Biblical Aspects of the Question of Faith and Politics

[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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