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The Power of the Cross

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time. Fr Richard Joseph Ounsworth preaches about religion and politics.Munkácsy Christ before Pilate part1

Jeremiah is perhaps the most obviously political of all the prophets of Israel. He lived in a time of huge political turmoil, surviving as he did the destruction of Jerusalem and her temple by the Babylonians, and being dragged off against his will – not to the Babylonian exile, but to Egypt, against his will, by a group of refugees. Right up until these cataclysmic events he had been warning the inhabitants of the Holy Land and their rulers that their policies were misguided, and to many he must have seemed like something of a Quisling, or at least an appeaser. This is why he was put in stocks by Passhur the priest, son of the king’s chief minister, leading to the powerful religious-political piece of poetry from which our first reading is taken.

Now of course the Kingdom of Judah was an explicitly religious political state. As is often pointed out, in ancient times religion and politics were inseparable, and the idea of a secular politics, of the ‘separation of Church and State’ is a new one, not part of the Judeo-Christian heritage. Can we learn anything, though, about the relationship between religion and politics in the 21st Century, from the writings of the 6th and 7th Centuries before Christ?

Saint Paul might lead us to think not. He tells his audience in Philippi that ‘our commonwealth is in heaven’, and in 1 Corinthians he appears to call for Christians to separate themselves from the political society that surrounds them. And yet the very heart of his Gospel is inevitable political: words like ‘Gospel’, ‘Saviour’, even ‘Lord’ have political overtones that can’t be overlooked, opposing as they do, implicitly or explicitly, the true authority of the Crucified and Risen Christ to the falsity of the Roman Empire that had usurped the divine kingship. He confronts the secular world, dominated as it is by evil forces opposed to God, with the message of God’s reign in and through Christ. In our second reading today, he does not tell us to separate ourselves from the world in which we live, but to live in it while refusing to conform to its values. 

To do so may well mean that for us Christians there will be a share in the unpopularity of Jeremiah, as we find ourselves out of step not just with political leaders – to be opposed to them can often feel rather glamorous and daring, but is in truth hardly a courageous position! – but with mainstream opinion.

We find the courage to do this because with Paul we have learnt that in the light of Christ and his Cross everything is different. We have learnt from the teaching of Christ himself that to be a disciple of his is to take up the Cross and confront the world with it. We do this not because the Cross is a good weapon to wield in the fight to change policy, or to change regime; that would be to get things the wrong way round. Rather, we fight as sometimes we must for these changes, arguing and pleading and exhorting and protesting in whatever way is appropriate, because we want to win souls for Christ and place him and his Cross where they belong, at the centre of our social reality.

To do this means to confront people with the reality of the Cross. Any other vision of Christianity elicits the response from Christ: Get behind me, Satan!

And the reality of the Cross is the reality of judgement, since it is the mark of the enmity between God and a political world that is still, two thousand years later, so often in thrall to the Devil. That’s why for us Christians to mix religion and politics is not only possible but necessary. That is, provided that we remember one thing: the only way we can wave the Cross in the faces of our rulers is by taking it up. There is no kind of Christian political involvement that does not mean our own openness  to suffering. We cannot dissuade Christ from being the vulnerable Messiah, as Peter once tried to, and we cannot cover our ears from the voice that burns within our own hearts commanding us to take up our Cross as we go out to the whole world to proclaim the Good News.

Readings: Jeremiah 20:7-9 | Romans 12:1-2 | Matthew 16:21-27

Richard J. Ounsworth O.P.

Richard J. Ounsworth Richard Joseph Ounsworth is resident at Holy Cross Priory, Leicester, teaches scripture for Blackfriars, Oxford, and is the Editor of Torch.


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