On Tax Collectors and Free Speech

Matthew.EvangelistToday is the Feast of St. Matthew, Apostle. Matthew, also called Levi in Scripture, was a Jewish tax collector. He was one of those who, like most of us, live and work in the secular world. Some compromise their beliefs to do this, or maybe don’t examine too closely their Sunday creed versus the world’s weekday creed. How else could they survive? Some simply turn a blind eye to the world around them, or the world of their temple or church.

In Matthew’s case, he collected more than was owed. The difference was his very living, so he found himself caught in a corrupt system, hated by his own people. Christ pulled him out of this world and into discipleship. When Christ commanded, “Follow me,” he followed. In his case, it meant leaving his other world behind. He didn’t seem to hesitate.

So we too must make this choice in our own lives: how we spend our time, how we vote, what we read, what we say, what we teach our children, what we model to our children. Some of us make radical changes in direction; some continue on the same paths. We compare our lives to lives like Matthew. How do we measure up?

One of the larger issues today is the nature of man and woman. The Judeo-Christian tradition gives clear definitions, and provides models for family life, community life, national life. But with the receding of faith, these definitions have been increasingly challenged, and no where more so than in our institutions of higher learning.

In America, land of the free, we celebrate and enjoy freedom of speech and peaceful assembly, or at least we try to. So we debate these questions openly. We give these questions air to breathe. If we do not, the debate will die and so will our culture.

In researching my current novel-in-progress, The Fire Trail, I learned more about The Anscombe Society, a group begun at Princeton in 2005 promoting chastity outside of marriage, offering a sexual ethos for students. The Stanford Anscombe Society, the student group at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, defines its mission as follows:

The Stanford Anscombe Society (SAS) is a student group that promotes discussion regarding the roles of the family, marriage, and sexual integrity in the lives of Stanford students both now and after graduation. SAS is neither religiously nor politically affiliated, instead basing our positions on human principles. We hold that the family is the key unit of a stable society, and we define the family as one man and one woman bound together by marriage, along with any children that they might have. SAS defines marriage as a union, until death, between one man and one woman. We promote the idea that sexual integrity is necessary for this family unit to be successful.

This group was denied by the university partial funding for their conference at Stanford last spring. The group was recognized as a student group, but since a “politically correct” minority of students objected, the university bowed to these objections. The Society still had their conference, welcoming all points of view in a civilized, open and respectful debate (see http://www.stanfordanscombe.org/ for videos of speakers and student interviews).

Also, in California, there have been instances where Christian groups have been forced off campus because their leaders were Christian. The court ruling said that all groups on campus must make their membership as well as their leadership be “open to all comers,” i.e. they must allow, for example, an atheist to lead their group. What is wrong with this picture?

The borderlands between the secular and the sacred have always been fraught with danger. But since we do not want to live in a theocracy, nor under a totalitarian regime, we champion freedom of speech, freedom of worship, and open debate. We support communication of belief, or nonbelief, and peaceful assembly.

The fire trail protecting freedom from tyranny is not as wide or protective as it once was. I am so very grateful to The Anscombe Society for speaking out and encouraging open conversation. I am grateful to Elizabeth Anscombe (1919-2001), a British philosopher considered by some to be the greatest in the twentieth century. A professor at Cambridge, she made the case for family values, monogamy, the definition of marriage, arguing and reasoning as a trained philosopher. This is a debate we must not silence; we must not allow irrationality to breach the trail and burn to ash this public conversation.

And I’m grateful for St. Matthew, who, it would appear, did not hesitate to obey his Lord. I am thankful for his Gospel, especially precious at Christmas, for his “good news” is the only account of the wise men bringing their gifts to the Christ Child, a manifestation, or epiphany of the Incarnation to the greater world.

And as I worshiped in my parish church this morning and listened to our own fiery preacher (from a Jewish tradition) describe St. Matthew, I gave thanks once again for my freedom to worship and for our preacher’s freedom to preach. And I once again realized, as I gazed upon the medieval crucifix that hangs over the tabernacle holding the Real Presence of Christ, that all my choices were made easy with the first, the choice to follow the truth, just like that tax collector in Capernaum.

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