ALICE VON HILDEBRAND
Up to some forty years ago, the word "discrimination" had a positive ring. A discriminating person was someone who was subtle, capable of appreciating differences, a person of taste, of sagacity, blessed with a keen mind, a person capable of making distinctions—in short, an intelligent person. (N.B. The meaning of words keeps changing; this is why it is so crucially important to keep the Latin tongue in the Liturgy of the Church; a dead language alone can guarantee orthodoxy).
A radical change has taken place in the course of the last forty years; whereas in the past, to be discriminating was a desirable quality, nowadays, it means a person who is prejudiced, narrow-minded, unfair, or undemocratic. Thousands of lawsuits have been filed; countless persons have discovered that they were "discriminated" against because of their race, the color of their skin, their weight, their physical appearance, their sex, their beliefs. Anyone who gets a pink slip, or is not promoted has a case: "why should a person be fired if not because he is discriminated against?" If an employer dismisses an employee for unsatisfactory work, he has a fair chance of having a lawsuit on his back. This is not only costly, but also irritating and time consuming, This shift in meaning has been a boon for lawyers who never run short of victimized clients. One can speak of an epidemic of abuses which not only make the headlines, but also have a very good chance of being granted large compensations.
The problem certainly deserves our attention: how are we to distinguish between cases in which a person can legitimately complain of being victimized because of prejudice, and cases in which discrimination is not only legitimate but praiseworthy?
One should discriminate between truth and error, good and evil, beautiful and ugly, man and woman. "Woe to those who call evil good and good evil" (Is. 5 20).
Modern man is so allergic to any sort of hierarchical order—whether metaphysical,
moral, or social—that today another fashionable slogan has crept into our vocabulary, namely, "elitism." Any claim of superiority in the artistic or intellectual domain betrays "arrogance" on the part of the person making this assertion. "Who is to tell? Everybody’s judgment is equally valid." To challenge this "anti-elitist" assumption is "anti-democratic."
A reverent reading of the Bible, however, forces one to reconsider the question; in fact, whether we turn to the Old or New Testament, we constantly see that God has given preference to some people over others. In Genesis, without further explanation, we are told that Abel's sacrifice was agreeable to God, whereas He rejected the one of Cain, The latter, conscious of this preference, nurtured a hatred of his brother which led to his becoming a murderer.
Noah and his family escaped from the tragedy of the flood. In this case, it seems that God's preference was explained by the fact that Noah had no share in the abominations that were gaining currency.
Why was Abram chosen by God to be the Father of a blessed race which—in the course of time—would give the world the long expected saviour? The answer is simple, because God had so decided. Abram left his kin and migrated to a land to be given to him and his descendants. The Jews are elected. They are God's chosen people. Once again, no explanation is given; it was God's choice. Was He not "discriminating"?
Rebekah favored Jacob over Esau, and by female cunning managed to secure Isaac's blessing for her pet child (See Rom. 9-11ff). Jacob feared his father's curse if his father discovered that he had been lied to, but his mother did not hesitate to rake the curse upon herself (Gen. 27-13). Jacob usurped his father’s blessing and the foolish Esau (who had sold his birthright for a mess of pottage) was refused this precious gift. Jacob—cheated by his father-in-law—was led to sleep with Lia—thinking that her younger sister shared his bed. Rachel was the loved one, and her older sister knew that she did not have Jacob's heart. Rachel was favored, and Jacob had to labor for many more years before he could marry the younger sister. She was for a long while sterile, whereas Lia gave her husband several children. Nevertheless, Jacob loved the younger one more. He loved her "for herself," not for the progeny she gave him.
Jacob had twelve sons, but the Bible tells us that he loved Joseph more than his other children (Gen. 37-3). For this very reason, his jealous siblings hated Joseph and planned to murder him. Saved by Ruben, he was sold as a slave. Once again, are we not facing "discrimination"? Is not the response of Joseph’s brothers perfectly "understandable"? Why should their younger brother be given more love simply because he was a child of Jacob's old age? (Benjamin was younger yet). When Joseph brought his two sons to his dying father, Jacob placed his right hand over the head of Ephraim. This displeased Joseph because Manasseh was the first born. But Jacob refused to change his mind (Gen. 48:17ff). Once again, the younger one was favored. No explanation is given. Jacob was fulfilling God's will.
