Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Christ and Antichrist

Another fine homily, given yesterday, by our friend Fr. Anselm Ramelow, O.P. Fr. Anselm is a Dominican Priest and Professor of Philosophy at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology here in the Bay Area.

Martyrdom, the Antichrist and the Christian Witness
(Feast of the Vietnamese Martyrs)

Today we celebrate the Vietnamese Martyrs, many Catholic faithful, priests and laity who have given their life for their faith throughout several centuries, be it the political persecutions of the 19th century or the communist persecutions of the 20th century. These persecutions are ongoing. We know them through the many Vietnamese brothers and sisters who are living in this country. Their strong faith has lead many of them also to embrace vocations to the priesthood and religious life, including the Dominican Order. With that they are an important witness to all of us.

Their primary witness, though, was and is not for us, but before the powers of the world. That is what we call martyrdom. That Church has always considered martyrdom to be primarily a public and political act. You are not a martyr, if you die through an accident, or as a victim of a criminal act of private persons. Martyrdom is the outcome of a confrontation with political authority, with those who hold public office.

This is true even today in Vietnam, or also in Orissa, India. I am sure you have followed that in the news. There the government might hide behind the criminal acts of violence and murder by organized mobs or gangs. But their public refusal to take legal and police actions against the perpetrators is a clear endorsement of these acts. Standing by where it is your authority and duty to act, is itself an official statement.

At times the confrontation will be more explicit. This we see among the early Christian martyrs, who were arrested and killed by the authorities of the Roman Empire. They were brought before the courts and legally tried. That is why we get some of our documentation of these martyrs from the archives of the Roman Empire. Again, martyrdom is not death through a criminal act, but death through the very legal system itself that is meant to protect us from criminal acts.

That is also, why traditionally the role of the Antichrist is associated with a political power, as one can see in the book of Revelation, but also in much of the later literature, e.g. in Michael O’Brien’s Father Elijah or Robert Hugh Benson’s The Lord of the World or in the writings of Vladimir Solovyev, all of whom rely on much older perennial wisdom in the Church.
Political power is not, of course, something bad in and by itself. Indeed, Paul’s letter to the Romans says that all political authority is from God. But political power is always deeply ambivalent. (Even if it is in favor of the Church it tends to corrupt her.) The Antichrist is traditionally conceived of as a political ruler, and even a ruler that aspires to world rule.

Jesus promised us as much: he said that they will bring you before governors and courts. He also said that we are not worry, because at this point the Holy Spirit will take over. He will be the one who will give us the right words to answer.

And why is that? It is because we are giving a public witness for the Christian faith. We are not just giving witness for our own subjective opinions before some other equally subjective private individuals, but we are giving witness before public authorities to an equally public faith that is not just ours, but ultimately comes from God himself. It is the faith of the Church that the creator of the universe has established for this public witness. We are speaking not for ourselves, but for the Church, and therefore we will be able to speak with the authority of the Church, i.e., with the Holy Spirit.

But we will also speak for Jesus Christ himself. Jesus himself was put on trial. He was brought before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. He witnessed to the truth before the public authorities of the Roman Empire – only to receive the cynical answer: what is truth? He received a court sentence from these authorities, a death sentence, as an expression of a perverted political and judicial system that had replaced questions of truth with the questions of power.

Ever since, public authorities and courts have frequently put themselves in that position, not realizing that the ones who are really on trial are the judges themselves, because they are attempting to judge the king of the universe, who judges them by becoming a witness, a martyr.
Whenever Christians are in those situations, they should realize that they are standing in for Jesus himself, or rather that Jesus is standing there for them, giving witness in and through them in the Holy Spirit. We might suffer, but we will have his support and power for our witness.

But why this conflict in the first place? Why is there a perpetual struggle between Church and State, with the Roman Empire and then its successors in the Middle Ages and finally throughout modern history and in all parts of the world? Why is the public square never a neutral arena, but will always bear witness to either Christ or Antichrist?

For one, because God is different from the world; he is not identical with it, but its creator. God transcends this world, stands over against it in total freedom. He has created it freely and governs it according to his gracious will. That is why Jesus can tell Pilate in his trial that his kingdom is not of this world.

Pope Benedict has also pointed out that the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount would probably not work, if you would make them into state laws. Turning the other cheek and not caring for tomorrow are more likely to be realized by individual Christians aspiring to something greater than the secular government, and rightly so. He sees this as opening up the legitimately different directions and purposes of Church and secular state, something unique to Christian history.

So far, so good. But why would we then have a conflict? After all, if the state cares about the world, and the Church about heaven, they should be able to coexist peacefully. No reason for court trials and martyrdom here.

