Christ: the Light of the American Nation
[talk before Transfiguration Vespers]
Christ is the light of all nations. Hence this most sacred Synod…eagerly desires to shed on all men that radiance of His which brightens the countenance of the Church. This it will do by proclaiming the gospel to every creature…
By an utterly free and mysterious decree of His own wisdom and goodness, the eternal Father created the whole world. His plan was to dignify men with a participation in His own divine life. He did not abandon men after they had fallen in Adam, but ceaselessly offered them helps to salvation, in anticipation of Christ the Redeemer, ‘who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature.’ All the elect, before time began, the Father ‘foreknew and predestined to become conformed to the image of His son, that He should be the firstborn among many brethren.’ He planned to assemble in the Holy Church all those who would believe in Christ…
The mystery of the Holy Church is manifest in her very foundation, for the Lord Jesus inaugurated her by preaching the good news, that is, the coming of God’s kingdom…
When Jesus rose up again after suffering death on the cross for mankind, He manifested that he had been appointed Lord, Messiah, and Priest forever, and He poured out on His disciples the Spirit promised by the Father. The Church, consequently, equipped with the gifts of her founder and faithfully guarding his precepts of charity, humility, and self-sacrifice, receives the mission to proclaim and establish among all peoples the kingdom of Christ and of God.
“This sacred Synod” eagerly desires to shed on all men that radiance of Christ which brightens the countenance of the Church–the radiance that shone on Mount Tabor, at the Transfiguration. What is “this sacred Synod?’ Correct! The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council (Lumen Gentium 1-5). In other words, the successors of the Apostles and teachers of the Church, gathered to declare to us solemnly the doctrine we need to keep in mind.
Christ the light of the Church, the light of all nations.
Now, Christ enlightening the nations involves fundamentally supernatural realities. As we just heard, the Holy Spirit operates, and He does the enlightening. His work transcends our human understanding. But we can also consider the business from the natural point-of-view. We can consider “Christian culture” on the purely practical, human level.
What does the Church do? First and foremost, the Church prays–she celebrates the Sacred Liturgy. And what does that involve? It involves supernatural things, to be sure, the operation of divine grace–but, like I said, let’s leave the supernatural aspect alone for the moment. From the natural point-of-view, the Sacred Liturgy of the Church involves a group of people reading and reflecting on the Word of God, in a disciplined manner, over a sustained period of time.
By “Word of God” here, we mean: the Bible. The Bible is the Word of God. Also, the Bible is a collection of books about people, all of them non-white, none of whom ever spoke English. God wrote the Bible. Also, non-whites who never spoke English wrote the Bible, to tell the story of a lot of non-whites who never spoke English.
These are just simple, straightforward historical facts. Of course, the fact that everything about the Bible involves non-whites who never spoke English takes nothing at all away from its holiness as the Divine Word. Abraham, Moses, King David, Elijah, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Lord Jesus–not a white person among them. Isaiah, Ezekiel, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, St. Paul–not an English speaker among them. Tons of holiness, yes. But nothing “American”–if by ‘American’ we mean English-speaking.
Now, these foreigners–whose lives and writings we study in the Bible–we interact with them in church. The Sacred Liturgy of the Church involves our constant interaction with a lot of foreigners. Also, they themselves teach us, by their own example, this whole important lesson of interacting in an open, friendly manner with foreigners. During their lives on earth, the heroes of the Bible made it their business to interact with people they thought of as foreigners–Egyptians, Ethiopians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans. The Israelites we read about in the Bible opened themselves up to the world, for a reason. They believed that God deserved to be glorified in Jerusalem by all the nations, not just their own nation.
Here’s one little example of the cosmopolitanism of the Israelites. Perhaps we devoted Bible readers never thought twice about it. When King David fell into his great sin, he committed adultery with the wife of an elite member of his own army, named Uriah. Uriah the…Hittite. Hittite, as opposed to Israelite. In other words, this close neighbor of King David was not a Hebrew, but must have become part of King David’s people by accepting the religion.
So ancient Israel had a cosmopolitan culture. Jesus of Nazareth grew up, and then exercised his ministry as a rabbi, at a crossroads of civilizations. He received the Jewish culture from his parents and from the synagogue in Nazareth. And that culture involved associating with non-Jews. This association with non-Jews served a particular purpose, namely to further the glory of God. And, of course, this interaction with foreigners became especially urgent once Christ commissioned His apostles to preach the gospel to all nations, as the passage from Vatican II we read earlier reiterated.
Let’s pause and give “cosmopolitanism” a definition and then distinguish two kinds of cosmopolitanism. “Cosmopolitan,” if we judge by the magazine of that name, can mean a lot of objectionable things. But, for the sake of what I’m trying to say here, can we agree that cosmopolitanism simply means a state of peace among people speaking different languages in the same territory? When peoples speaking different languages share life together in one place, seeking friendship and interchange, instead of hostilities, a “cosmopolis” exists.
