It is a touchy thing to discuss politics with friends, even in the written word. Yet this evening, the day following a very contentious presidential election, I feel called to do so.
Some Christians I know felt there was no conscionable choice in this election. How does one vote when both candidates appear deeply flawed in their characters or policies (or both)?
Other Christians backed one candidate or the other with differing levels of enthusiasm, ranging from “the lesser of two evils” to hearty endorsement. Interwoven into these responses were perceptions, true or false, as to the extent either candidate would defend or endanger the unborn, the poor and international peace and security.
The inevitable happened.
Someone won and someone lost.
It happens every time. And, as happens most times, the outcome is viewed as disastrous by some and as an immense achievement by others.
And so it was with great consolation that I opened the Scripture readings for today and found awaiting me the following passage from St. Paul’s letter to Titus (3:1-6):
Remind your people that it is their duty to be obedient to the officials and representatives of the government; to be ready to do good at every opportunity; not to go slandering other people or picking quarrels, but to be courteous and always polite to all kinds of people. Remember, there was a time when we too were ignorant, disobedient and misled and enslaved by different passions and luxuries; we lived then in wickedness and ill-will, hating each other and hateful ourselves.
But when the kindness and love of God our Savior for mankind were revealed, it was not because He was concerned with any righteous actions we might have done ourselves; it was for no reason except His own compassion that He saved us, by means of the cleansing water of rebirth and by renewing us with the Holy Spirit which He so generously poured over us through Jesus Christ our Savior. (Jerusalem Bible trans.)
In the contemporary America, being “obedient” to the government has not been a popular concept – or even a thinkable one by most, at least since the 1960’s when everything fell apart with the Vietnam War, Watergate and the revelation that the emperor wore no clothes.
This is not to say that every citizen respected the government before that or that all disagreement was orderly. Far from it. But it seems that that time period in particular began an era in which many people became particularly disillusioned not only with government, but with such traditional notions as authority and obedience.
Were Paul’s words about the duty to obey intended only for the flock served by Titus? Or must we heed them as well?
It is a fascinating irony that I am posing this question at the same time that a very different Scripture cycle is being read in the Divine Office of the western Church. In the last couple of weeks, we have been reading from the book of Maccabees where many of God’s people were tortured and killed because they refused to abandon the Law and obey King Antiochus.
Then, just yesterday, in the Book of Daniel, we read of the three young men being thrown into the white-hot furnace because they refused to obey King Nebuchadnezzar and worship his idols.
Hence, we have an admonition to obey government while given accounts of highly esteemed followers of the Lord who disobeyed their governments unto death. What sense can we make of this?
And, of course, to add to the confusion, we must consider the enigmatic words of the Lord Jesus when such a question was posed to try to trick Him, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God,” He said in response. (Matthew 22:21)
These words of Jesus are our first instruction. The Latin origins of the word “obey” mean literally “to listen”. And, before all else, we know we must listen to Him. For our world is at war and He is our Commander.
And so what belongs to God? We do. We belong to a Kingdom not of this world and we always owe our first allegiance to it.
Should our government tell us to violate the laws of our God, we must obey our God first and always because we belong to Him.
But we know this is often not so easily carried out in the complex world of the 21st century. If my government uses my tax money to fund activities that violate God’s laws, how can I obey God? (As a former tax resister, I can testify that the options are few.)
Even to know what violates God’s law is not so simple to discern as we might hope. No one asks us under penalty of death to worship gold statues or to eat pork. Rather, money is withheld from our paychecks to fund so many things that we cannot understand or keep track of them all. After a time, what seemed black or white, may begin to seem so gray that we know longer know how to respond.
And it is because of this confusion on the battlefield that we must be both “obedient” and ever watchful.
In obedience, we listen. To listen, we must take time to be silent with the Lord.
We cannot listen to Him if, as St. Paul notes, we are picking quarrels, slandering or being enslaved by passions.
And is this not what we observe in modern politics? Quarrels, slander, passions?
As Christians living in the world, Paul exhorts us to remember our own enslavement – whether to these vices and passions or others. Hence, when we see others enslaved – the candidates that we do not favor, their followers, the government leaders that we think are ill-suited for duty – we are to recall that we did not become free because of our own virtue.
And so, if I have been freed of my enslavement by grace, it is now my duty to be merciful. As a “good citizen”, I am not to live like one enslaved by the passions of this world but as one who loves and respects all, especially those whom I believe to have fallen from truth or to be enslaved by passions.
I must pray for them constantly and with a sincere heart – for I too am a sinner, not saved by myself but by the undeserved grace of an infinitely compassionate God.
Yet I must also be ever watchful. For I may be confronted with decisions like the golden statues of old. When challenged by my government, who and what will I worship?
It is then that I must give myself over even more to listening in silence. For it is not my will or my passions that are to direct my behavior, but the One who redeems and directs every step of my life.
Only in silence can I hear Him. Only in stillness will He speak.
This is my obedience. This is the love I am called to.
Will you join me?