Today is Maundy (Holy) Thursday on the Christian calendar. On this day, Christians remember the Lord Jesus’ last supper with his followers and his institution of the Lord’s Supper before he enters into his passion.
Holy and/or unholy passions are flaring today in our society over the debate in the Supreme Court over same sex marriage. Regardless of the outcome of the case(s), I have been intrigued by how many of my Christian brothers and sisters appear to view democracy, or better American democracy, as a holy form of government, almost as if it were installed by the Lord himself. Pope Pius IX was under no illusion as to the tensions between the Roman Catholic Church and secular democracy. He had harsh things to say about Enlightenment-influenced visions of civil society that praised religious liberty and freedom of conscience and that limited the influence of the Catholic church on a society’s citizenry. In his Papal Encyclical titled “Quanta Cura” (Condemning Current Errors) and promulgated on December 8, 1864, he writes:
For you well know, venerable brethren, that at this time men are found not a few who, applying to civil society the impious and absurd principle of “naturalism,” as they call it, dare to teach that “the best constitution of public society and (also) civil progress altogether require that human society be conducted and governed without regard being had to religion any more than if it did not exist; or, at least, without any distinction being made between the true religion and false ones.” And, against the doctrine of Scripture, of the Church, and of the Holy Fathers, they do not hesitate to assert that “that is the best condition of civil society, in which no duty is recognized, as attached to the civil power, of restraining by enacted penalties, offenders against the Catholic religion, except so far as public peace may require.” From which totally false idea of social government they do not fear to foster that erroneous opinion, most fatal in its effects on the Catholic Church and the salvation of souls, called by Our Predecessor, Gregory XVI, an “insanity,”2 viz., that “liberty of conscience and worship is each man’s personal right, which ought to be legally proclaimed and asserted in every rightly constituted society; and that a right resides in the citizens to an absolute liberty, which should be restrained by no authority whether ecclesiastical or civil, whereby they may be able openly and publicly to manifest and declare any of their ideas whatever, either by word of mouth, by the press, or in any other way.” But, while they rashly affirm this, they do not think and consider that they are preaching “liberty of perdition;”3 and that “if human arguments are always allowed free room for discussion, there will never be wanting men who will dare to resist truth, and to trust in the flowing speech of human wisdom; whereas we know, from the very teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ, how carefully Christian faith and wisdom should avoid this most injurious babbling. (under point 3)
Pope Pius IX goes on to say,
And, since where religion has been removed from civil society, and the doctrine and authority of divine revelation repudiated, the genuine notion itself of justice and human right is darkened and lost, and the place of true justice and legitimate right is supplied by material force, thence it appears why it is that some, utterly neglecting and disregarding the surest principles of sound reason, dare to proclaim that “the people’s will, manifested by what is called public opinion or in some other way, constitutes a supreme law, free from all divine and human control; and that in the political order accomplished facts, from the very circumstance that they are accomplished, have the force of right.” But who, does not see and clearly perceive that human society, when set loose from the bonds of religion and true justice, can have, in truth, no other end than the purpose of obtaining and amassing wealth, and that (society under such circumstances) follows no other law in its actions, except the unchastened desire of ministering to its own pleasure and interests?
Regardless of whether or not one finds Pius IX’s encyclical pious, one cannot question his alertness to the challenges secular democracy posed for orthodox religion in his day. A Protestant Christian would be mistaken to read Pius IX’s critique of secular democracy as simply a Roman Catholic thing. Anyone who wishes to see the Christian faith play a prominent role in shaping directly a citizenry and a government of a city or nation will experience consternation to some degree.
While the United States of America has always included a significant Christian population, it has also included significant representation of communities with other convictions. Thomas Jefferson and many others were of a deistic persuasion. They were influenced by forces in Europe that were by no means champions of Catholicism or Puritanism.
This complex historical reality should not cause Christians to lose hope in being vital witnesses for what we take to be holiness during Holy Week or during any other week of the year. What I hope an awareness of this complex historical reality will do for us is cause us to look anew to Jesus and his historical context, which was also quite complex. He lived in a society that included a residue of Jewish theocracy that was forced to negotiate space for adhering to Judaism under the heavy hand of pluralistic Rome. Jesus did not try and reestablish a theocracy or remove the Romans; rather, as he told Pilate, his kingdom is of another world. For Jesus, this state of affairs did not let Pilate off the hook in terms of God’s foreboding judgment; what this state of affairs did signify for Jesus was that he had come to inaugurate God’s kingdom community—the church, which would serve as the essential means through which Jesus would rule and accomplish his mission.
In the midst of holy and unholy passions flaring this week, let the community Jesus inaugurated and the meal he instituted lead us forward to advocate for political power of a higher order. What is that order? Under this state of affairs, Jesus hangs on the cross and calls us to carry ours, offering ourselves as living sacrifices, where our freedom in Christ becomes our ultimate freedom, regardless of whether or not we experience freedom of religion or speech. May Jesus’ speech bridle our tongues so that we speak truth in love, even if our fellow citizens’ speech turns to hate. May they know we are Christians by our holy love.
This piece is cross-posted at The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and The Christian Post.