The Gospel for today's Mass is Matthew 8:28-34. It tells the story of Jesus' journey into the Gentile territory of the Gadarenes in which he encounters a couple of people possessed by demons who have terrorized the area. The crux of the story includes this:
The demons pleaded with him,
“If you drive us out, send us into the herd of swine.”
And he said to them, “Go then!”
They came out and entered the swine,
and the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea
where they drowned.
This story reveals the ultimate intentions of the Evil One towards creation. The swine, under the influence of the demons, destroy themselves; not one is spared. The Evil One opposes everything that is of God, and when we are tempted to sin, while the temptation itself might seem good to us, ultimately it contains the seeds of our unhappiness and destruction.
But what I want to reflect upon with you for a moment is the inclusiveness and anonymity that are a part of Satan's hatred. We see this reflected in today's memorial of the first Christian martyrs of Rome. In 64 AD, a fire erupted in Rome, crowded with a population of about 1 million. It raged for days, destroying nearly half of the city. Although Nero was not in Rome at the time, rumors abounded that he was responsible, since the destruction opened up property for re-development. The ancient historians Suetonius and Cassius Dio claimed Nero was the arsonist so he could build a palatial complex. In his annals, Tacitus mentions that Christians confessed to the crime, but it is not known whether these confessions were induced by torture.
Nero shifted the blame on the small Christian community, which had secret rites, welcomed slaves and women, and whose members did not participate in the public worship of the Roman gods. Hence, they were stigmatized as "haters of humanity." They became scapegoats, and known Christians were rounded up, tortured to reveal the names of other Christians, and thousands were put to death in the Coliseum, crucified, or set afire to provide illumination after nightfall. Sts. Peter and Paul lost their lives during this purge.
This is part of Satan's M.O. God knows each of us as individuals. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, knows his sheep and "calls each one by name." John 10:3. Satan, on the other hand, tempts us to see only groups and to label whole groups. This leads, in practically every generation, to the wholesale persecution or slaughter of groups of people. It's the very nature of discrimination to be blind to the individual's distinctive characteristics and to simply focus on one aspect of their being, whether it is ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual preference, color of the skin, political persuasion or even occupation. The demonic temptation is then to see every member of the group through the same dark lens. (Just for fun I googled "Liberals are pigs" and got 1,330 hits. "Conservatives are pigs" generated 45 hits.) We can do this out of intellectual laziness. But it is the tactic used by every despotic individual or regime to rid itself of perceived enemies and undesirables or to promote some ideology.
Last week at our assembly Fr. Ken Gumbert, OP, an assistant professor of film at Providence College, gave me a copy of a documentary titled, "Red Terror on the Amber Coast", he produced with the help of Fr. David O'Rourke, OP, also of our Province. In 1939, a secret agreement was forged between Josef Stalin of the Soviet Union and Adolf Hitler of Germany called the Molotov/Ribbentroff Pact. They agreed that the two countries should divvy up a majority of Eastern Europe for the goal of expansion of their individual empires. During the years that followed, Lithuanian people were deported from their homeland, shot on the spot, or forced into labor camps in Siberia where they died of exposure or malnutrition. Many of them were separated from their families by occupying Soviet armies, more than 350,000 were imprisoned or killed in the process of collectivization.
In the film one deportee to Siberia asks her guard, "Why are you killing us?" His response is chilling. "We don't want your deaths. We want your suffering." Part of the effect of discrimination is the suffering caused simply knowing that you are no longer seen as an individual; that your behavior will be viewed with a particular bias in mind; that any wrongdoing by a member of your group will be attributed to you, and that evil done to you will be interpreted as a good thing. Jesus promises as much to his followers (Mt. 24:9). He knew well the tactics used by the Evil One. We need to recognize them, too, and to avoid them.
St. Augustine once said, "God loves each of us as if there were only one of us." He sees us in our uniqueness, imperfections and all. If we are to become more like him, we must have the desire to see each other uniquely, too.