Skip to content

When Faith and Government Collide

July 6, 2009

As Catholic Christians living in America we can all name several instances in which our faith and what we believe to be true, good, and just has been brought into conflict with the actions or laws of our country and its leaders. However, based upon many of the verbal (and nonverbal) reactions that I have seen and heard, I believe too few of us have a Biblical understanding of how to approach such conflicts. While taking the “side” of faith in a given issue, we tend to express our disapproval, outrage, etc. via the standard secular means instead of acting and speaking in ways that reflect the Biblical faith we are claiming to defend. (Perhaps this is why we are so often unsuccessful). It may be helpful for us to briefly reflect on the example which Daniel provides for us. For the purpose at hand, I shall briefly summarize chapters 1-6.

At the beginning of the Babylonian exile Daniel found himself under the rule of the pagan King Nebuchadnezzar. He was one of my many designated to be servants of the King. He was to spend three years learning the Chaldean ways. During which time he was to be fed with traditional Chaldean meat and wine so as to make him fit to serve the king. However, he denounced the food in loyalty to God and ate only kosher vegetables. God rewarded him with great wisdom, and he quickly gained the respect of the king.

Some time later, Nebuchadnezzar had a disturbing dream, and he called upon his seers and magicians to interpret it for him. They were unable to do so, and he ordered that they be put to death. Upon hearing this Daniel offered to interpret it. He prayed fervently to God for wisdom and vision. Daniel correctly  described and interpreted the dream to the king. He and his three Jewish friends were rewarded handsomely by Nebuchadnezzar who seers were spared.

Years later Darius became ruler of the kingdom. Some of the Chaldeans, jealous of Daniel’s success, pressured Darius into passing a law which decreed that people may only worship him and no other god for the next 30 days. They found Daniel worshipping his God and turned him in, reminding Darius that no law may be revoked. It is absolute. Thus, Darius reluctantly had Daniel thrown into the lion’s den.  The next morning Darius found Daniel still alive, and Daniel proclaimed “O king live forever! My God has sent his angel and closed the lions’ mouths so that they have not hurt me. For I have been found innocent to him; neither to you have I done any harm O king.”

Perhaps we can learn a few lessons from Daniel.

First, he is absolutely always respectful of the king. Even though Nebuchadnezzar and Darius were both pagans who worshiped other gods, Daniel never looked down upon them. In fact, he even exclaimed “O king live forever!” after the whole lion den thing.  This is far from the demonizing of our leaders which often occurs on both sides of the political aisle by Christians and non-Christians alike.

Second, when there is a conflict, even a life endangering one (like “worship me or die”), he does not go up in arms and respond with verbal or physical violence, etc. Nor does he allow himself to be bullied into compromising his loyalty to God. He peacefully and nonviolently disobeys the laws which infringe on his faith while remaining absolutely under submission to them. In other words, he knows that he cannot follow the law because that would mean disobeying God, but in breaking it, he unreservedly accepts the consequences of his choice and places his hope in God alone. He does not even argue that the law should be overturned.

He submits. He prays. God saves. Law changes.

Wow! How radically different is Daniel’s approach from the one which we normally choose to pursue. We normally prejudge an elected leader, pigeon-holing him/her and choosing to focus only on the bad. Knowing where his/her views run counter to Church teaching we predict immoral actions, legislation, etc. only to act surprised, cry foul, and demonize the figurehead once the actions occur. Furthermore, while our intent may be to defend the faith and to attempt to protect the soul of our nation or the lives of the helpless, we betray ourselves by abandoning our hope in the omnipotence of Love. Instead of exhibiting that peace which only God can give, as Daniel did in the face of pagan persecutions, we panic, revealing to our opponents how shallow our faith is. They in turn are free to presume our complaints are mere political and ideological posturing, politics as usual. Thus, by choosing not to reflect Daniel’s humility, confidence, and peace in the face of an adversarial authority, we reduce our truth claims to just one opinion among many. Joe’s post, How We Shouldn’t Engage Obama, perfectly makes practical what I am trying to say in a general way here.

May God give us the grace and the peace necessary to place our hope in the victory of Christ, so we may charitably and humbly confront our authority figures calling them to conversion, while willingly submitting ourselves to the consequences and sanctions which the law prescribes.

Advertisements
8 Comments
  1. G-Veg permalink
    July 6, 2009 8:39 am

    The position you stake out is consistent with Christian thought on many levels. As a practice, it is consistent with our Anabaptist brethren but not with Catholicism.

    Humble submission has to be one of the hardest things to do. To let history unfold, whether internal or external, without seeking to control it seems almost inhuman.

