Citizenship in the City of God
November 1st, 2016
By Father Mark Doherty
Election time affords us the opportunity to reflect on what it means to be a citizen and what the purpose of a state is. Interestingly enough, this Sunday’s readings provide a helpful guide to understanding how citizenship in the City of God makes us better citizens and residents of our country here below.
All of us are possessed of a deep, inalienable desire to be members of a community. This desire is an expression of the deepest desire we have, namely to be loved and understood, and to love and understand. Because love implies relationship we are drawn to community life.
But what community will fulfill this desire to be in loving relationship? What our reading from Maccabees points to and what the life of the Lord Jesus definitively establishes is that the community to which we are destined, the common life where our deepest desire will be satisfied, is the heavenly Jerusalem, the City of God. We stand with the Lord Jesus in declaring that our homeland, our kingdom, is not of this world, and that the quality and characteristics of the resurrected life will go far beyond what any mind has seen or ear heard.
But now comes the pushback from those around us who do not identify themselves first and foremost as citizens of the City of God. From the earliest days of the Christian community until the present the charge has been made: By claiming primary allegiance to the City of God you betray, demean, and disregard the claim your country has on you. In other words, the charge is that by striving to be first and foremost citizens of God’s kingdom we sell short our rightful obligations to our country here and now.
This charge is groundless. All we need to do to refute this charge is point to the innumerable number of Christians over the centuries who have been outstanding, generous contributors to the common life of their earthly country.
But to give a full rebuttal to this charge we need to explain why it is that committed Christians make excellent earthly citizens.
First and foremost, those who are striving to fulfill their obligations as citizens of the City of God understand that their earthly countries and communities are possessed of a deep dignity and majesty precisely because they are reflections of, precursors to, the definitive and everlasting Country. Christians embrace the privilege of being generous and responsible citizens here below because the fingerprint of God is deeply impressed on our earthly home. Let’s put the proposition in the negative: If I didn’t believe that there was a lasting, heavenly City to which I was destined, where would the elevated dignity of the earthly city come from? The dignity of earthly and material things is derived precisely from the fact that they are meant to point to the higher heavenly and spiritual realities. Spiritual realities do not demean material realities; they magnify them.
Furthermore, committed Christians make great citizens because they understand that the conduct of one’s life in the earthly country sets the stage for citizenship in the heavenly country. Therefore, in a paradoxical way, I take my earthly life even more seriously precisely because my goal is life in the heavenly realm. Let’s put the proposition in the negative: If there’s no heavenly city to prepare for, what’s the incentive for taking this earthly life seriously?
Lastly, there’s no getting away from the fact that our hearts are made for a kind of community life that nothing in this world can achieve. The result is that each time a community decides that it will shun the City of God and resort to its own devices to build the perfect kingdom, the project ends in ruin and tyranny. Why? Because no amount of effort or initiative is ever enough to make things “just right.” So the pressure mounts as expectations go unmet; tempers rage; the crafty, ambitious and charismatic set themselves up as those who will resolve all the problems if only we hand over more authority to them. But it never works well enough.
In contrast, those who appreciate that their true homeland in the kingdom of God can live more peaceful and productive lives in their earthly country precisely because they don’t place too many expectations on what it can deliver.
Election time affords us the opportunity to renew our commitment to being generous and responsible citizens and residents of this country. The readings remind us that, paradoxically, it is by striving evermore zealously at being citizens of the kingdom of God that we will simultaneously become better citizens of our earthly country.
Father Doherty, began moral theology studies in September at Fribourg University in Switzerland.
From November 3, 2016 issue of Catholic San Francisco.