The reason is that we are monotheists. We do not believe that God is responsible only for heaven and its kingdom, and another god would have made the earthly world and rules that kind of kingdom. We are not dualists. Both heaven and earth were made by God. The world is not a bad place; it is made by God, too. And we are meant to live in it and shape it as well. We have a responsibility for heaven and earth. In our own personal lives and for others it will matter what we do in this world and in the realm of the powers that have authority over it. This is what leaves us in the tension of being citizens of the kingdom of heaven and of living in this world at the same time. (It was already St. Irenaeus of Lyon who made this point in the 2nd century; he claimed that martyrdom is in this way specific to the Christian faith, and later became a martyr himself.)

Again, Jesus is the model: Jesus is God, the second person of the Trinity, existing from all eternity. But he is not staying far away; rather, he takes our human nature, lives a human, earthly life, preaching the Sermon on the Mount to people who continued to lead lives in their particular circumstances. Jesus did so himself. And just as this brings him into conflict with political authority, it will also do so for all those who follow him. (As he promised: “the servant is not greater than the master.”) So, while the Church is not all about politics and a social Gospel, it is impossible that the message of the Church will not have political implications and will raise eyebrows, if not persecutions.

That might be, why the letters of St. John describe the Antichrist as the one who denies that Jesus came in the flesh. He fears the unavoidable interference in his own political realm. He does not want another power besides himself. A Church that has a special, legally guaranteed status through concordats, that is a “perfect society”, complete in its own right, with its own laws (canon law) does not fit the neat logical of a purely earthly realm. Early modern political philosophy has always taken exception to this (e.g., Hobbes, Spinoza, Rousseau, Hegel), and so does the Antichrist. That is why he wants world rule. It is a total rule, and it is an international rule, where no other international power like the Vatican can interfere in the affairs of national states. Nation states will not be able to control an external authority like the Vatican, but a World-government might. It is the direct competition to the universal spiritual authority of the Church.

Ultimately, however, the witness of the Church does not just challenge national authorities or even international authorities, but the ultimacy of the world as such. It is a witness, sometimes a martyrial witness, to the fact that this life, this world is not all that there is. And this is the true scandal that provokes persecution.

The Antichrist is not primarily someone who is a bad person in the usual sense. He is not a criminal. He is not even the usual kind of selfish tyrant. In fact he is usually expected to be humanitarian, self-less, ascetic, sometimes a vegetarian, a compassionate friend of man and animal.

The conflict is not selfishness or immorality of the usual kind, but it is primarily a conflict of authority and a conflict over the question where true authority comes from. Even political authority comes from God, yet the Antichrist will speak in his own name.

Implied in this is also the question where our ultimate hope comes from: If there is no hope and no God beyond this world, then we will have to play God ourselves. That is what the snake promised: you will be like God, knowing good and evil for yourself. Yes, one can and should promote politically humanitarian goals, but if it is in the spirit of the Antichrist it will be in the name of inner-worldly goals and authorities; it will argue with the logic of the needs of this world and make individuals and religions subservient to the survival of the planet, arguing, e.g., for eugenics, euthanasia and population control. While indeed it will be Christianity that defends the sanctity of life in the human person as an image and likeness of God – an image, which just like the God it represents, transcends the earthly goals and ends of this world.

If religions, however, refuse to serve the goals of the Antichrist and disrupt the process, they will be treated like another pest in the organism of humanity that is to be exterminated. Already in the Roman Empire Christians were singled out in this way as being “anti-social” or being filled with an odium humani generis – a hatred of the human race.

So we see some perennial features emerging, which writers of various kinds of pointed out throughout the ages.

And this scenario should sound familiar to our own experience as well: in a time, when these inner-worldly goals and measures are more and more codified in our legal system, trying to coerce the Church and its individual members into its very structures, this conflict will be increasingly unavoidable. Not just in the U.S., but in the whole western world, if not globally, we might in the near future find ourselves in the position of being brought before the courts. Cardinal Stafford recently said in Washington (at the Catholic University of America) that in the next few years Gethsemane will not be marginal for American Christian. “We will know that garden.” While we might not lose our lives as the Vietnamese martyrs did, we might sometimes lose our jobs, our freedom, our money and our institutions (especially in teaching and healthcare).

This is why we have reason to recall some of the perennial wisdom of the Church about the principles that rule this world and govern history. This is not the first time and it probably will not be the last time that shows some more apocalyptic features. The Vietnamese martyrs show the same situation, and indeed it is something that we will find whenever we are called to a public witness for our faith before the political powers of this world.

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