    Adam was sent into the world to scratch his living from the unyielding soil. This is to say that Genesis suggests that the results of original sin, of pride and rebellion, is to be in a constant state of conflict with the natural world. The experience of the Israelites is one of a constant state of conflict with their nature as it resisted a God who regularly manifested Himself. The Apostles, knowing God personally, nonetheless struggled with a nature that drew themselves from Him.(The last days of Christ’s ministry are particularly illuminating: the reaction to his arrest being to strike back with violence and the reaction to his trial to shrink back in fear.)

    Our Anabaptist brothers teach that only by submission and labor can one find peace. It is very Daniel in that they will not raise a hand in violence, do not protest injustice, and seek to fill their hours with labor. They take from Genesis that man must submit to God through ceaseless labor to be fulfilled and must submit to the vagaries of life without complaint if one is to control human inclination towards pride and rebellion.

    It is a seductive teaching and, were it compatible with the practice of our faith, I would be inclined to it.

    However, reason and experience suggest that evil must be met with force. But how do we reconcile this reality with the teachings of Christ?

    Our Saints, in many cases, did not live as Daniel did. Augustine of Hippo used his profound intellect to disect the enemies of the faith. Francis used the force of personality and his passion to embarras the hierarchy into reform. Mother Katherine Drexel used her connections and status in society to draw wealthy Catholics towards charity.

    So too, the Just War Theory provides a mechanism for analyzing the use of violence in response to evil – at least at an international level.

    In the end, you raise a question that Christians have been grappling with for more than 2000 years. As attractive as submission is and as clearly Christ spoke of it, the practice has been infrequent in human history. Our reaction to those who oppose the moral and the right reflects this age-old contest. We submit as much as we can and rebel when we cannot.

    Such is Man.

  2. July 6, 2009 11:14 am

    G-Veg,

    Thanks for reading and replying. I enjoyed reading your discussion with Joe yesterday. I will not have the time to comment as frequently as he, nevertheless I look forward to our own present and future dialogues.

    First, I think you are incorrectly stating my position, which can probably be blamed on my inability to express myself with sufficient clarity. I am intentionally trying to write broadly and generally, because I find that, in blogosphere, when one starts getting more specific, disagreements over the specific can cause us to lose sight of the primary intent and meaning of the message or post.

    I don’t intend to universalize Daniel’s example, and I certainly do not agree with the Anabaptist position that we must “submit to the vagaries of life without complaint if one is to control human inclination towards pride and rebellion.” Rather, I am attempting to point out that the animosity I often hear towards Pres. Obama and other leaders is both unhelpful and unChristian. I am not saying to refrain from criticizing him, but in offering our critiques, we must do so with respect and love. That does not means that our words will never be sharp or biting. as Jesus often conveys to us in his confrontations with various interlocutors, but they must always come forth out of love and truth.

    In this regard you rightly mention Sts. Francis, Augustine, and Katherine Drexel. I would add St. Thomas More. Note the diversity of their responses but their unity in love and loyalty to truth. Also note how greatly they differ but our own discourse with society. In their words and deeds you can see and feel Christ at the heart; I don’t want to know what is at heart of the hatred, objectification, and demonization at the center of much of our discourse.

    Finally, I would add again, that if we truly trusted in the omnipotence of love in weakness as revealed by Christ’s kenosis esp on the Cross, we would not feel the need to respond with violent words or actions.

    Pax

  3. G-Veg permalink
    July 6, 2009 11:37 am

    Thank you for the clarification.

    I admit that I have strong feelings against the President, Speaker Pelosi, and Senator Reid. Indeed, I have equally strong feelings against Senator Kennedy, Representative Frank, Senator Schumer, and Senator Lautenberg. Each has drawn ill will from me for thier behavior in and out of office.

    What should one do with strong and unkind feelings towards one’s fellow man? In particular, what does one do with those feelings when they are based upon an accurate and fair evaluation of those persons’ deeds and words?

    Had we access to them, we could pull a St. Thomas More – speaking truth to power and all. Instead, we have to satisfy ourselves with conversations with our fellow citizens. But, even here, we have to censor ourselves. We dare not even discuss our beliefs at work and it is often unwise to discuss them with family, friends, and associates.

    I suspect that animosity that you sense has as much to do with the internet being the only anonymous outlet for that anger and frustration. The speakers may not bo so bad in “real life,” but the freedom to say what is pent up inside leads to more explosive response than would otherwise be true if they could express themselves in their daily lives.

