Liberty and Justice for All

An inauguration prayer
President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington D.C. before his presidential inauguration on January 20, 2021 (CNS photo/Tom Brenner, Reuters).

 

This article is adapted from a reflection given at a pre-inauguration gathering sponsored by the Catholic Democrats.

“If you make my word your home, you are truly my disciples; then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8: 31–32)

“The Spirit of Truth will lead you into all truth.” (John 16:13)

We gather on the cusp of new beginnings with the inauguration of a new U.S. president and vice president. Beginnings are a time of looking back with sober insight, and looking ahead with new resolve.

Looking back, one of the most powerful lessons we’ve learned over the past four years is that words matter. Truth matters. Not only the truth about an election—a truth affirmed and reaffirmed through dozens of court decisions and ballot recounts. But deeper truths.

Truths, such as the foundational truth of Catholic social teaching, namely, the truth of the equal sacred human dignity of every person because they are created in the image of God. A truth that was debased when migrants were described as “infestations,” when U.S. citizens of color were told to “go back where you came from,” when developing nations were demeaned as “s-hole countries,” when multiracial peaceful protestors were denounced as “thugs,” while overwhelmingly white riotous insurrectionists were called “patriots” and “special.”

Truth matters. The truth of the Catholic conviction of inalienable human rights that flow from our God-given dignity. Not only the right to life, but also the rights to those things necessary for its full flourishing, such as food, shelter, access to healthcare, quality education, a healthy environment, and the protection of one’s rights under the law. A truth compromised when voting access is impeded. A truth mocked when callous indifference leads to more than four hundred thousand COVID deaths. A truth undermined by words we’ve heard too often: “I bear no responsibility.”

Truth matters. Words matter. The truth of the option for the poor and vulnerable, a truth grounded in the wisdom spoken so often by Mother Theresa of Calcutta: “It is our Christian conviction that we encounter Christ in the distressing disguise of the poor.” A truth undermined by calling immigrants “rapists,” the poor “parasites,” and deceased soldiers “losers and suckers.” 

Truth matters, a conviction powerfully affirmed by Pope John Paul II, who declared that “truth is the basis, foundation, and mother of justice.” Without a respect for truth, without a dedication to the truth of the equal sacred dignity and worth of every human being, life together is endangered, compromised, even impossible.   

The “big lie” that has duped so many of our people is not about a so-called “stolen” election. No, it’s the lie that those who don’t look like us, talk like us, think like us, worship like us, or love like us are not worthy. Not equal. Not human. The fear of the stranger, of the “other,” is at the root of our nation’s collective delusions and public lies. The opposite of living in truth is living in fear.         

“If you make my word your home, the truth will set you free.” We’ve learned painfully, tragically, how much words matter. And we’ve witnessed the catastrophic consequences that follow when truth is debased, denied, and dismissed. Truth matters.   

Yet beginnings are also times of looking ahead with new resolve. Jesus tells his disciples, and assures us, that we are not alone. We are not orphaned. Jesus sends the “Spirit of Truth to guide us into all truth.” We are not alone.

The Spirit of Truth gives us courage: the courage to translate our convictions into action.

One of the Spirit’s gifts is courage—the grace that empowers us to do what is right even when it is difficult, and despite being afraid. Yes, we are afraid. Many of us, myself included, were physically chilled when we watched in horror as violent mobs rampaged through the Capitol, hellbent on destruction, mayhem, and perhaps even murder. Many are afraid, on edge, as we hear constant reports of threats against state capitals throughout the nation. Many are afraid, on edge, in this inauguration season as we see the nation’s seat of government occupied by more military troops than we have in Afghanistan, summoned to protect us from “us.” Yes, we are afraid.

But there is no shame in being afraid. It shows our vulnerability, indeed, our humanity. If we were invulnerable, if we couldn’t be hurt, if we weren’t tempted by fear, we wouldn’t need courage.

The Spirit of Truth gives us courage: the courage to translate our convictions into action; the courage to face difficult and demanding truths; the courage to rebuild our country on noble truths and healing words, words such as “liberty and justice for all.”

For all. No small print. No exclusions. For all. Regardless of race, gender, social class, sexual orientation, national residence, citizenship status, or geographic location. Every human person has equal human dignity. All means all.

“Liberty and justice for all.” That truth, these words, require courage if they are to move from aspiration to action. These words demand courage if they are to be the truth upon which our national life can be rebuilt, restored, renewed. Moving forward with new resolve to build a nation of “liberty and justice for all,” as our national creed and religious faith demand, requires the courage that only the Spirit of Truth can give.

And so we come together to pray. Not only for President Biden and Vice President Harris as they assume the weighty responsibilities of their offices. Not only for the officials in their new administration. Above all, we pray for ourselves, but not as members of any political party or religious belonging. We pray as Americans, and for the future of our country, that we may become more and more that nation once described by Abraham Lincoln, a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal.”

            Come, Holy Spirit of Truth.

            Give us the courage to speak uncomfortable truths,

                                                to face painful truths,

                                                to accomplish difficult truths,

                                                to dare powerful truths,

                                                to seek healing truths.

            Come, Spirit of Truth.

            Breathe within us and inspire us to speak

                                                words of wisdom and challenge,

                                                words of lament and sorrow,

                                                words of resolve and renewal,

                                                words of justice and accountability,

                                                words of welcome and inclusion,

                                                words of healing and peace.

            Come, Spirit of Truth, and set us free.

                        Come, Holy Spirit.

                        Fill the hearts of your faithful.

                        Enkindle within us the fire of your love.

                        Send forth your Spirit,                                                                                   

                        And we shall be re-created.

                        And you will renew the face of the earth.

            Let the Church say, “Amen.”

Fr. Bryan Massingale is a professor of theology at Fordham University, and the author of Racial Justice and the Catholic Church.

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