November 2012
The Battle Already Won
The Public Square
R.R. Reno

If we believe in the sure triumph of Christ, why do we allow ourselves to be drawn into the very unsure world of political conflict? If our victory is assured, why enter the current fight about same-sex marriage, abortion, or anything else? If we are to worship Christ the King, why worry ourselves about presidential elections? Why let ourselves get waylaid by a world that is passing away? The strife is o’er, the battle done, as the old hymn puts it. Why exercise ourselves in the public square?

The Lord’s Prayer gives a straightforward answer: Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus follows up with lots of specific exhortations. We’re to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, and much more, including the duty to work for what we think best for society as a whole.

There is peril in this. We might be wrong about the common good and which policies will best realize it. Moreover, power and influence intoxicate, and we can become enthralled by the world’s measure of victory, forgetting that the most important battle has already been won, and won by the cross.

Jesus warned us that his kingdom is not of this world. “The world” is the formulation the New Testament uses to refer to the soul-structuring regimes of fallen humanity. The worldly man, the one who lives according to the flesh, as St. Paul puts it, makes pleasure, wealth, power, and even physical survival his ultimate goods, thus turning them into idols. Disordered by sin, we need to train ourselves to renounce the world so that we can obey the first commandment without reservation. This training may require us to withdraw from entirely legitimate but spiritually tempting dimensions of our natural lives—hating our fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, as Jesus says in one of Scripture’s hard passages.

He was not rejecting the commandment to honor our father and mother, which epitomizes our natural duty to seek the good of our families and serves as the kernel of our broader duties to the political community. But we need to be prepared to die to our natural loves, as it were, so as to enter more fully into the supernatural love of Christ. That’s why St. Benedict went into the caves of Subiaco as a young man, not because the affairs of men and the realities of everyday life aren’t capable of sanctification, but to break the spell that leads us to imagine them supreme.

So we must be double-minded in our political engagements. On the one hand we’re to be committed to our natural duties of citizenship, and on the other hand we need to recognize that the final victory does not depend upon us. It’s a double-mindedness that protects us from both dangerous urgency and debilitating despair. To know that Christ is victorious delivers us from a political works righteousness that imagines the future to be entirely in our hands to shape and control, a mentality that tempts us to break laws and bend principles for the sake of political victory, because we’ve allowed that victory to become our only hope. It also protects us from political defeatism, a mentality that tempts us to give up on the proximate and imperfect good that we can do in public life. The future is not in our hands, and so we need not imagine that our present impotence makes our cause hopeless.

Therefore, instead of making politics pointless for Christians who believe in Christ’s victory, this double-mindedness rencourages a passion for the common good without tempting us to imagine that every election is the finally decisive one. In the concluding weeks of World War II, countless people died while the victory was not in doubt. Had we been directing the Allied armies, we certainly would have bent our wills to try to save lives, perhaps by intervening or shifting resources, or simply by working to hasten the victory. This exemplifies a salutary double-mindedness. The Allied triumph is secure, and so the moral focus changes. Free from responsibility for the larger strategic goal, preventing unnecessary suffering and death becomes more urgent, not less so. The victory won and the future no longer in our hands, we can focus on what can be done here and now.

In these and other ways, to know the ending, to have confidence in Christ’s victory, heightens the moral urgency without tempting us to a Manichean view of political life. That’s a spirit of engagement we very much need today. As I argued last month, we’re at the end of an era. A great deal is at stake. Christians have a natural duty to try to shape the future as best we can to accord with our vision of the common good. If we keep Christ’s lordship in mind, our political activism won’t be pointless, but it also won’t be supercharged with ultimate significance.

That’s one reason why Christians and other believers are especially well suited to play productive roles in the inevitable give-and-take of democratic politics. They have good reasons to be engaged—and good reasons to resist the temptations to make an idol of their political convictions, good reasons not to turn elections into cosmic struggles for final victory.

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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