Placing Politics in a Larger Spiritual Context

It behooves a citizen of a free and democratic society to exercise his right to vote. It is a solemn and serious responsibility at all times but perhaps especially these days when the abortion issue so strongly divides our two major political parties. I distinctly remember the first time I voted in a federal election in this country. I was still a relatively newly minted American citizen when I proudly cast a vote for the Romney/Ryan ticket in 2012. It was at once an empowering and, paradoxically, a humbling experience. Ever since then, I have been careful to research candidates and vote accordingly in all elections, local and federal. And I strongly encourage my friends to do the same. And I strongly encourage you to do the same. Get out and vote on Tuesday and bring your friends with you. It is a sacred duty of an American and one that should not be taken lightly.

Now with all that being said, the importance of voting is not the topic of this essay. In the hyper-politicized environment characteristic of the United States today, I would like to take a step back from the constant flash of Fox News, the endless noise of talk radio, the sensationalism of CNN, and the Niagara Falls of social media, and get some perspective. We all need a healthy dose of proper perspective from time to time: a moment of calm and quiet in which we can properly assess the relative importance of things. This is, I think, what Jesus was doing as he wrote in the dust in front of the angry and politically motivated mob as they demanded the blood of the woman taken in adultery in John 8.

I would like to look at another episode from the Gospel of John. In chapter six, Jesus miraculously feeds more than five thousand people with a mere five barley loaves and two fish. When everyone had eaten their fill, the remnants were gathered and filled twelve baskets. Upon witnessing this, the people understandably wished to make Jesus their king. “Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the hills by himself” (John 6:15). Why did the people wish to make Jesus their ruler? Perhaps some of the wiser among them understood the five loaves to represent the Old Law given by Moses in the Pentateuch and the twelve baskets to represent the re-uniting of the twelve tribes of Israel. The Messiah was to be a Prophet like Moses and was believed to be the one who would bring back unity to the twelve tribes. Perhaps. But the likelier answer is that they saw in Jesus a man who could miraculously multiply food! This man had the power to end all hunger and poverty. Of course, he should be king! Who better?

This thinking is not unreasonable. If Jesus could actually feed everyone, why didn’t he? If Jesus could end the problem of hunger, wasn’t he obliged to do so? Why does he run away from this? Doesn’t he love us? These questions can be broadened further to ask about the role the Church ought to play in politics. For many, Jesus’s and the Church’s hands-off approach to politics has proved a significant stumbling block to the Christian faith.

 

To find the answer to this question, it will prove helpful to consider some other episodes from John’s Gospel. Beginning in the Prologue and continuing through many of the early chapters, we find a strong theme of contrast between the earthly and the heavenly—a theme that often leads to misunderstandings. When Jesus is talking to Nicodemus in chapter three, the dialogue focuses on being born again. Naturally, Jesus is talking about spiritual rebirth but Nicodemus cannot get past the notion of a physical or earthly birth. In John 4, Jesus and the Samaritan woman begin their conversation with a discussion about water and we quickly find these two different planes of speech once again. Jesus is speaking of living water—grace and his life-giving teaching—but the woman initially thinks that he is talking about flowing water as opposed to the stagnant well water. Jesus is always focused on the heavenly while all too often his interlocutors are intent on the earthly.

Let us now revisit our question: Why does the Church (and Jesus himself) not concern itself more with the political sphere and try to do good therein? In short, the Church does not overly concern itself with the political sphere because—using Christ as its exemplar—this is simply not its purpose. Christ came primarily to heal our souls, although he did heal bodies along the way. Christ indeed fed the stomachs of the multitude with bread, but he came in order to feed our spirits with the Eucharist. He did not come, as he told Pilate in John 18, to establish a kingdom on earth. Many of the Jews were expecting their Messiah to do just that: to be an earthy king who would liberate them from the oppressive Roman power, as Moses had led them out of Egypt. This was a reasonable supposition, but it makes the same error of missing the spiritual by focusing too much on the earthly, and losing sight of Heaven amidst all of the wonderful things on earth.

There is another related reason why the Church intentionally separates itself from politics. Latent in the question is the notion that politics can solve the world’s (and man’s) problems: if we can just refine our laws and customs, we will be able to create a perfect and problem-free society on earth. This is simply not true. We are a fallen and fundamentally broken people who needed God to become man, die a painful death, resurrect, and give us of his flesh to eat just so that we might have a chance at salvation. The idea that we can be the architects of a utopian society completely ordered towards the good is an exercise in delusional hubris. Do not misunderstand, we can do all things in Christ, it is true, but Christ did not give us an example of this undertaking. Quite the opposite. Our focus, like Christ’s, must not be on this Earth. We are sojourners here, merely passing through. This is not our home and certainly not our end. Heaven is at the end of our journey and we are all called to labor for this eternal Kingdom of Heaven, not for the passing kingdoms of this world. This is the mission of the Church and any foray into the political realm would be a distraction and a turning from the more to the less important.

So please go out and vote. But understand and accept politics for what it is. Do not grant it exaggerated importance. Do not think that any political party or politician will save the United States or the world. Do not put your hope or trust in men. Put your faith in Christ. No matter the outcome of the election, trust in him and stay firm in your belief that he has already triumphed over evil. In other words, get some proper perspective and don’t let the endlessly noisy and often ugly world of politics disturb your peace. It’s not worth it.

Stephen Fitzpatrick

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Stephen Fitzpatrick received a B.A. in the Liberal Arts from Thomas Aquinas College and an M.A. in Theology from the University of Scranton. He teaches at Gregory the Great Academy.

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