Does being Christian make a difference?

March 16, 2016 in News

A recent Salon article argues – credibly, I believe – that there is more than a whiff of Mussolini about Donald Trump in his Republican nomination campaign. It’s all there. Trump presents himself as a man of destiny – a Nietzschean Übermensch, though he is unlikely to use the term – and he encourages a cult of personality. He casts himself as an outsider to politics, but as a man with the strength and the will and the purpose to get things done. Especially aggressive, violent things. He whips up a savage hatred of the enemy outside – Muslims of every stripe – and of the enemy within – illegal immigrants, particularly Latinos. He’d block all Muslims from entering the country. He’d build a wall along the border with Mexico. You’ve got to keep the murderers and rapists out, after all.

And as for protesters at his rallies, he shouts at them to get out. “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato,” he tells his crowd, “knock the crap out of ’em, would you? Seriously… I will pay for the legal fees.” He hugely admires Vladimir Putin (who returns the compliment). When it’s pointed out to him how deeply implicated Putin is in the murder of political rivals and critical journalists, Trump replies, “At least he’s a leader”. It’s all about being a leader, about being tough, brutal, decisive. Freedom, rights, even democracy – it can all play second fiddle to being tough.

What might surprise people looking in from outside is that a high percentage of Catholic Republicans have been voting for Trump, even higher in fact than the percentage of Evangelical Republicans.  This in spite of the fact that on the social issues that most concern them (abortion, same-sex marriage, religious freedom) Trump seems merely to have had a series of ‘conversions of convenience’ in the course of his campaign. These Catholics are not persuaded by the intervention of Catholic intellectuals Robert George and George Weigel, who (even though they share the concerns of other Catholic Republicans) wrote in an open letter last week that “Donald Trump is manifestly unfit to be president of the United States.”

His campaign has already driven our politics down to new levels of vulgarity. His appeals to racial and ethnic fears and prejudice are offensive to any genuinely Catholic sensibility. He promised to order U.S. military personnel to torture terrorist suspects and to kill terrorists’ families — actions condemned by the Church and policies that would bring shame upon our country. And there is nothing in his campaign or his previous record that gives us grounds for confidence that he genuinely shares our commitments to the right to life, to religious freedom and the rights of conscience, to rebuilding the marriage culture, or to subsidiarity and the principle of limited constitutional government.

Nor were Trump’s Catholic supporters impressed by Pope Francis himself. Asked about Trump’s proposal to build a wall along the Mexican border the Pope said, “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not about building bridges, is not a true Christian. This is not in the Gospel”. No doubt the Vatican press office director Federico Lombardi SJ was correct to explain that the Pope was not directly judging Donald Trump and had no intention of intervening in the US presidential campaigns, but Catholics could be in no doubt that at the very least His Holiness did not accept that building a wall along the Mexican border was compatible with Gospel values.

Many of the more vocal elements on the Catholic right, Trump supporters or not, were sharply critical of the Pope for his comments. And quite a few extended their criticism to include Pope Francis’s insistence that European countries should do much more to meet the needs of refugees. The Pope made no distinction between refugees of one religion or another. Some European nations, on the other hand, did. The Hungarian prime minister, for example, justified a clamp-down on the influx of refugees by remarking that Europe’s Christian identity was under threat because “those arriving have been raised in another religion, and represent a radically different culture.” And a senior Slovakian politician commented, “We don’t have any mosques in Slovakia, so how can Muslims be integrated if they are not going to like it here?”

Comments on conservative Catholic forums in the US were often less politic than this. One goes: “Europe should take the genuinely oppressed people of Syria and Iraq, Arab and Assyrian Christians but not unlimited numbers of people who are members of a faith that has always been an enemy of Christianity.” Another: “Allowing Europe to become less Christian? Allowing in more non-Christians to rape, pillage, and harry as they please? This is madness.”

Why does Francis not discriminate like this between Christian refugees and Muslim refugees? Why does he not make such distinctions? The answer, I believe, lies in his attentiveness to ‘the Christian difference’. Let me put it in question form: Is there – should there be – any difference between the political views of, say, an American Republican who is a Christian and one who is not? Or between a European social democrat who is Christian and one who is not? Or between a Christian and an atheist humanitarian? Is there something that is distinct, different, which a Christian ought to bring to the table, whatever their political affiliations or convictions?

