The Pope and the President on freedom

Commentators have noted parallels between President Bush’s second inaugural address and President Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural; one witty historian suggested that it was “the best speech Woodrow Wilson ever wrote.” What struck me, however, was the remarkable similarity between the President’s second inaugural and Pope John Paul II’s second address to the United Nations.

Here is the Pope in 1995:

“We are witnessing an extraordinary global acceleration of that quest for freedom which is one of the great dynamics of human history. This phenomenon is not limited to any one part of the world; nor is it the expression of any single culture…(Its) global character…confirms that there are indeed universal human rights, rooted in the nature of the person…

“…we do not live in an irrational or meaningless world. On the contrary, there is a moral logic which is built into human life and which makes possible dialogue between individuals and peoples…(thus) it is possible for mankind’s historical journey to follow a path which is true to the finest aspirations of the human spirit.

“We have within us the capacities for wisdom and virtue. With these gifts, and with the help of God’s grace, we can build…a civilization worthy of the human person, a true culture of freedom…And in doing so, we shall see that the tears of this century have prepared the ground for a new springtime of the human spirit.”

And here is the President in 2005:

“The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world…Eventually, the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul. We do not accept the existence of permanent tyranny because we do not accept the possibility of permanent slavery…

“We go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom. Not because history runs on the wheels of inevitability…[but] because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in dark places, the longing of the soul…History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty…

“Renewed in our strength — tested, but not weary — we are ready for the greatest achievements in the history of freedom.”

There are some very large ideas in play here, and it’s worth teasing them out, briefly:

1. There is a universal human nature. However different human beings are, there is, at bottom, a common humanity composed of common characteristics, longings, aspirations, and temptations.

2. There is a universal moral law inscribed in this common human nature, a moral law we can know by reflecting on those common human experiences.

3. This universal moral law teaches us the dignity of the human person, from which we can deduce certain political truths: basic human rights are inalienable; government exists to protect and advance those rights; rights imply responsibilities.

4. That moral law and those political truths set a horizon of achievement in history. The defense of freedom is a moral obligation, not simply an exercise in self-interest. The goal of advancing freedom’s cause throughout the world is not a romantic pipedream but a moral imperative built into the human condition — by, biblical people will insist, God himself.

Much ink has been spilled over the differences between the Bush administration and the Holy See on the prudence of invading Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein. Some have wondered how the administration and the Vatican could work together in the future. Here is one part of the answer: because the world’s leading political power and the world’s leading moral authority are both committed to the defense and advance of freedom in the world, over against those so-called “realists” who insist that “stability” is the goal in world politics.

Even given that common commitment, there will be disagreements over the prudence of this or that policy; that’s inevitable. Still, that fact of life doesn’t mitigate the importance of agreement on these four large ideas, which boldly challenge the conventional wisdom of the unrealistic realists in the name of a moral “logic” accessible to all.

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.


Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.