It is a providential occurrence that the inauguration of Joseph Biden as the 46th President of the United States is taking place during the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity.
Jesus was clear in the Gospel that a house divided against itself cannot stand (Mt 12:25). Against the devil’s work of isolation, alienation, and separation, Jesus came to gather and unite. On the vigil of his crucifixion, when he could have easily been distracted by the details of his imminent fulfillment of gruesome Biblical prophecies, he rather prayed four times that his disciples “may be one,” just as the persons of the Blessed Trinity are one (Jn 17:11, 21-23). The fulfillment of his mission, he suggested, hinged on Christian unity: otherwise, he said, the world would not be able to believe in the incarnation or in the Father’s love (17:23).
Jesus’ prayer for unity not only reveals something about God and our being made in his image, but also about the priority Jesus gives to communion among his followers. That’s why his prayer will always remain an urgent ecumenical imperative. Christians cannot sincerely pray, “Thy will be done” and not simultaneously hunger, beg, and work for unity among the baptized.
Christian unity, however, is a means not an end. It is meant to be an efficacious, exemplary sign of the communion to which God calls all human beings. God created Adam and Eve in his own image not so that they would live thereafter as Cain and Abel, Jew or Gentile, or slave or free. He wants Christians to reveal the divine image of communion so that the Church may become a credible, effective collaborator in the Redeemer’s mission of gathering the lost sheep and reconciling all things in himself (Col 1:20).
Church unity is supposed to be a model and means for a much deeper harmony and communion among others. As experience has shown, the virtues of effective ecumenical dialogue make possible more consequential interreligious dialogue, and the virtues of successful interreligious dialogue can catalyze every other form of important verbal or existential conversation. If fervent believers can learn how to live harmoniously while disagreeing about some of the deepest and most important questions of human life, then everyone can learn better from them the traits to co-exist when disagreements concern mainly politics or current events.
This is true, however, only when religious believers act like religious believers and practice what they believe and preach. To use Jesus’ image, this takes place only when Christians as “salt of the earth” (meant to preserve from corruption, start a fire, and give flavor) do not lose their salinity; when as “light of the world” (meant to illumine and warm), they do not hide like a candle under a basket; when as “leaven” (meant to lift up the whole dough, even when tiny), they do not themselves get corrupted by the yeast of the lax or the rigid.
As Joe Biden becomes the second Catholic to swear the presidential oath of office, he does so at a time of great division, as the Jan. 6 riot on Capitol Hill, the November election and its aftermath, and the chaos last Spring in cities across the country have all made undeniably clear. The United States is struggling to remain united. The fault lines between red and blue, black and white, young and old, traditional and transgressive, familial and individual, police and citizens, pro-lifers and pro-choicers, the one percent and everyone else, are widening. Some are talking openly about a national divorce or secession; others are whispering more ominously about another civil war. Abraham Lincoln’s 1858 reminder of Jesus’ words concerning a house divided are becoming increasingly politically relevant.
In such circumstances, faithful Christians cannot remain on the sidelines when Christian salt, light, and leaven are most needed. Christians are three-quarters of the U.S. population, Catholics one-quarter. In one of the Eucharistic Prayers, we ask God that “in a world torn by strike, your people may shine forth as a prophetic sign of unity and concord.” If we live our faith, Christians have the numbers — not to mention supernatural resources — to be that sign, but to do so will require courage, magnanimity and perseverance, and likely suffering and sanctity, as well.
If Catholics in particular are going to become part of the remedy, what are the virtues needed? I’ll focus on seven Biblical habits.
First, love your neighbor (Mt 22:39). Jesus calls us to love even those who have made themselves our enemies and says that the way we treat them, we treat him (Mt 25:40). If a Samaritan could cross the road to help a wounded Jew, the road is much shorter for Republicans and Democrats. Even in the midst of vigorous disagreements, the other cannot be dehumanized to a label, but remains a brother or sister I must love.
Second, stop judging lest we be judged (Mt 7:1). This does not mean, of course, that we cannot judge attacks on human life, racism, and other evil actions to be wrong, but it does mean that we must stop demonizing persons, as it is happening more frequently because of political demagoguery or woke cancel culture. Even when we disagree, the Thomistic principle of finding the aspect of the good motivating the other not only prevents mutual alienation but may pave the road to some political win-wins.
Third, don’t bear false witness. (Ex 20:16) There has been so much lying that many can no longer trust anything others are saying. News outlets have become so unabashedly partisan that no Walter Cronkite exists to report persuasively on the outcome even of a presidential election. Everything one does not want to hear becomes treated as fake news. When people cannot communicate truthfully, interpersonal communion breaks down. We must tell the truth even at the cost of suffering, for unless we tell the truth, we will not be free (Jn 8:32).
Fourth, seek first the kingdom of God (Mt 6:33). We are called to render unto Caesar and be excellent servants of our country, but we’re called to be God’s good servants first. We must beware of false political messianism that equates God’s will too closely to political leaders and programs. Catholics have been repeatedly coopted by Republicans and Democrats to acquiesce to things self-evidently contrary to God’s kingdom for the sake of some political advantage in other areas. Many have identified more with party, or a particular politician or movement, than they have with the faith, and they’ve often ceased working to change their party from within, lest that weaken the party or candidate electorally. A Catholic should never feel fully at peace in any political party but work without ceasing to transform the platforms and positions that do not correspond to the truth taught by faith. To stop short of that is to count pieces of silver.
Fifth, blessed are the peacemakers (Mt 5:9). Many imagine peacemakers to be kumbaya-singing librarians who think that with enough timeouts, crayons and construction paper they can convert mortal enemies into best friends. Real peacemakers are the most courageous people on the planet, who go into extremely dangerous of places to disarm the deadliest types of interpersonal bombs. Christians are called to be bomb squad technicians as well as patient and determined negotiators who persuade people to let go of their hostages, within or without. Jesus calls peacemakers “children of God”: we can’t live up to our divine filiation without becoming one.
Sixth, pray for all those in authority (1 Tim 2:1-2). St. Paul wrote this as his arms were chained to walls by the very authorities who would eventually decide to behead him. Do we pray for the authorities much more than we criticize them or cheer them?
Seventh, be as shrewd as serpents but as pure as doves (Mt 10:16). The time in which we’re living requires not naivete but wisdom. Jesus laments how the children of the world are more prudent than his disciples in dealing with their contemporaries (Lk 16:8). He wants us to be as savvy as he was before Pilate and Herod, and as firm in conscience as Catharine of Alexandria and Thomas More under duress. Clergy, religious, and faithful must all become, through study, experience and grace, more astute and uncontaminated.
The vocation of Christians at this troubled time is not to run to mountain top monasteries, or join the opposition, or insert within the administration. It’s to be salt, light, and leaven, just like so many generations of Christians, in diverse contexts, have been before us. It’s to allow Christ’s prayer “Ut unum sint” to become living and active within us so that we can renew our national motto “E pluribus unum” and help restore national unity.
Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.