Biblical Aspects of the Question of Faith and Politics

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[This
is a homily that was delivered on 26 November 1981 in the course
of a service for Catholic members of the Bundestag in the church
of St. Wynfrith (Boniface) in Bonn. The readings provided for the
day by the lectionary were 1 Peter 1:3–7 and John 14:1–6.
At first sight they seemed to be out of keeping with the subject,
but on closer inspection they showed themselves to be unexpectedly
fruitful.]

The
epistle and gospel that we have just listened to have their origin
in a situation in which Christians were not citizens of a state
who were able to shape their own lives but the persecuted victims
of a cruel dictatorship. They could not share in responsibility
for their state but simply had to endure it. It was not granted
to them to shape it as a Christian state; instead their task was
to live as Christians despite it. The names of two emperors in whose
reigns tradition dates these two passages are enough to cast light
on the situation: they were Nero and Domitian. Thus the first letter
of Peter describes Christians as strangers within this state (1:1)
and the state itself as Babylon (5:13). By doing so it indicates
very impressively the political position that Christians were in;
it corresponded more or less to that of the Jews living in exile
in Babylon who were not responsible citizens of that state but subjects
without any rights, and who thus had to learn how they might survive
in it, not how they could build it up. Thus the political background
of today's readings is fundamentally different from ours. Nevertheless
they contain three important statements which are significant for
political activity among Christians.

The
state is not the whole of human existence and does not embrace the
whole of human hope. Men and women and their hopes extend beyond
the thing that is the state and beyond the sphere of political activity.
This does not only apply to a state that is Babylon but to any and
every state. The state is not the totality: that takes the load
off the politician's shoulders and at the same time opens up for
him or her the path of rational politics. The Roman state was false
and anti-Christian precisely because it wanted to be the totality
of human capacity. In that way it claimed what it could not achieve;
and in that way it distorted and diminished men and women. Through
the totalitarian lie it became demonic and tyrannical. Getting rid
of the totality of the state has demythologized the state and thereby
liberated men and women as well as politicians and politics.

But
when Christian faith, faith in man's greater hope, decays and falls
away, then the myth of the divine state rises up once again, because
men and women cannot renounce the totality of hope. Even when such
promises dress themselves up as progress and monopolize the concept
of progress and of progressiveness, nevertheless considered historically
they are a going back behind the Christian thing that is new, a
turning back on the scale of history. And even when they proclaim
as their goal the complete liberation of mankind and the elimination
of all domination, they stand in contradiction to the truth of man
and in contradiction to his or her freedom, because they force people
into what they can achieve themselves. This kind of politics that
declares the kingdom of God to be the result politics and distorts
faith into universal primacy of the political is by its nature the
politics of enslavement; it is mythological politics.

To
this, faith opposes the standard of Christian reason, which recognizes
what man is really capable of creating as the order of freedom and
can be content with this because it knows that man's greater expectation
lies hidden in God's hands. Rejecting the hope of faith is at the
same time rejecting the standard of political reason. To renounce
the mythical hopes of a society free of domination is not resignation
but honesty that maintains men and women in hope. The mythical hope
of a do-it-yourself paradise can only drive people into fear from
which there is no escape; fear of the collapse of their promises
and of the greater void lurks behind it; fear of their own power
and its cruelty.

So
the first service that Christian faith performs for politics is
that it liberates men and women from the irrationality of the political
myths that are the real threat of our time.

It
is of course always difficult to adopt the sober approach that does
what is possible and does not cry enthusiastically after the impossible;
the voice of reason is not as loud as the cry of unreason. The cry
for the large-scale has the whiff of morality; in contrast limiting
oneself to what is possible seems to be renouncing the passion of
morality and adopting the pragmatism of the faint-hearted. But in
truth political morality consists precisely of resisting the seductive
temptation of the big words by which humanity and its opportunities
are gambled away. It is not the adventurous moralism that wants
itself to do God's work that is moral, but the honesty that accepts
the standards of man and in them does the work of man. It is not
refusal to compromise but compromise that in political things is
the true morality.