    • July 6, 2009 2:28 pm

      There is certainly a good bit of truth in what you have said. The internet makes it easier to the other as enemy, as other, instead of as brother, and if we have frustration and anger pent up, it is likely to be manifest in our internet musings.

      “What should one do with strong and unkind feelings towards one’s fellow man? In particular, what does one do with those feelings when they are based upon an accurate and fair evaluation of those persons’ deeds and words?”

      I know it is cliche, but I strive to love the sinner and hate the sin. I think the most remarkable thing about the saints, is that they view themselves as sinners. That is they are so in touch with God, that they are acutely aware of their own failures. This enables them to love the sinner without judging him, because they know they (indeed all of us) are guilty and worthy of damnation, but for the mercy of God. If I can see Mr. Obama, Ms. Pelosi, etc. as my brother and sister, as someone with whom I am a member of the Body of Christ, or as someone whom I hope will one day share in that Oneness, then how can I wish evil upon them? Instead I must pray for them, do penance for them, as if they were my family.

      (I am certainly not living this out presently, but I think this is what we are called to become)

  4. G-Veg permalink
    July 6, 2009 10:03 pm

    Courtesy and charity are in short supply when it comes to political and social questions.

    I get the impression that this was ever so. I remember reading some of the editorials and letters to the editor from early America and a more uncharitable group of comments is difficult to imagine.

    I agree with your sense that a respectful form of discourse is called for and that there is no just cause to be wanton in our comments and analyses. However, there is good cause to be skeptical of one’s opponents and to require a greater degree of assurance from those who oppose your interests than those who share them.

    President Obama is not the Anti-Christ and he is not so gravely flawed that all of his judgments should be set aside. However, his judgment on social concerns is in serious doubt. I maintain that no one who holds a view of human life as beginning at the moment of birth can be trusted to determine policy as it relates to abortion and equal protection for, to hold such a view, one must be so dogmatic as to set aside 40 years of medical advances since Roe.

    How can one be trusted on such a critical issue if he refuses to consider neutral facts that challenge his views?

    So… I will remain courteous but it will take an awful lot more than a statement from Press Secretary Gibbs to convince me that President Obama is truly interested in addressing the common social concerns of those who could not vote for him on moral grounds.

  5. July 7, 2009 8:28 am

    Joshua,

    Good post. At the risk of going off on a tangent, I’d like to ask a question that I think is related to your post. You write about how Christians ought to approach laws that conflict with their faith. Do you think we have the right in our society either to oppose laws or to support laws solely on the basis of our faith? In other words, do Christians have the right to make the civil law reflect the teachings of the Christian faith in those instances in which no secular basis can be given?

  6. July 7, 2009 10:41 pm

    Kyle,

    Great question! I’m not sure that I have a firm answer just yet, although a few months ago I spent hours discussing this with my wife and a good Catholic friend who is pursuing her PhD in the Psychology of Religion.

    To be very basic, although I’d love to talk more, I think that all society should be ordered to acheiving the common good. I think that that can come from following natural law and thus does not demand Christian authoritarianism (but in a pluralistic society which rejects natural law…?). If we were to impose the faith in law in our society, our impositions would be the constant cause of conflict and would be overturned. I believe our best approach is a wholistic one, one which does cease working on the legal end, but focuses on integral Christian witness and humble evangelization.

    Do you think we have the right in our society either to oppose laws or to support laws solely on the basis of our faith?
    Oppose or support, yes. Impose…I’m not so sure.

    In other words, do Christians have the right to make the civil law reflect the teachings of the Christian faith in those instances in which no secular basis can be given?
    To make the civil law reflect, no. It must happen through legit democracy which works best with a legit majority, thus the necessity of change hearts, starting with our own.

    What say you?

  7. July 9, 2009 8:42 am

    Joshua,

    Your note about our pluralistic society points to one of the difficulties for Christians today. Not only are we a society of many faiths, but we are a society that disagrees about fundamental questions of human nature and even whether there is such a thing as human nature. Pluralistic is the right adjective. Postmodern is apt as well. Ordering society toward the common good is difficult when we don’t agree on what the good is, what society is, and what order is. So in our pluralistic, postmodern society, Christians, I agree, wouldn’t be long successful at maintaining laws whose basis only Christians would agree with.

    I’m of the opinion that Christians, nor anyone of any faith, should use the law to prohibit or require behaviors whose prohibition or requirement is solely religious in nature. To use the law in these ways hinders religious freedom, which is a freedom Christians have an interest in defending, especially in our pluralistic, postmodern society. I don’t see a problem with religious people acting like religious people in the public sphere, even in the political sphere. I draw the line at using the law to compel others to behave like religious people.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: