• 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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