In the children's classic The Little Prince the author, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, divided the world into matters of consequence and essential matters. Essential matters are things like knowing what your best friend's voice sounds like, whereas matters of consequence involve things like golf, bridge, and politics. The first category is, by far, the more important.
In the – again, classic – work by Cardinal Henri de Lubac, S.J. on atheism - The Drama of Atheist Humanism - the question of what is an essential matter also comes up. For de Lubac what is essential is that Christians never fall into the trap of exchanging love for power. It is very easy for the followers of Christ to become frustrated with the ways of the world and to try to be "more practical" or pragmatic than the Gospels in dealing with those ways. All too often people are willing to let the end justify the means.
These two great books cross paths in a number of areas, but one of them is in the realm of politics. For both Saint-Exupéy and de Lubac, politics is an area of life that should not be elevated beyond its true level, and one consequence of that line of reasoning is that following a particular party or politician should never usurp the role of Christ and His Gospel in our lives.
Sadly, as things heat up in this year's presidential race all of the worst attributes associated with the elevation of politics to the level of religion are in plain view, and will certainly be on display many times between now and Inauguration Day 2021. For example, what would Saint-Exupéry and de Lubac say about those who, upon hearing of the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg or the positive COVID-19 test of President Trump, were more than overjoyed at the news? More importantly, what might Jesus say about the macabre glee that flooded various social media platforms?
Those of strong will and great confidence, as Ginsberg was and Trump is, are probably emboldened when people go at them, but that is not the major concern here. What of the attackers? If they happen to be Catholics in particular – or Christians in general – what does this say about their understanding of Christ’s very clear statement that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us?
These reactions get to the heart of what it is to be a follower of Jesus. Centuries ago St. Augustine, in his masterful City of God, warned his readers of libido dominandi or the “lust to dominate.” Centuries before him, in Plato’s Republic, the Sophist philosopher Thrasymachus said that “justice is nothing but the advantage of the stronger.” Thus, history tells us that the control of the reins of political or judicial power can become the end to which any means is allowable.
As followers of Christ, our first and ultimate loyalty is to Him. He even tells us that we cannot serve two masters. One master will use any means possible in order to stay in control, the other Master will only use love. When anyone tries to serve Christ through the use of power rather than love, then the results always end in disaster. As the devout Catholic J.R.R. Tolkien shows throughout The Lord of the Rings, even when the “good guys” try to use power it is ultimately destructive. Only mercy and love are salvific.
So often in class when we look at moral situations we concentrate on what has been done to the other – and rightly so. Was an innocent person wronged in some way? But that only tells half of the story. Each situation also has an effect on the actor and her or his soul. The more a person places political power above Christ-like love or vengeance against a demonized judge or politician above mercy or simple human decency, then the further away that person is from the justice that they claim to be their goal.