Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Police State and Christian Confidence

“You will never destroy our sect! Mark this well: when you think you are striking it down, you are, in reality, strengthening it. The public will become restive at so much courage. It will long to know its origin. And when a man recognizes the truth- he’s ours!”

-Tertullian, The Apology (his letter to the Roman magistrate) 190-200 A.D.

Elements of a police state :

Conservative commentators, such as Mark Levin and Mike Huckabee, have recently expressed their concerns about the scandals of the Obama administration as having “elements of a police state.” Disclosures from media reports and congressional hearings suggest that the federal government is using its political power against its own citizens; most especially with regard to those who are politically disagreeable to them.

Even in America, there are consequences when Christianity is purged from the public square. To be sure, the point at which State power ends and where the rights of private citizens begin are more blurred today than ever before. Ambitious politicians will hardly resist the temptation to exploit faded boundaries. As Vladimir Soloviev once said on the eve of the Russian Revolution: "Once the supremacy of one's own interest is recognized and legalized in politics only as mine, then it becomes absolutely impossible to point out boundaries of this mine..."

Emboldening the wicked:

History shows that when politicians make a power grab for the controls of government, they frequently presume that good men will do little or nothing to stop them. In other words, the elements of a police state are not only advanced by the assertiveness of evil men, but also by the passivity of godly men. As Pope Leo XIII said over a century ago, to entertain doubts about our mission is profitable only to the enemies of the faith; for nothing emboldens the wicked so greatly as the lack of courage on the part of the good.  Indeed, the absence of courage on the part of good people in America- and here, I refer principally to Christians –has produced fertile soil for the elements of the police state to surface. Whether or not it goes any further than that is up to the people of God.

Knowing their weakness:

The Catholic Church, throughout her history, has seen the police state come and go. Interestingly, when the police state did come- especially in the twentieth century - too few Christians were able to discredit it and expose its weakness. Neither were they confident in their own position as Christ’s ambassadors. But in order to subvert any repressive regime, its weakness must be known and exploited. This applies especially to what St. Augustine called the “city of man,” which refers to the world. In fact, ungodly and the worldly powers that be may have the veneer of invincibility, but on the inside there looms elements of decay and instability. As Christopher Dawson, Catholic historian, once said:

“And while the City of God is stronger than it appears to be, the city of man is weaker. The forces that appear to make human civilization so irresistible—its wealth, its economic organization, and its military power—are essentially hollow, and crumble to dust as soon as the human purpose that animates them loses its strength.”

Knowing our strength:

The Church Fathers in particular, and the early Christians in general, took this fact for granted. Not only did they publicly attest that political powers and social prestige in their own day were inherently unstable, but they gave voice to cosmic and historic importance of the Catholic Church. For St. Cyprian, Noah’s Ark was but the Sacrament of the Church of Christ. To Hermas, around the year 140 A.D., the pre-existence of the Church was revealed. As for St. Clement, the fourth pope, he styled the Church as the “first born” and that which was “created before the sun and the moon.” St. Augustine went further by teaching that the “Church was in Abel…in Enoch…at one time in the house of Noah alone…at one time…in Abraham alone.” About two hundred years later, Pope St. Gregory the Great said, “The Church produces as many saints as the vineyard shoots.” And to add yet another quote to illustrate the confidence the Fathers had in the Church is from St. John Chrysostom. He said, “The Church is the pillar of the world.”

It can even be said that the more the Church was persecuted by the ancient police state, the more emboldened the early Christians became. They understood that affliction and death for them was life for others. As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “If we are afflicted, it is for your encouragement and salvation.” And in that same letter he also reminded them: “So death is at work in us, but life in you.” The Church Fathers displayed an unwavering confidence that the life of Jesus Christ- as he existed in their souls and as he existed in the Church -was not only a benefit to society, but necessary to it.

