar predicament. What was once a fairly robust Christian culture is now one that is increasingly secular—some would even say “neo-pagan.” This secularization entails a rejection of the Christian God and all that He commands, a denigration of the conscience of those who would adhere to such a God, and abolishing any semblance of Christian thought and ethos from the public square.

This trend has threatened and subverted legal rights of conscience for Christian believers, a topic I will discuss more extensively in the near future.

In the meanwhile, Maccabees and More provide ample historical experience for contemplation. Their stories ought to prepare us for the moment and question: Am I willing to sacrifice reputation, livelihood, and even limb and life for the sake of the Kingdom? When the time comes, may we have courage to say “Yes!” to this opportunity for grace!

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