When you read this, the 2018 elections will have passed. The anger will continue to boil, and new opportunities for outrage will undoubtedly abound. The demonization of political opponents will persist, and the saddling of the American presidency with criminal investigations and threats of impeachment will likely become a permanent feature of our politics.
It is hard to see a way out of our current predicament, other than a new Great Awakening through a tremendous outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
Yet, whatever the designs of Providence for the American republic, we know what Catholics must continue to do to foster moral and civic renewal: participate in the public arena as faithful citizens, embodying Pope Francis’s reminder that politics is one of the highest forms of charity because it serves the common good.
In short, we must be true friends to our elected officials and our fellow citizens.
Friendship, not power
The idea of politics as friendship seems counterintuitive, given that politics often looks like a power game, in which the primary goal is to defeat our opponents in elections and then impose our will upon them. In this struggle for control, the ends justify the means, and those who do not share our political opinions are not just of a different mind, but of a different kind — they are “one of them” or “the other.”
But the church proposes a different idea of politics — one that goes back to the ancients. Politics comes from the Greek word “polis,” meaning “city.” Some of us live in the polis of Minneapolis, for example.
Politics, the communal process of deliberation within the polis, was not a wrestle for control; it was first and foremost a task of friendship. This friendship shared among citizens was shaped by the pursuit of virtue — and this made it possible for citizens to come together as equals to deliberate how they ought to order their common life in pursuit of the good.
The church embraced this understanding of politics, identifying its proper purpose as the pursuit of the common good.
To have strong communities (literally, a sharing of gifts), everyone needs to play a role and offer his or her perspective. We each have unique gifts to share in that great conversation about how we ought to bring about the good in our city. We need to learn to see ourselves as all being fundamentally on the same “side.”
Living civic friendship
Yes, political debates can get heated because important issues are at stake.
Our battle for justice and the common good, however, is not against people, but, as St. Paul reminds us, against the powers and principalities (Ephesians 6:12). It is a spiritual battle.
That is why Cardinal Robert Sarah could say in a recent speech that “a Christian does not fight anyone. A Christian has no enemy to defeat. Christ asks Peter to put his sword into his scabbard. This is the command of Christ to Peter, and it concerns every Christian worthy of the name.”
This is an important lesson: in politics, we may have temporary opponents, but we must never mistake them for permanent enemies.
Our discourse has become so coarse, and so much anger flows through our nation because our horizons have become political rather than eschatological. When there is no ultimate justice meted out by God, we look for politics to bring it about. And it cannot. Hence, when we place our hope in princes, we will always be disappointed. And that is where the cycle of anger and political decay begins and sets in.
Christians must model a different way: a model of friendship. Just as any good apostolate must be rooted in relationship — fostering friendship with others through friendship with Christ — faithful citizenship is no different.
We must reach out to both our elected officials and fellow citizens in friendship, offering ourselves as resources and as friends in the important conversations about how we ought to order our lives together.
Sometimes we will disagree, and that is OK. But disagreements need not lead to division or demonization. Sometimes, people will see us as enemies, and some will even persecute us. But politics lived as true friendship will change hearts, build stronger communities and undo the knots of division and resentment plaguing our communities.
Jason Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.