A couple of weeks ago, I had the distinct privilege of addressing an audience of Senators, Representatives and Capitol Hill staffers in a beautiful room at the Library of Congress. This event was made possible by two Congressmen, Rep Tom Suozzi of New York, a Democrat, and Rep John Moolenaar of Michigan, a Republican. Both had seen videos of the speeches I had given at Facebook and Google headquarters and wanted something similar for those who work in government.
At the outset of my talk, I specified that I would not be addressing the hot button issues that so often dominate discussions of religion and politics. I was quick to point out that this is not because I think those questions are unimportant or that they shouldn’t eventually be addressed. But I insisted that the rush to those matters around which there is radical polarisation effectively precludes the possibility of finding deep points of contact between the spiritual and political worlds. And it was that common ground that I endeavoured to explore in my presentation.
I commenced with the idea of vocation. We’re accustomed to using this term in an explicitly religious context, but I suggested that, with its full spiritual resonance, it applies just as well to other areas of life. I asked my audience to recall the moment when they first felt the summons to pursue a career in public service.
I invited them to bracket the anxieties, disappointments and opportunities of the present moment and to recover that moment, undoubtedly marked by enthusiasm and idealism, when they decided to enter into politics and to work for justice.
The passion to pursue righteousness in particular cases, I told them, is a function of something more basic and more mystical – namely, the call from Justice itself, the summons to be a servant of this great transcendental value. In a similar way, an artist is someone who has heard the call – as James Joyce did, for example – to be a knight for Beauty, and a philosopher or journalist or professor is someone who has heard the summons to serve Truth. But in Catholic theology, Truth itself, Beauty itself, Justice itself are simply names for God. Therefore, provided they search out the deepest ground for their commitment, all of these participants in the culture can and should understand themselves as having received a vocation with religious implications.
And once that connection has been made, I told my Washington audience, the great biblical texts dealing with vocation from God open up in a fresh way. I drew their attention to the marvellous story of the call of the prophet Samuel. When just a boy, Samuel heard the voice of God, but did not at first recognise it for what it was. It was only after several repetitions – “Samuel, Samuel” – and after the helpful intervention of the high priest Eli, that the young man was ready to listen to God. So, I said, God (under his title Justice itself) called you each by name, most likely called you repeatedly until you listened, and probably employed some elder to interpret the meaning of his voice.
Next, I referenced the strange and illuminating account in the sixth chapter of Isaiah regarding the call of the prophet. Isaiah says that he saw the Lord in the temple surrounded by angels crying “Holy, Holy, Holy”. The Hebrew term here is kadosh, which carries the sense of “other”. God is not one being among many, not one true thing among true things; rather, he is the source of existence itself, the unconditioned ground of all that is – and this entails that he is greater than all of the particular projects and desires that customarily preoccupy us. His call to us is, accordingly, greater than career, family, personal pleasure, country or anything else. Isaiah speaks further of how smoke filled the place where he was and how the foundations shook. Both of these symbols indicate the manner in which the experience of God puts anything finite or conditioned into question. So, I told the Senators, Representatives and staffers, the summons to serve Justice itself must trump anything else, any other concern, any merely personal project. It properly shakes the foundation of your life and relativises everything you once considered supremely important.
To make all of this a bit more pointed, I moved to a consideration of Thomas Aquinas’s doctrine of law. For the great medieval Dominican, positive law (the concrete statutes by which a polity is governed) properly nests inside the natural law (that whole range of moral precepts evident to reason), and the natural law nests finally within the eternal law, which is coincident with the divine mind itself. This entails, I argued, that an unjust positive law is not simply a political problem; it is a moral and finally spiritual problem. To legislate unjustly, I concluded, is therefore to stand athwart the God who originally called the legislator to be a servant of Justice.
Lest this analysis seem too abstract and distant, I drew their attention to the extraordinary letter that Dr Martin Luther King Jr wrote from the Birmingham City Jail in 1963, prompted by a group of white Christian ministers who were questioning King’s methods. In response, the great civil rights activist said that just laws ought always to be obeyed but that unjust laws can and should be opposed – always and despite the cost or inconvenience.
And for justification, he reached to the very teaching of Aquinas that I just sketched. King was a political agent to be sure, but he had a keen sense that his activism was finally but an expression of moral and religious convictions.
My hope was (and is) that my presentation would both inspire and discomfit my audience. I wanted them to see both the high spiritual dignity of their call and the rather awful responsibility before God that they bear.
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. This article first appeared at wordonfire.org