Although
Christians were persecuted by this state, their attitude towards
it was not fundamentally negative; instead they always recognized
in it the state as state and tried to build up the state as state
and tried to build it up as state within the framework of their
possibilities, not to destroy it. Precisely because they knew they
were living in “Babylon” the guidelines which Jeremiah had drawn
up for those exiled there from Israel applied to them. The letter
from the prophet handed down in Jeremiah 29 was in no way an instruction
to act by way of political resistance, by destroying the slave state,
however much one would have been able to understand this; it is
rather an instruction to maintain and strengthen what is good. In
this way it is an instruction for survival and at the same time
for preparing what is better, what is new. To this extent this morality
of the exile contains fundamental elements of a positive political
ethos. Jeremiah urges the Jews not to persist in negative opposition
but: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their
produce…. Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into
exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you
will find your welfare” (Je 29:5,7). A similar warning is to be
found in 1 Timothy, which is traditionally dated to the reign of
Nero, where we read that prayers should be made "for all men,
for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a
quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way"
(2:1–2). 1 Peter follows the same line with its warning: “Maintain
good conduct among the Gentiles, so that in case they speak against
you as wrong-doers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God
on the day of visitation” (2:12). "Honour all men. Love the
brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the emperor" (2:17). “But let
none of you suffer as a murderer, or a thief, or a wrongdoer, or
a mischiefmaker; yet if one suffers as a Christian, let him not
be ashamed, but under that name let him glorify God” (4:15–16).

What
does this mean? These Christians were not in any way a bunch of
people fearful of and submissive to authority, people who were not
aware that there can be a right and a duty of resistance on conscientious
grounds: indeed the last sentence shows that they recognized the
limits of the state and had not bowed to it when they ought not
to because it was opposed to the will of God.

It
remains all the more important that nevertheless they tried not
to destroy but to build this state up. Amorality was fought by morality,
evil by a determination to persist in what was good, and not otherwise.
Morality, doing good, is true resistance, and only what is good
can be the preparation for a dramatic change to what is better.
There are not two kinds of political morality: a morality of resistance
and a morality of ruling. There is only one morality: morality as
such, the morality of the divine commandments, which cannot be suspended
for a period in order to bring about the transformation of things
more quickly. One can only build things up by building them up,
not by destroying them; that is the political ethics of the bible
from Jeremiah to Peter and Paul. The Christian is always Someone
who seeks to maintain the state in the sense that he or she does
the positive, the good, that holds states together. He or she is
not afraid that thereby he or she is favouring the power of those
who are evil, but instead is convinced that only strengthening what
is good can ever dissolve what is evil and diminish the power both
of evil and of evil people. Anyone who accepts the killing of the
innocent or the destruction of other people's property cannot appeal
to the faith. Against such a person 1 Peter is quite explicit: “Let
none of you suffer as a murderer, or a thief” (4:15); that was said
by this letter against this kind of resistance. The true resistance,
the Christian resistance that it demands happens when and only when
the state demands the rejection of God and his commandments, when
it demands what is evil, whereas in contrast it is always what is
good that we are commanded to do.

From
this follows a final point. Christian faith has destroyed the myth
of the divine state, the myth of the state as paradise and a society
without domination. In its place it has put the objectivity of reason.
But this does not mean that it has produced a value-free objectivity,
the objectivity of statistics and a certain kind of sociology. To
the true objectivity of men and women belongs humanity, and to humanity
belongs God. To genuine human reason belongs the morality that is
fed by God's commandments. This morality is not some private affair;
it has public significance. Without the good of being and doing
good there can be no good politics. What the persecuted Church laid
down for the Christian as the core of its political ethos must also
be the core of any active Christian politics; it is only when good
is done and recognized as good that a good human social existence
can thrive. To bring to public acceptance as valid the standing
of morality, the standing of God's commandments, must be the core
of responsible political activity.

If
we act in this way, then we should, in the midst of the confusions
of difficult times, understand today's scriptural readings as addressed
to us personally and as a reliable promise: “Let not your hearts
be troubled” (Jn 14:1). “By God's power [you] are guarded through
faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1
Pet 1:15). Amen.

Cardinal
Joseph Ratzinger, Church,
Ecumenism and Politics
(New York: Crossroad, 1988), pp. 147–151.

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