Now the two kinds. What we can call “secular cosmpolitanism” reigns supreme in international institutions and in the world of globalized commerce. The shallow, materialistic “culture” of secular cosmpolitanism regards the revelation of Jesus Christ as a matter of indifference. Maybe it’s true; maybe it’s not. The Bible and the Sacred Liturgy don’t demand submission and obedience; they are merely interesting artifacts of human history.
On the other hand, let’s go ahead and call the gregarious openness of the Israelites and the Apostles “sacred cosmopolitanism.” The very truthfulness of the Bible, the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the inevitability of Judgment Day–adherence to the truth of these realities demands that Christians cultivate the virtue of cosmopolitanism, precisely to serve the cause of God’s glory. The urgency of evangelization requires that we engage in friendly relations with our neighbors, no matter who they are or what language they speak, in order to build up the kingdom of Christ.
Our culture, therefore–the Christian culture of all the people who spend time every week studying the Bible–it involves sacred cosmopolitanism. By coming to understand ourselves through reading the Bible, we understand ourselves as citizens of the one, big world, the world that extends way beyond the boundaries of Martinsville, or Virginia, or the USA.
We encounter all of this, in fact, just in the first two words of the Our Father, the Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father.” A Christian knows, having interacted in a cosmopolitan manner with the cosmopolitan saints of the Bible, that the us of the Our Father includes all the citizens of…planet earth. To any Christian, the idea that the ‘our’ of Our Father means any group smaller than everybody–that the ‘our’ means just good golfers, or people with I.Q.’s over 110, or just Hopi Indians, or just Dallas-Cowboys fans, or even just Christians–such an idea would be patently absurd. Yes, there are distinct identities in this world, distinct “cultures,” Jews and Greeks, different races and language groups. But there’s only one God, and He loves everyone with His fatherly love. That’s the Gospel. So we must practice a cosmopolitan way of life to extend that Gospel. Just like our heroes, the non-American, non-white, non-English-speaking cosmopolites we read about in the Bible.
So far, so good? Now we come to “the controversy.”
When I was in the seminary at Catholic University, I had a theology professor named Peter Casarella, who has since moved to Notre Dame. Also when I was in the seminary, I religiously read a monthly magazine called First Things, which was edited at that time by Father R.J. Neuhaus, who has since died. First Things is now edited by… Rusty Reno.
Anyway, Dr. Casarella and Mr. Reno met at Notre Dame recently to debate immigration. What does the Church teach about it? In the debate, Dr. Casarella reviewed the episodes and teachings in the Scriptures which demonstrate our responsibility to welcome the alien. Then he reviewed the teachings of the popes and bishops, which have emphasized the right that people have to migrate and the responsibility that host nations have to protect the human dignity of immigrants.
Reno then responded to Dr. Casarella with some captivating arguments. Reno conceded the basic concepts of a Christian’s duty to help those in need. But he accused the magisterium of the Church of a fundamental incoherence on the subject of immigration. He leveled an accusation that I myself had to take to heart. It’s what moved me to want to give this little talk. Let me quote exactly what Reno said:
The Church rightly sees its own mission as borderless. The Church is a supernatural society that transcends ethnic and national boundaries. However, precisely because of our Church’s universal mission, bishops and other Christian leaders often misjudge the finite and natural reality of a political community, which is not universal. So the Church is Israel, not the United States of America. And so the Sermon on the Mount applies to the Christian community and not to a political community–at least not, certainly, directly. And a functioning society requires social unity. This is especially true for democratic nations, which depend upon a high degree of civic friendship to undergird the sometimes-bitter give-and-take of political struggles for power… Newly arrived immigrants usually form their own communities, which is entirely understandable. But this does not reinforce social solidarity.
First let’s pause and contemplate the abstract concepts here for a moment. The Church of Christ and our nation are not the same thing. Religion and politics are not the same thing. Obvious truths. Reno stands with St. Paul on this one–the St. Paul who had to contend with the “Judaizers.” The Judaizers of the early Church could only understand religion as a national pursuit, the work of the chosen nation. Maybe we could go so far as to say that the sacred Israelite cosmopolitanism which the Judaizers had inherited could not overcome their particular ethnic insistence on the outward sign of circumcision of the penis. Yes, ok, the Church must admit foreigners, in obedience to the command of Christ. But no uncircumcised foreigners! But St. Paul taught us that the distinctive mark of the nation of Israel did not have to apply to the entire Church of Christ. It was Abraham’s faith, not his circumcised penis, that pleased God. Good news, to this day, for adult men who embrace Christianity.
