When the World is on Fire, Christians Can’t Just Tend Our Gardens

By John Zmirak Published on March 22, 2017

This morning I received a nice note from Elizabeth Kantor, the fine editor of my latest book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism. She was inspired by what I’d written about the “Benedict Option,” from the viewpoint of someone who has spent 40 years inside the conservative Catholic subculture. I wrote it because my objections to Christian separatism and political defeatism are twofold, both prudential and spiritual.

Prudence is the governing natural virtue, which tells us how to live out each of the others. Saying or slyly hinting that conservative Christians should stop “voting Republican” is simply irresponsible.  

Imagine if some up-and-coming pro-choice feminist had reacted to Donald Trump’s victory by calling on her sisters to stop focusing on political action, and stop “voting Democrat.” They should concentrate for the next several decades on quilting and herding goats. Instead of “Womens’ Marches,” they should embrace her trademarked “Emily Dickinson Option.” I sincerely hope that some feminist will champion this cause, and if it catches on I will snicker from the sidelines with delight.

I’m really not that worried about this aspect of Rod Dreher’s movement because I think most Christians will ignore it. They will take what they find of value from his book, and go right on voting, working, and praying to protect unborn children, religious liberty, economic freedom, and a secure America with control over its borders. A crushing majority of evangelical voters, and more than half of church-going Catholics, voted for Donald Trump. If he doesn’t betray us, we’ll do so again. In fact, as Maggie Gallagher has eloquently explained, we must do much more politically, and do it in smarter, more prudent and winning ways.

Don’t Go into a Sectarian Bunker

My main objection to talk of cobbling married couples together into artificial communities centered on religious subcultures is spiritual. I worry that it will turn us inward in ugly ways. It will encourage sectarianism where we need to be ecumenical. It will feed our esoteric “crunchy” obsessions while the world is in fact on fire.

The pro-life movement, like the abolition movement in its day, is the single biggest force for spiritual renewal in America.

I personally have benefited far more spiritually from the people I’ve met of every Christian denomination through the pro-life movement, than from those Catholics I got to know while gossiping over church governance. I don’t think I’m alone.

The pro-life movement, like the abolition movement in its day, is the single biggest force for spiritual renewal in America. I think it is how the Holy Spirit has begun to answer Jesus’ prayer that we may all be one. (John 17:21)

The World is on Fire

In an age when the simplest human things are under attack, we must work together to save them, and draw our lines of division accordingly.

  • I am united with fellow Christians who work to save unborn life. I’m divided from fellow Catholics who lump abortion in with cuts to Medicaid or allegedly lax handgun laws.
  • I am united with fellow Christians who work to save persecuted believers overseas. I am divided from those who would import their persecutors into historically Christian lands.
  • I am united with those who champion freedom of work and private property, and divided from those who resent or condemn these crucial, God-given liberties.
  • I am united with those who defend religious liberty, and divided both from secularists and from theocrats who reject it.
  • I am united with Christians who champion the sanctity of marriage, and divided from those who in the name of misguided “mercy” dilute or undermine it.

Imagine if some pro-choice feminist answered Trump’s victory by calling on her sisters to stop “voting Democrat.”

These are not “merely” political divisions. They are profound, metaphysical, moral. They are the decisive issues of justice and charity in this our fallen world. They are the causes for which we or our children may be persecuted. They are the questions that divide us from our secular or sold-out “Mainline” Christian neighbors. If we must withdraw in any sense, it’s from trying to flatter or fit in with people who are dead-wrong on such crucial issues.

We Share Our Meals, But Not Our Wives

But other than that, we ought to be good neighbors and good citizens. The best guide here, I think, is not some rule drawn up for celibate monks in isolated convents. It’s a second-century Christian document, the “Epistle to Diognetus.” That’s the document which Elizabeth was kind enough to send me this morning. Here’s the segment she quoted, which reminds us that respect for innocent life and marriage were part of what marked Christians out from the very beginning:

Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.

And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives.

They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they, rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life. They are attacked by the Jews as aliens, they are persecuted by the Greeks, yet no one can explain the reason for this hatred.

To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen. The body hates the soul and wars against it, not because of any injury the soul has done it, but because of the restriction the soul places on its pleasures. Similarly, the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments.

Christians love those who hate them just as the soul loves the body and all its members despite the body’s hatred. It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly, it is by the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together. The soul, though immortal, has a mortal dwelling place; and Christians also live for a time amidst perishable things, while awaiting the freedom from change and decay that will be theirs in heaven. …

That’s not an option. It’s a mission.

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