Sunday, September 16, 2012

Faith, Works, and Citizenship

On the five Sundays of September this year, the 2nd Reading at Mass is taken from the Letter of St. James, which contains some of the most significantly challenging moral sentiments in the the New Testament Epistles. Last Sunday, for example, the reading contained James' famous condemnation of making distinctions in favor of the rich. For if a man with gold rings and fine clothes comes into your assembly, and a poor person in shabby clothes also comes  in, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say, "Sit here, please," while you say to the poor one, "Stand there," or "Sit at my feet," have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil designs? [James 2:2-4]. James was apparently citing situations that might arise within the Church community itself - and presumably (since he took the time and trouble to address them) situations that actually did arise in Church life. Does anyone doubt that particular problem is still with us?
Some 17 centuries after James, Adam Smith would succinctly summarize the pervasive universality of this malignant mindset: “This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and powerful, and to despise, or , at least neglect persons of poor and mean conditions," wrote Smith, is "the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.” 
It seems safe to say that this pervasively universal mindset continues to be one of the greatest actual challenges to living an authentic life of faith in our time and place no less than in Adam Smith's, no less than in the era and world of the New Testament.
James did more than highlight one particular, if pervasive, moral problem, however. This morning's reading continues last week's theme: If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, "go in peace, keep warm, and eat well," but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? [James 2:15-16].
In doing this, however, James expands on these specific examples to remind us that living an authentic life of faith is precisely the point of faith itself. What good is it, James asks, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? [James 2:14]. With few words and simple, straightforward examples that any reader (or hearer) of the Epistle could immediately comprehend, James challenges us to examine our lives as actually lived, and the standard for that examination of conscience is whether or not and how our profession of faith penetrates the wider world by the way it permeates our individual and communal Christian lives.
All of which brings us to citizenship. Faith does not, of course, prescribe the particulars of public policy, let alone partisan party platforms. Most matters of policy are what we, somewhat imprecisely but conventionally call, contingent questions. What faith does prescribe, however, is a certain intentionality about how we live our lives. 
A significant part of human life is lived privately - individually, the the family, in various modes of private association. Most of us in our private lives, more or less most of the time, make at least an attempt to demonstrate our faith in our works. Undoubtedly the directness of private relationships, there face-to-face Gemeinschaft character contributes to that reality. A comparably significant part of life, however, is lived publicly, and that is the arena of citizenship. Who we are together, publicly, is what we call government. and how we live together as government is what citizenship is about. And who we are and how we live seriously as citizens is how we demonstrate our faith in our works in the public dimension of our lives.

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