So Reno makes a critical point. Christianity is not identical with national identity; it neither prescribes nor subsumes national cultures. By celebrating the Sacred Liturgy, English-speaking Americans interact in a cosmopolitan manner with the non-Americans of the Bible, just like every people that celebrates the liturgy interacts with them. But we English-speaking Americans continue to have our English-speaking identity, just like every other people that has embraced the Gospel and the life of the Church continues to have a distinct identity–a homeland, a language, a way of life.
So let’s get into this question: Who are we, we Americans? For myself, I’m proud to be an American, and I love our national history. If we start at the beginning of it, I have to admit that, had I lived in the 1770’s, I would have sided with the Tories. I would have been a Loyalist who did not want to break with England.
The colonial governor of Massachusetts then, Thomas Hutchinson, addressed the general assembly of the colony in 1773. He responded to the objections that many colonists had to being ruled by the British parliament. Hutchinson pointed-out that the colonists had means of redress for their grievances other than taking up arms. The movement in favor of independence, Hutchinson said, “must be considered more as an objection against a state of government rather than against any particular form.” I could not have disagreed with that.
But my affinity for the Tories, had I lived in the 1770’s, would have proceeded from more than just politics and economics. What really would have moved me was the idea of losing William Shakespeare as a countryman. If I had faced the choice the colonists faced in the 1770’s, I would have thought that I owed my allegiance to mother England for having given me my mother tongue.
But that was a long time ago. None of us have had to face the choice that Virginians and the other colonists had to face in the 1770’s. We have almost two-and-a-half centuries of American history behind us now.
Speaking for myself, as a 21st-century American, I take great pride in having Mark Twain for a compatriot. If there’s an answer to the question, Who are we, we Americans? it must involve Huckleberry Finn. Huck, of course, became best friends with a black man. Huck had been taught that God stood behind the laws of slavery, so he feared hell for flouting them. But, in the end, Huck decided he would prefer to go to hell, rather than turn Jim in, as an escaped slave.
So, when we think about things like Mark Twain and the original thirteen colonies and their eminent statesmen, we recognize that Reno has a very-important point about national identity. But: Reno’s abstract distinction between the universal Church and the particular nation runs onto rocky ground as soon as we apply it to our specific case as Americans.
We American Christians know that we cannot completely isolate our “religious identity” from our “political identity.” We know that we owe our fundamental allegiance to God. We strive to serve Him in everything. Meanwhile, we owe it to the Lord to accept the secular and short-term reality of politics for what it is. We know from our experience in the first half of the 20th century that few things make more mischief in this world than the “sacralization” of politics, the idea that the nation has a religious identity, a divine destiny. We fought in World War II against the sacralization of the German, and the Japanese, national identities. The fascists made national identity a religion. Americans, on the other hand, recognize that politics are inherently mundane, inherently un-sacred.
So Rusty Reno accused Church leaders of wrongly applying the laws that govern the Church to the nation, in such a way that we potentially do harm to the great good of our national identity. I myself stand accused by this insightful and penetrating charge. I have insisted that we ought to welcome immigrants with minimal restrictions, and offer an easy path to citizenship for undocumented residents, on the grounds that we have a duty to do so, as Christians. But Reno corners me: Okay, Father. We have our duties as Christians. But don’t we also have duties as Americans? Don’t we have a patriotic duty to control our borders and insist on the rule of law?
Okay. Let’s apply Reno’s objections to our specific situation, to the identity of this particular nation, the USA. We understand politics as the mundane business it is, and we reject the idea that some kind of supposed divine mandate can indicate the pursuit of particular policies, without any reasonable argument. We have to deal with our political questions according to humble common sense and the basic principles of justice, as in: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
The Vatican has a semi-official intellectual magazine called “Catholic Civilization.” It recently included an article attacking the strain of American thinking that sees our nation as having a unique role in history, a “mission from God” to extend our way of life–by military force, if necessary.
So we have to go back 170 years, to the origins of this sacralization of the American body politic. We have to analyze the idea of Manifest Destiny. During the Polk administration, the idea that we have a “Manifest Destiny” to rule from sea to sea led to a sequence of events that, if we want to have clear consciences as Americans, we must humbly confront.
During the early 1830’s, Texas faced a illegal-immigration problem. These illegal immigrants spoke English and had snow-white skin. At the time, Tejas belonged to the newly independent United States…of Mexico.
During the 1840’s, Texans asserted their independence as a sovereign nation. Mexico did not recognize this assertion. Then Texas asked to join the USA. One question remained in dispute through all of this: where did Texas end and the Mexican state of Coahuila begin? At the Nueces River, which flows into the Gulf of Mexico at Corpus Christ? Or at the Rio Grande?
US President James Polk proceeded to exploit this relatively small territorial discrepancy as a pretext for a continental war. In his essay “Civil Disobedience,” Henry David Thoreau called Polk’s war with Mexico, “the work of comparatively few individuals using the standing government as their tool, abusing and perverting it.”
