Today Catholic Christians celebrate the Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time.
On this day, we read a very interesting passage from the Gospel of Matthew about what belongs to God, and what belongs to the State. In the passage, some Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus in his speech. To do this, they asked Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”
Jesus asked them for a coin that had Caesar’s image on it and asked, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” When they answered that it was Caesar’s image and inscription, Jesus said, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”
For centuries, philosophers, theologians, politicians, and others have debated the meaning of this passage and how it relates to various realms of human life.
Today, for example, people often debate from where do civil rights come. Do they come from the State? Or do they come from God?
To answer this, one needs to remember that “civil rights,” unlike political or contractual rights, refer to rights that guarantee equal social opportunities and equal protection under the law, regardless of characteristics such as race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and the like.
Some people believe that nobody has civil rights unless the State grants them such rights. For these people, God has nothing to do with such rights. People holding this view believe civil rights can be granted or taken away at the whim of an electorate or a government.
Others, like me, argue that civil rights come from God, and that the State merely reflects this when it publishes such rights. This view is what, in my view, is the only correct Catholic Christian view.
One man who strongly believed that civil rights come from God and was willing to fight for his beliefs was an amazing man called John Markoe – a football star, soldier, lumberjack, alcoholic, Jesuit priest, teacher, and civil rights champion.
John was born in 1890 to a wealthy family. In 1910, he entered the military academy at West Point. Among his friends was Dwight Eisenhower who would one day become the thirty-fourth President of the United States. At West Point, John played football against some of the sports’ all-time greats such as Knute Rockne and Jim Thorpe.
When he graduated in 1914, the yearbook said of him, “Possessing unlimited abilities, there is very little which he is incapable of performing.” By the time he graduated as a Lieutenant, however, he had angered his classmates by befriending the West Point’s only African-American cadet, and he was drinking alcoholically.
Nine months after his graduation, John lost his commission because of his alcoholism, so he became a lumberjack in Minnesota and then enlisted in the National Guard. In 1916, he regained his commission and fought against Pancho Villa in Mexico.
While in Mexico, he received regular letters from his brother Bill, a Jesuit priest who was working with African Americans. So, when he was discharged a year later in 1917, John – who retired as a Captain – decided to enter the Jesuits.
In St. Louis, which was a highly segregated city, and African American Catholics were relegated to separated parishes, denied a Catholic education, and banned from Catholic hospitals. The archbishop was notoriously racist.
After ordination in 1928, Fr. John was assigned to the black St. Elizabeth parish.
Despite some alcoholic relapses, Fr. John jumped into fighting for civil rights for people of all skin colors. He did this through preaching and writing and organizing. By the time the 1960s came, Fr. John Markoe was a well-known hero among his fellow Jesuits because of his civil rights work. Even in his advanced years, Fr. John told his fellow Jesuits, “Never give an inch.”
When he died in 1967, close friend Fr. Henri Renard said in his homily, “John Markoe is one of the unsung heroes of the Civil Rights movement, which is how he wanted it. Unassuming and modest, during his fifty years working with the African-American community, he never sought attention for himself. Like St. Ignatius Loyola, another ex-soldier turned priest, he embodied the Jesuit ideal of ‘men for other.’”
From Jesus’ message of today, each of us needs to reflect on the role of God in terms of the dignity of all human beings.
First, do we recognize that all people are children of God. If not, then how many Creators do you believe in?
Second, Catholic Christians are called to respect the dignity of all people. The Church, as we know, has failed in the past to do that very thing, and it continues to fail to do that in many ways. However, many in the Church continue the struggle to get the Church’s action in harmony with our theology.
And third, Catholic Christians are called to work to make this a better world, and one of the ways we are called to do that, is to fight for civil rights of all people.
And that is the good news I have for you on this Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time.
Story source: Pat McNamara. “John Marcoe, S.J.: Football Star, Soldier, Alcoholic,
Priest, and a Civil rights Activist A Few Decades Ahead of the Rest.” Pathos, February 22, 2011.