Tuesday, 9 May 2017

"And now abideth liberty, equality, and fraternity, these three; but the greatest of these is fraternity."

Late in 1988, I spent a semester at the Irish School of Ecumenics in Dublin, studying ecumenical and interfaith theology.  One of the subjects our group studied was a unit in what Catholic seminaries call "moral theology" and what "Protestant" seminaries call "Christian ethics".  It was taught by the Rev. Professor Enda MacDonagh from Maynooth. 

One of the things I remember from Fr. MacDonagh's lectures, in addition to his phrase "Kingdom values and virtues", was his attempt to relate Paul's ideals of "faith, hope, and love" (from 1st Corthinians 13) to the French Revolution's ideals of "Liberté, egalité, fraternité" (liberty, equality, and fraternity).  (It was a year before the celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the liberation of the Bastille, so many Europeans were becoming French Revolution-minded at that time - at least in terms of the French Revolution before it turned nasty under Robespierre.)

The link between "faith" and "liberté", to my memory, was the hardest to get a handle on.  As I remember, it had to do with trust:  with "faith" involving a radical trust in the compassion of God and with "liberté" involving a similar trust in the democratic wisdom of one's fellow-citizens (a trust that is difficult to achieve following 2016's Brexit and Trump fiascos, but a bit easier following Monsieur Macron's recent victory).

"Hope" and "egalité" are both future-oriented.  In hope, we look for the wholeness of God's reign, happening in God's good time.  With "egalité", we look for the emergence of a just and fair human society, and seek to build such a society incrementally.

"Love" and "fraternité" seemed to me to be the most closely related.  For Paul, the profound love (Greek, agapé; Hebrew, hesed; Latin, caritas) of God for humanity needs to spill over into a universal compassion (and universal solidarity) on our part toward all humanity.  This universal compassion and solidarity is also affirmed in the idea of "fraternité".  This "fraternité" was also celebrated in Schiller's poem "An die Freude", as later set to music in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony:  "...All people become family. ... You millions, I embrace you!  This kiss is for all the world...." (free translation).  Without this compassion, there is no faith or hope.

And, ultimately, I believe that the heart of it all is "fraternité".  To paraphrase Paul (or, at least, Paul as poetically rendered by the 17th century KJV translators), "And now abideth liberté, egalité, and fraternité, these three; but the greatest of these is fraternité."

"Liberté" without "fraternité" is a false "liberté".  Today many people believe that the heart and soul of "free speech" is merely the right of some loudmouth in a pub, takeaway shop, radio studio, or (sadly) pulpit to make a racist, sexist, homophobic, islamophobic, or antisemitic comment without challenge.  That rubbish isn't "liberté".

"Egalité" without "fraternité" is a false "egalité".  In most western democracies, populist political movements (whether within or outside the major parties) make extravagant economic promises to economically disadvantaged members of the majority culture while taking a hostile stance toward members of minority cultures, whose economic disadvantage is, if anything, much worse.  Until a few days ago (Merci beaucoup, Monsieur Macron!), these populist movements have been enjoying an undeserved dream run in many countries.  This populism isn't "egalité".

"...All people become family. ... You millions, I embrace you!  This kiss is for all the world...."  True "liberté" and true "egalité" are built on a solid foundation of "fraternité".

"And now abideth liberté, egalité, and fraternité, these three; but the greatest of these is fraternité."

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