American hero Frederick Douglass wrote of President Polk’s war:
Fire and sword are now the choice of our young republic [the USA]. The loss of thousands of the sons and daughters of Mexico have rather given edge than dullness to our appetite for fiery conflict and plunder…But, humble as we are, and unavailing as our voice may be, we wish to warn our fellow countrymen that they may follow the course which they have marked out for themselves; no barrier may be sufficient to obstruct them; they may accomplish all their desire; Mexico may fall before them; she may be conquered and subdued; her rights and powers usurped…but as sure as there is a God of justice, we shall not go unpunished.
The US Congress never considered whether a just reason existed for a war with Mexico. Abraham Lincoln entered the House of Representatives while the war was underway. He then said in a speech on the floor:
I carefully examined [President Polk’s] messages to ascertain what he himself had said and proved on the point of the justice of the war. The result of this examination was to make the impression that, taking for true all that the President states as facts, he falls far short of proving his justification; and that the President would have gone farther with his proof, if it had not been for the small matter that the truth would not permit him… [I suspect] he is deeply conscious of being in the wrong; that he feels the blood of this war, like the blood of Abel, is crying out to heaven against him; that he ordered General [Zachary] Taylor into the midst of a peaceful Mexican settlement, purposely to bring on a war.
My point here is this: Rusty Reno accuses Church leaders, like my humble self, of confusing religion with politics when we insist on liberality when it comes to immigration and undocumented Mexicans resident in the USA. It’s more Christian, he suggests, to leave the universal ideals of the Church at the door, when it comes to building up a country’s identity. But: when we soberly consider the history of our own beloved USA, we find that, in the middle of the nineteenth century, we wound up with the entire southwest portion of our country solely because of a catastrophic confusion of religion with politics, which produced a grave injustice that cries to heaven. Confusion of religion with politics, not on the part of church leaders, but on the part of President James Polk. President Polk insisted on war, not because the circumstances justified it, but because of the widespread quasi-religious belief that the USA had a divine mandate to rule from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
We could spend a few more hours studying the political realities of our North-American continent in the middle of the nineteenth century. No one can pretend that the Mexican government of the time ruled its territories well, any more so than it rules its territories well now. Back then, the Mexican government did nothing to protect its people from the Comanches. Now it does nothing to protect its people from organized crime. We could also consider how the doctrine of Manifest Destiny served the cause of expanding the slave-holding territory of the USA. The Mexican government, for all its faults, had already outlawed slavery, a quarter-century before the USA did.
We could also consider the admirable cosmoplitanism of the Mexican nation. As we know, a million Irish people left home between 1845 and 1852, because of the Great Famine in Ireland. This emigration brought the shamrock to Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, all of which became one-quarter Irish by 1850. But the famous St. Patrick Brigade of the Mexican-American War fought on the Mexican side. As one of the San Patricios, John Kelly, put it in a letter back home, “A more hospitable and friendly people than the Mexican there exists not on the face of the earth, especially to an Irishman and a Catholic.”
But, since we don’t have hours to spend here, let’s just consider these two maps:
Rusty Reno made another interesting point in the debate on immigration, a point which Dr. Casarella conceded. National identity preserves Christian heritage in a way that the secular cosmopolitanism of the contemporary international commercial system does not. We have touched on this when we distinguished sacred vs. secular cosmopolitanism. Reno argued that we Christians need to fight to preserve national identity in order to thwart the corrosion of culture that globalized commerce inevitably causes.
Again, in theory, this is an excellent point, one with which I wholeheartedly agree. But, once again, we run onto rocky ground when we apply this to the USA. If it is the case that our identity as Americans involves the preservation of Christian culture, we have to confront these two maps with Christian humility and honesty. According to the testimony of the 19th-century Americans we most admire, the white, English-speaking USA unjustly and unlawfully took the states of Texas, California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah from the Spanish-speaking United Mexican States. About half of the undocumented immigrants in the USA right now live in that territory. And one-quarter of the entire population of the USA lives in that unlawfully acquired territory.
Who are we, we Americans? When we know the history of our land, we know that Spanish-speaking people share that history. Spanish-speaking people have a just claim to this land. In answer to the charge that undocumented immigrants from Mexico have “broken the law” by coming here, they have every right to respond that the USA broke the law to take control of California, Texas, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah in the first place.
Church leaders like myself hold that the Christian solution to the problem of undocumented residents of our country is to grant citizenship to all those not guily of any felonies. And it seems to me like any honest American, taking pride in our true American identity, would come, in the name of true patriotism, to the same conclusion.
I actually have some more to say about the ways in which our identity as Christian Americans overlaps with the national heritage of Mexico, but I will have to save that for another occasion.