Thomas the skeptic, Thomas the doubter, listed his conditions for belief in the gospel reading. His demands were direct: “see the mark of the nails . . . put my finger in the mark of the nails . . . my hand in his side.” Unless these could be met he stridently declared, “I will not believe.”
Jesus appeared again eight days later. Thomas, now present, heard Jesus say “Peace be with you.” How could Thomas be at peace? Jesus called him. Thomas then experienced what the others had seen earlier. Willing to believe and to be forgiven, Thomas could then find peace.
Thomas saw, believed and took a singularly dedicated path as a result. Tradition has it that this apostle carried the gospel message to far-off India during the mid-first century. Some variants of his story have him suffering a martyr’s death there. The Nasranis or Saint Thomas Christians in the Indian state of Kerala today trace their origins to his evangelistic efforts.
Immersed and enmeshed in an unjust, earth-destroying system, fearfully hiding behind our own metaphorically locked doors, why are we so desperately trying to shield ourselves from the implications of truly believing? Must we be skeptics in order hold on to our own pitifully small share of the privilege and power the system accords us? Why do we so mightily resist any real change that would threaten our own comfortable lives?
Or is living out fully our belief in Jesus just too risky? Do we, like Thomas, refuse to commit to change without somehow seeing incontrovertible proof that Jesus lives and his call to us is real?
Did the shock of the crucifixion initially trigger Thomas’ doubts? What causes our obstinate refusal to budge from the comforts of the status quo? Throughout church history the lure of power and privilege have caused the Christian community to stray. Often along with our own episcopal leaders the church community has likewise been so affected as to fail to respond to calls to “see” Jesus and live accordingly.
Early Christians, it is argued, opposed warfare holding close to their hearts the gospel imperative to “Love your enemies.” The Edict of Tolerance in 311 followed two years later by the Edict of Milan gave Christianity legal status within the Roman Empire. Pragmatic leaders then linked this emerging empire-wide religious force with its political goals and by 380 with the Edict of Thessalonica Emperor Theodosius I made Christianity the Empire’s sole authorized religion. By 416 only Christians could serve in the Roman army. Defence of many realms likewise obtained the religious veneer offered by this distortion of Christianity that has lasted up until our times.
Over the last two millennia we can chart a course of wavering resolve punctuated by times of renewal. Religious reform movements or events like the nailing of 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church by Martin Luther, which will be jointly commemorated by Lutherans and Catholics next year on its 500th anniversary, mark a striving toward a restored faith in the risen Lord, which continually re-emerges across history. It could be triggered by a host of social, economic, political or spiritual crises. With global pressures and challenges currently mounting, are we in need of renewal again?
Change often unfolds painfully slowly. Take the example of a human institution like slavery. The church, according to observations made by Cardinal Avery Dulles, participated in the slave-holding economies dominant up to and beyond the Renaissance. Popes held slaves. Muslim captives manned the oars of papal galleys. Even here in Canada Marguerite d’Youville, the founder of the Grey Nuns and the first Canadian-born saint, was a slave owner. She and her husband held Pawnee slaves captured by French fur traders in Missouri and African slaves brought to Quebec from Louisiana and Haiti. Jesuit plantations in Maryland were worked by slaves well into the 1830s.
As late as 1866 under Pope Pius IX the church affirmed that divine law permitted, subject to certain conditions, the purchase, sale and exchange of slaves. Another five decades would pass before Pope Benedict XV condemned outright “selling any person as a slave” in the then newly promulgated Canon Law of 1918. However, the United Nations estimates that today possibly over 30 million individuals are still caught up in the global slave trade.
Our struggle to build the New Jerusalem continues on many fronts. The foundation of our efforts lay in our fervent belief in the path Jesus of Nazareth invites us to walk with him. Many, many questions have yet to be resolved. Within our own church we hear people ask why we are stuck with medieval church governance systems? Are worn notions of patriarchy and gender roles dictated by 4th century Mediterranean cultural mores long past their due dates? Are we a doubting people and church? Can we be a seeing and believing people?
Consistently each generation witnesses the emergence of new prophetic voices calling us back to the path, allowing us to see and believe anew. Do we have the courage to put our hand in the wound today and accept the peace that is offered?
Jesus’ climactic beatitude in the reading from John harkens to us. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” This believing demands living in a new way that answers the call each and every one one of us receives with “My Lord and my God.”
Dougherty is co-chair of the Social Justice Committee at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Whitehorse, Yukon.