Moses too was a chosen one: he was saved as a baby; he was the one who heard God's voice, and witnessed the miracle of the burning bush. He was the one given a great mission, to bring the Jewish people out of Egypt, and this in spite of the fact that he had a speech defect. All of us would have chosen an ambassador enjoying the oratory talents of Demosthenes. But God was giving a clear message: by choosing a stutterer, He indicated that victory would be His, and not the merit of a very imperfect tool that He had purposely selected.
Moses successfully brought the Jewish people to the threshold of the Promised Land. He was their leader through their long peregrination in the desert. He was the one who went to Mount Sinai and received the Ten Commandments. He was the one told that the priestly caste would be the one of Levi, and his brother became the main priest. There were twelve tribes. Why was one of them chosen to perform the priestly function? There is only one valid answer: because God so decided. He is the King; He is the master, and no one is to question His decisions. This choice triggers the resentment of Korah, Dathan, Abiram. "The whole assembly is holy," they claimed, "why place some of us above others?" (Num. 16ff). We all know the end of the story. To punish them for their arrogance, the earth opened up, and they were swallowed up in the abyss with their wives and children.
God being God has a right to decide "who will be his chosen ones." Who is the man to challenge His choice?
All of the prophets were "chosen ones.'' Particularly striking is the story of Jeremiah: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born, I consecrated you. I appointed you a prophet to the nations." And his answer was: "Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth." But God insists that he is the one He has chosen: “I have put my words in your mouth" (Jeremiah, 1 5ff).
Isaiah writes: "O house of Jacob...who have been borne by me from your birth, carried from the womb" (46:3), and further, "The Lord called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name" (49:1).
Samson's mother was sterile; but an angel appeared to her and announced that she would bear a son. He was to be consecrated to God. The same is true of Samuel: his mother too could not conceive. When finally she became pregnant (after having shed many tears because of her sterility), what is today called "the fetus" was consecrated to the Lord, and raised in the temple as soon as he had been weaned. He was a chosen one. The same Samuel was told by God to go to Isai; one of his sons would be King. His seven sons were presented to Samuel, who was Judge in Israel; all of them were turned down. Samuel then said to Isai: "Don't you have another son?' "Yes, he had, the youngest who was keeping the sheep." His name was David and he was the one the Lord had chosen (I Sam. 16:1ff). Every single prophet was the object of God's choice.
If we turn to the New Testament, this "discrimination" is still more apparent. A young virgin of Nazareth is chosen to be the mother of the Redeemer. She was born "immaculate," that is, not stained by original sin. She was singled out among billions of women to receive the greatest glory that a creature could receive— the unfathomable honor of becoming the Mother of Christ—while preserving her virginity, as announced by Isaiah. She was preserved from original sin from the very moment of her conception, that is, without any merit on her part. She is blessed among all women; she is the glory of Israel, she is the most perfect of all creatures. Why? God has so decided. All she did was to say "yes" to His plans.
St. John the Baptist was also "a chosen one," sanctified—not at the moment of his conception like Mary, but in Elizabeth's womb—in the sixth month of her pregnancy. Upon hearing Mary's words, "the child stirred in Elizabeth's womb." "Among those born of a woman, none is greater than John the Baptist" (Mat. 11:11).
Those who receive these extraordinary gifts are called to a greater love and a greater humility. They are conscious that they have been blessed with no merit of their own. If they were to preen themselves of their election, God would reject them for arrogantly claiming for themselves an honor which was a pure gift.
Commenting upon the story of the Canaanite woman whose humility and faith obtained the healing of her daughter, Dom Gueranger writes: "there are chosen souls in every race" (The Liturgical Year, Volume 5). The privileged ones should give a response of immense gratitude toward Him who has blessed them in a special way.
When the disciples asked Christ the meaning of the parable of the sower, He answered: "to you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but for others, they are in parables, so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand" (Luke 8:9). It is another mysterious instance in which Christ "discriminates" in the most obvious fashion. We need not understand; we should adore the divine will, and reverently wait until eternity to know "the secrets of the King."