What we mean to them:

Tertullian, for one, reminded the ancient state of Rome that it is not they who protected the Christians (that is, when they weren’t persecuting the Christians) but rather it was the Church who protected the State. For instance, Tertullian, a Father of the Church (190 A.D.), wrote a letter to a Roman magistrate reminding him of the dire consequences if Christians were to be eliminated. This letter was written during a fierce persecution against the Church (190-200 A.D.). To be sure, this Catholic priest from Africa could have been killed because of it. At any rater, here is but one short passage from that letter:

“We are but of yesterday, and we have filled every place among you—cities, islands, fortresses, towns, market-places, the very camp, tribes, companies, palace, senate, forum,—we have left nothing to you but the temples of your gods...Why, you would be horror-struck at the solitude in which you would find yourselves, at such an all-prevailing silence, and that stupor as of a dead world...Who would save you, I mean, from the attacks of those evil spirits, which without reward or hire we exorcise? This alone would be revenge enough for us, that you were henceforth left free to the possession of unclean spirits. But instead of taking into account what is due to us for the important protection we afford you, and though we are not merely no trouble to you, but in fact necessary to your well-being, you prefer to hold us enemies, as indeed we are, yet not of man, but rather of his error.”

Not only are we no trouble to you, Tertullian said, but in fact we are necessary for your well-being. What a bold thing to say! And yet such confidence and spirit of magnanimity was common among the Fathers; even as their lives were being threatened. When Jesus said to his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth” and “You are the light of the world,” he was not only referring to the influence Christians would have on the individual soul, but on society itself! For the early Church, this divine calling to be the salt for the earth and light to the world was not a dead letter. Its significance was alive and active in her members. They embraced it and made it there own. Hence, they were brimming with a sense of mission and purpose. With this, the early Fathers were able to articulate the kind of dignity and splendor Christians possessed. And you know what? The early Christians believed it!

What we meant to them:

Historians tell us that the twentieth century was the century of martyrs. In fact, more martyrs were made by the modern police state in the twentieth century than by the old pagan state in the first centuries of Church. For instance, during the 1920’s, Catholics in Mexico became acquainted with the brutality of the police state, courtesy of the communists. Scores of faithful Catholics, who refused to bend their necks to the Mexican police state, were hanged or shot by firing squads.

The propaganda of the communist against the Church in Mexico was not unlike the calumny unleashed by the pagans of antiquity. In both instances, enemies of the Church tried to discredit her contributions to culture. They fabricated myths that she was threat to the State. However, in each of those instances, the Church had answer to such accusations. For instance, in 1926 the U.S. Bishops publicly came to the defense of their brother bishops in Mexico in a pastoral letter. And in a spirit of solidarity, they cataloged- in detail –what the Church meant to Mexico’s heritage. Like Tertullian who, with a sense of self-assurance, informed the Roman prelate of the empire’s need for Christians, similarly, the U.S. Bishops reminded the Mexican government that its country once enjoyed progress and prosperity (from 1531 to 1800)- and that it was in every way comparable with its North American neighbor -precisely because of the Catholic Church. Indeed, before Mexico was menaced by revolutionaries imbued with the communist spirit in the late eighteenth century, she enjoyed every bit as much as progress as America did up to that point.

With this in mind, the U.S. Bishops- as if to speak on behalf of the Mexican Bishops -addressed pointed words to the Mexican police state. An excerpt from that pastoral letter reads as follows:

“Take out of your country all that I put in it, and see what remains. You may thrust me out, exile my bishops, murder my priests, again steal my schools and desecrate my sanctuaries, but you cannot blot out history, you cannot erase the mark I made on you—not in a century of centuries.”

And then they added:

“The Church is not fated to die, but she has learned how to suffer. With Him she will be crucified but with Him also she will rise.”

This is Christian confidence at its finest! And yet, this confidence in who we were and what we meant to society was expressed only a century ago. And to be sure, it was the kind of confidence was instrumental in undermining the police state…both in pagan Rome and in Mexico. Yet, within the last fifty years Christian confidence has been quieted and lulled to sleep. Where’s it expressed today and by whom?

Revisit the words of Christopher Dawson on the city of man- the Church Father’s on the cosmic importance of the Church- Tertullian on the social necessity of Christians- and the U.S. Bishops (Pastoral Letter of 1926) on what the Church meant to Mexico, and ask:

Does any one of us exude this confidence? Do we know how frail the powers of the world are? Do we understand how important we are; not because of who we are but because of what Christ can do through us? And finally, can we look back to our nation’s history and boldly point to the countless contributions of Christians and the benefits the Catholic Church has lavished on society? Can we, while placing all of our confidence in Christ, say: "Without us, America is nothing!"

If Christians can answer these questions in the affirmative, then the elements of a police state will be contained and short-lived in America.