The answer, I believe, is yes. And I believe it can be found in the most obvious of places – in the Sermon on the Mount. More specifically, it lies in a word which dominates Matthew’s account of that Sermon, namely the adjective (in the Greek Septuagint) ‘perissos’, meaning ‘abundant’, ‘beyond measure’, ‘exceeding’, ‘greater’, ‘even more’, or ‘far more’. The whole sermon is about doing more, giving more. “Unless your justice abound more than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

In his The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer draws this point out beautifully, leaving me with very little more to say. It’s a long quote but worth it, especially as it comes from the pen of a deeply reflective theologian who, in so many ways but especially in his radical refusal to distinguish between loving a fellow-German and loving a Jew, took this doctrine of Christ’s seriously, even unto death, even unto execution by the Nazis.

What is undivided love? Love which shows no special favour to those who love us in return. When we love those who love us, our brethren, our nation, our friends, yes, and even our own congregation, we are no better than the heathen and the publicans. Such love is ordinary and natural, and not distinctively Christian. We can love our kith and kin, our fellow-countrymen and our friends, whether we are Christians or not, and there is no need for Jesus to teach us that. But he takes that kind of love for granted, and in contrast asserts that we must love our enemies. Thus he shows us what he means by love, and the attitude we must display towards it.

How then do the disciples differ from the heathen? What does it really mean to be a Christian? Here we meet the word which controls the whole chapter, and sums up all we have heard so far. What makes the Christian different from other men is the “peculiar,” the perisson, the “extraordinary,” the “unusual,” that which is not “a matter of course.” This is the quality whereby the better righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. It is “the more,” the “beyond-all-that.” The natural is to auto (one and the same) for heathen and Christian, the distinctive quality of the Christian life begins with the perisson

What is the precise nature of the perisson? It is the life described in the beatitudes, the life of the followers of Jesus, the light which lights the world, the city set on the hill, the way of self-renunciation, of utter love, of absolute purity, truthfulness and meekness. It is unreserved love for our enemies, for the unloving and the unloved, love for our religious, political and personal adversaries. In every case it is the love which was fulfilled in the cross of Christ. What is the perisson? It is the love of Jesus Christ himself, who went patiently and obediently to the cross – it is in fact the cross itself. The cross is the differential of the Christian religion, the power which enables the Christian to transcend the world and to win the victory. The passio in the love of the Crucified is the supreme expression of the “extraordinary” quality of the Christian life.

I add one thought to this incisive exegesis of Bonhoeffer’s. Matthew 5 finishes with Christ enjoining us to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect. It is worth noting though that the ‘more’ which Christ demands, the loving ‘more’ than just one’s friends, just one’s own race or tribe, is oriented to this last injunction. “You must love more than the heathens do,” Christ is saying, “more than the Pharisees do; therefore be perfect as God is perfect.” God’s perfection, according to this structure, lies in God’s indiscriminate love of all God’s children. God’s love makes no distinctions. That is what we are called to emulate, according to our capacity. That is ‘the more’ – and perhaps a correlation with the magis of St Ignatius is possible here – the ‘more’ to which Christ called us at the Sermon on the Mount.

Does ‘the Christian difference’ solve all problems? Does it make addressing the various crises of displaced people straight-forward? Not at all. There are still many practical matters upon which there can be a range of opinions. Not every society can help in the same way. Some countries can manage integration more easily than others because they already have the mechanics in place. Some countries will set the bar for assimilation at a different height than others, depending on their ability to maintain social stability. Some countries are better equipped than others to handle security issues as they are raised by immigration. There’s a long list. For the Christian, however, the non-negotiable bottom line is that the motivation behind national policy ought to be the indiscriminate love of all persons, all children of God.

American Catholics who are Republicans may well be wary about an unguarded southern border. They have every right to demand stringent anti-terrorism measures. They might even find sufficient reason to support Donald Trump. But if they follow him in discriminating between the value of American lives and those of Mexicans or Muslims, if they say with him that the abominable poverty of Mexicans is no concern of US Americans, or that Muslims hate America and should be blocked en masse from entering the country, if they say that Muslim countries should look after their own migrants, that those displaced people should be no concern of Europeans – well, to the extent that they say these things they are, as Pope Francis says, “not Christian”.

“Love your neighbour as yourself.” When Jesus confirmed that this was one of the two great non-negotiable commandments, a lawyer, who wanted to justify himself, asked, “And who is my neighbour?” Jesus answered with the parable of the Good Samaritan who helped a man wounded on the roadside with no regard for the man’s religion, provenance or caste. And the answer to the same question in the old school catechism of my youth went: “My neighbour is all mankind, even those who injure me or differ from me in religion”. That is indiscriminate love. That is the Christian difference.

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