…that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”– he then said to the paralytic, “Rise, pick up your stretcher, and go home.” He rose and went home. When the crowds saw this they were struck with awe and glorified God who had given such authority to men.
On this national holiday the United States celebrates another authority given to men; one which is perhaps not dissimilar from that which amazed the crowds around Jesus. That is the authority to govern ourselves. Those who have no knowledge of history or philosophy might take it for granted that we should govern ourselves. They take for granted what most of humankind never imagined.
Through most of history we supposed the authority to rule came from God. We needed either priests or divinely appointed kings to govern us. No one looked at the armed man -- that man behind the curtain —who kept the populace submissive. They supposed that “Right makes might;” and it stood to reason the ruler should have armies, police and secret agents to maintain peace and tranquility. Clearly, that was the All=Powerful God’s will.
The also assumed kings would have the support of religious authorities. Many European countries enlisted the Pope to crown their kings. And the pope acquiesced, usually in the vague hope he might have some control of the king.
The Enlightenment changed all that. Philosophers proposed that rational men could govern themselves if they had the right attitudes, the right information and the right processes. The United States in 1776 set out to prove that theory could work. With the four freedoms of religion, assembly, speech and the press the wisdom of the people could prevail in every situation. I have heard American historians declare their amazement that the electorate, even yet, sees through the smoke screens of political campaigns and makes the right decisions.
Democracy – the authority to govern “of, by, and for the people” -- is an experiment that can always fail but can never succeed. We only know it seems to be working so far.
But, to make a democracy work, we must also have the authority to forgive one another. Wisely, the Pharisees asked, "Can anyone forgive but God?" It never comes easy.
Catholics, ideally, seeing someone receiving the Eucharist, can suppose the sinner has gone to confession and done penance. The faithful might mutter, “If the priest has forgiven that one, so will I.”
But without a common religion or priesthood, citizens of a democracy must develop their own ways of forgiving one another. Can a nation torn asunder by civil war be healed? Can politicos who habitually claim the moral high ground recognize the moral integrity of their opponents? Can citizens acknowledge that no economic system is just or fair, and “you always have the poor with you;” and continue to work for the common good? Or will they turn cynical and refuse to work with perceived injustice?
The crowds around Jesus were struck with awe that a man could forgive sins. It is indeed an amazing thing to discover that unexpected grace moving within my stony heart. But it is no less amazing that a nation can govern itself without benefit of king, tyrant or priest. With God, all things are possible.