At the last supper, Judas (not the Iscariot) said to Him: "Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?” Christ did not answer his question, but proceeded with His last sublime message of love. He did not answer because He chose not to.
Modern man has forgotten what it means to be a creature. How tempting to tear down the metaphysical hierarchy, and put oneself on one level with God—in a democratic fashion. This can go so far that some perverse minds put Him “in the dock" and dare challenge His decisions.
The choice of the twelve apostles follows the same pattern: Christ chose whom he pleased (Luke 6:12-16). Among them Peter was given precedence, He was the rock upon whom Christ would build His church. "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven" (Mat. 16:17). Peter was clearly privileged. Christ knew that the head of the apostles would deny him; nevertheless, He gave him the keys of the Kingdom, once again to teach us that He who is God will save His Church in spite of the weakness and imperfection of his servants. Why was not John—the disciple Jesus loved—the one chosen to head the Church? Because that was His will.
Among the twelve, three were clearly favored: Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, James and John. They alone were invited to accompany Christ to Mount Thabor; they alone saw Him transfigured. When Christ arrived in Gethsemane, He told his disciples: "Sit here while I go yonder and pray. And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled" (Mat. 26-37). The others were told to wait. John was the one Jesus loved. Why was Peter loved more?
The apostles were chosen to be priests; this matchless privilege is not given to the one “blessed among women (and men).” It was not granted to the holy women who were not invited to see Christ transfigured, but did accompany the Saviour to Calvary, putting the apostles to shame: they had all fled. (John alone came back later). Why are women "excluded" from the priesthood—are they not more faithful, more courageous, more loving, as St. Therese of Lisieux mentioned in her autobiography? Because God has so decided. God gives special privileges to some of His servants, not because they deserve it, but "because it is His good pleasure." The more privileged one is, the greater should be the humility of the one who is especially blessed.
Saul was the great persecutor of the young Church, yet he was chosen to be a vase of election. St. Paul says, "he who has set me apart before I was born and has called me through his grace" (Gal. I:15ff). All that man can do is to say “yes" to the divine calling. Woe to the one who is called and refuses the privilege granted to him.
If we turn to the lives of saints, the same scenario is repeated. In the modest framework of this article, I shall limit to a few cases, Juan Diego—recently canonized—a humble, untutored person, received the awesome privilege of seeing Mary, the Mother of God. We —short sighted human beings—would probably have chosen a Spanish grandee, but God prefers the little ones. The Little Flower is another case in point. At the very beginning of her autobiography, she tells us that she was concerned as a child with the inequality of gifts that God showers on His creatures.
Overwhelmed by gratitude for having been raised a Roman Catholic by saintly parents, she turned her attention to the “poor pagans” who have not received the Joyful News of the Gospel. She then understood that just as there are innumerable flowers in creation (some more beautiful than others), so there are innumerable degrees in the gifts granted to men. All are God's children; all of them are loved. Therese was fully conscious of the fact that she had been privileged; surrounded by tenderness and love (and yet not spoiled), blessed with innumerable graces, healed miraculously by the Holy Virgin, cured of the depressing weakness of bursting into tears for no reason at all; her autobiography is nothing but a song of gratitude. Like the Holy Virgin, she could say that "God had done great things in her soul." She declared herself to be weakness itself, to be a helpless little bird constantly in need of divine help, but—like St. Paul—she "gloried in her very weakness” so that the generosity of Her loved one should receive the limelight.
Why were Bernadette, Lucia, Francisco, and Jacinta privileged to see the Holy Virgin? All of them were ignorant and poor. All four were granted graces which few have received. Indeed, God's ways are not our ways; Man cannot understand the divine election, but he should reverently accept it.
What precedes seems to indicate that "predestination" refers to the superabundance of gifts granted to some, while denied to others. How tragic is the view of those who see “predestination” in a purely negative light— that is, as a divine rejection which condemns the cursed ones to hell. This is the tragedy of Calvinism. God does not love all men equally; He loves them all infinitely.
I conclude by saying that one of the many problems we are facing today is that we no longer know how to discriminate.