One Perspective . . .

 In faith or politics, it’s all about grace

Stephen B. Young, The Daily Record Newswire

The recent Synod of Catholic Bishops, convened at the Vatican, has — mirabile dictu — shown us a way out of our dysfunctional political gridlock toward renewal of the American ideal of being a “City Upon a Hill,” a special community of good people seeking to live admirably.

It’s not out of place to say that our recent political distemper has been, really, an attenuated episode of sectarian religious warfare. It has been an extension of the civil discord that began in the French Revolution, when advocates of the Enlightenment sought to banish the Catholic Church.

As the French Revolution moved from moderate constitutional reform to more extreme re-engineering of culture under the Jacobins, Christianity was administratively replaced as the normative foundation for the French by the worship of Reason, as Rousseau, Voltaire, and other Enlightenment intellectuals had recommended.

The Enlightenment Left then and now views itself as living in a culture that no longer believes in sin. Endowed with Reason, men and women come into this world, the Enlightenment believes, already as sanctified as they will ever be. They need no additional perfection from religious devotion or liturgy, or through compliance with religious doctrines of right and wrong personal behavior.

This cultural Left then takes it for granted that, in this life, secular holiness is whatever we want it to be and however we want to live. Thus, each of us has never-ending claims on society to live and be just as we want, supported in our self-images by others who have no right to make demands on our sensibilities or our values.

As Rousseau said: “Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains.” The cause of humanity’s revolution, then, is to break all the chains. Today’s version of Rousseau’s desire is to liberate every self from social and cultural restraint and constraint. This has been the core agenda of progressive movements — the avant guard — since the rise of the Jacobins.

The Progressive Left in our 40-year-old culture war has thus directly and indirectly sought to dethrone the influence of Christianity, especially Protestant Christianity, over all Americans. That is why the fault lines of dispute have been most severe around traditional religious views on gender, family authority and sex. The Left has believed that if family values can be liberated from traditional Christian strictures on right and wrong, then individuals will be liberated to be as they want to be.

Norman Mailer put the confrontation as for or against fear of sin in his 1958 essay “The White Negro.”

The first trenches for cultural combat were then dug by “hippies” and feminists, followed by in response the conservatives opposed to abortions. Now the culture war focuses on gay marriage.

In families, parental authority and character development were replaced with indulgent acquiescence to the wishes of the children. In economics the work ethic was replaced with entitlements. In politics, responsibility to community was replaced with claims to authority based on elite education, race and gender.

Fear, anger, dysfunction, narcissism, alienation, and a vacuum of sustaining meaning for one’s life — not happiness — have largely been the results of this change in culture. Money, consumption of goods, and use of other people have been turned to by many for psychic relief.

Christianity professes belief in sin but provides redress for that condition in various forms of dedication of self to that which is holy or sanctified. For Catholic Christians such redress is largely in performing the sacraments; for Protestants it is living a life of ministry and rectitude out of faith in Christ’s power to redeem all souls from spiritual darkness, physical corruption, and moral evil.

The personal struggle of Christians to prove themselves worthy of salvation has its parallel in Islam with the doctrine of personal jihad to show God that one has faith and has done good works.

But the theology of sin leads to a perception that many are sinfulness while others are without sin, thereby becoming sanctified and righteous. We can theoretically tell one kind of person from the other. Thus, Christianity calls forth judgment between those who are under the power of sin and those who have been released. Christianity as practiced by those of us on this side of paradise can be discriminatory without grace and humility.

Just so do the warring parties in our culture war seek to use politics and government to impose on all of us their particularistic judgments of who is righteous in their minds and who is not.

The cultural right believes people on the left to be unrighteous, to be shunned and kept from power at any cost. The cultural left believes people on the right, especially conservative Christians, to be ill-intentioned, bigoted, hurtful, small-minded, and far from being just — to be persons who must be restrained by law from imposing their unfeeling prejudices on society.

Neither faction grants the other any dispensation that they might be welcomed into civic fellowship or listened to without losing one’s own status as being theologically right-minded. Civility and gracious community have pretty much disappeared from our politics.

When we take upon ourselves the authority to judge the quality of others, we may well lose touch with love and compassion — even with God’s grace itself.

During the Oct. 4 prayer vigil in St Peter’s Square, Pope Francis eloquently said: “Evening falls on our assembly. It is the hour at which one willingly returns home to meet at the same table, in the depth of affection, of the good that has been done and received, of the encounters which warm the heart and make it grow, good wine which hastens the unending feast in the days of man. It is also the weightiest hour for one who finds himself face to face with his own loneliness, in the bitter twilight of shattered dreams and broken plans; how many people trudge through the day in the blind alley of resignation, of abandonment, even resentment: in how many homes the wine of joy has been less plentiful, and therefore, also the zest — the very wisdom — for life.”

Robert Frost wrote in his poem “Death of the Hired Man” that home is “something you somehow haven’t to deserve.” Home is being free from being judged.

Home is about giving grace to one another and receiving grace from one another. It is a place for communion, and not essentially for judgment, especially for judgments on salvation and damnation which only the highest is fit to make.

The bishops gathered in Rome reminded their Catholic faithful of the “law of gradualness.” Under this understanding of Jesus’ teachings, our selfish dealing with our own sinfulness is more like a journey forward toward something rather than either a state of having arrived at the destination or being in a state of never making it there no matter how hard we try.

The point of gradualness is that all of us need help on our way. No one is to be excluded by mere human judgment from the possibility of overcoming sin or degradation, sorrow or poverty, anger or impudence, ignorance or contumacy.

Lincoln even once wrote of Southern slave owners: “They are just what we would be in their situation.” He who took the stance of “with malice towards none, with charity for all.”

The bishops discussed that, in their belief, God accompanies humanity on its path, directing us to a new beginning, but not without pain, frustration and suffering.

Thus, we are reminded to become ourselves companions on the journeys of others, learning for this purpose the “art of accompaniment” which “teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other.”

If we were to secularize this law of gradualness for our civic undertakings as Americans, then both extremes of judgment — one that we must judge the sinners and the saints with certainty and the other that those who seek to warn us about our temptations and selfishness are bad and must be shunned — must be put aside and replaced with conciliation, compromise, and mutually respected liberty of conscience.

We should ask for spiritual discernment to look for the possibilities of good and not prejudge its absence in others while we retain firmly our own standards and beliefs which need not be theirs.

Politics should not be about saints and sinners but rather about how to work together in common good faith helping one another forward towards better days.

The first report on the bishops’ discussions noted: “Imitating Jesus’ merciful gaze, the Church must accompany her most fragile sons and daughters, marked by wounded and lost love, with attention and care, restoring trust and hope to them like the light of a beacon in a port, or a torch carried among the people to light the way for those who are lost or find themselves in the midst of the storm.”

It’s all about grace and extending the right hand of fellowship while keeping true to our own course of personal redemption.


Stephen B. Young is executive director of the Caux Round Table, an international network advocating ethical principles for business and government.


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