Monthly Archives: May 2016

The Convivial Christ

Jesus was not an ideologue. He did not push a political program. When Pilate confronted him about his agenda, Jesus responded, “My kingdom is not of this world.”  Jesus recognized the legitimacy of government. (“Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.”)  He simply took no overt stand in favor or against the various political factions of his day.

Instead of promoting a political agenda, Christ pursued the hearts of men. His strategy was not electioneering, propaganda or campaigns. It was friendship, food, and drink, breaking bread with “sinners.”  He said, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” (Matthew 11:29)

How was his “wisdom vindicated by her deeds?”   Christ’s method was vindicated because it worked.  Instead of confronting Zacchaeus with a political pitch, he said, “Zacchaeus come down! I’m going to your house today.” (Luke 19:5) It was as if Christ had said, “Let’s go get a cup of coffee, shall we?”  Zacchaeus’s response to Jesus’ generosity was repentance and faith.

Jesus’ friendliness was more than an evangelistic strategy. It was a sign of the heavenly life to come. Jesus describes himself as Israel’s bridegroom. In view of the upcoming “wedding,” the guests of the bridegroom do not fast. They celebrate. (Mark 2:19) Jesus’ eating, drinking, and celebrating was a sign of the coming Wedding Feast of the Lamb. (Revelation 19:7)

Christ’s friendship lies at the heart of the Christian faith. “I no longer call you servants, but friends,” Jesus said. (John 15:15) To the paralytic, Jesus said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” (Luke 5:20)  Likewise, Peter confessed his friendship with Christ. (John 21:15)  It is a friendship Jesus wants to extend to the whole Church, and especially to the poor. (Luke 14:12; Luke 16:9) According to Cardinal Schoenborn, the whole Christian ethic is summed up in the ideal of friendship. (Commencement Address, Thomas Aquinas College, 2002)

Today, our country is very divided politically and ideologically. According to the Pew Research Forum, Americans are more polarized today than they have been in twenty years. Democrats are more consistently liberal. Republicans are more consistently conservative. There is less and less common ground between them, and more and more acrimony. Online dating websites report that politics now trumps religion as the biggest “deal breaker” for future relationships. People are more willing to date across religious lines than political ones.

It is tempting to find solutions to social problems in ideology.  The ideologue rests smug and secure in the knowledge that he is on the “right side.” He identifies justice with an abstract state of affairs, a political program, or a body of legislation.  He easily demonizes his opponents. They are on the “wrong side.” He does not have to win their friendship. He has to defeat them politically.

But Catholic tradition tells us that justice can never be identified with a political program. That is because justice is a virtue, a habit, than inheres in the will of individuals. It is the habit of doing right by one’s fellows. It is the habit of concerning oneself with the common good, not simply in political electioneering, but in concrete acts of generosity and good will.  You can have a deep theoretical concern with justice, but still be very unjust.  Karl Marx spent his days studying political economy, but his children died of starvation.  Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote treatises on education, but handed all his children off to orphanages.

St. Thomas tells us that the first baby steps towards justice are found in friendliness. “It behooves man,” Thomas writes,” to be maintained in a becoming order towards other men . . . this virtue is called friendliness.” (Summa theologica, II.II.114.1)  It’s not the whole of justice. It’s just a necessary first step, but it is still necessary.  If we look to Christ, we would have to conclude that friendliness and kindness are more immediately important than striving for the best political policy.

Pope John Paul II recognized the dangers of ideological blocs. In his encyclical Solicitudo Rei Socialis, he identified the human heart as the more important locus of division and reconciliation:

It is important to note therefore that a world which is divided into blocs, sustained by rigid ideologies . . . can only be a world subject to structures of sin . . . rooted in personal sin, and thus always linked to the concrete acts of individuals who introduce these structures, consolidate them and make them difficult to remove.

Politics and ideology are inevitable. We cannot legislate without some theoretical understanding of the common good. But our ultimate good transcends politics.  It is telling that Jesus did not leave us with a manifesto. He left us with the Eucharist, the source and summit of the Christian faith. How appropriate is St. Thomas’s hymn O Sacrum Convivium! “O Sacred Banquet in which Christ is received!” By it we are renewed in the convivial Christ.