This article by Collegeville Institute program director and New Testament scholar Jane Patterson is the first in a series of essays on what it means to be a good citizen in this current election season. It combines Jane’s two primary interests, the New Testament and vocation. Over the next month, we will run new essays on this subject each Thursday.
Years ago I made the decision to subscribe to newspapers and journals and to listen to particular radio programs and podcasts as an aspect of my calling to be a citizen. Still, opening a newspaper on my tablet this morning and scanning the headlines for something readable, I wondered, “Should I really be using my attention on this?” Headline: Privileged Kids Get Private ‘Learning Pods.’ Everyone Else Suffers. What will I do with this knowledge? The same for another headline: The Whole of Liberal Democracy Is in Grave Danger at This Moment. Is this news actually fueling me, or draining me of heart and purpose?
The calling to be a citizen falls within a small group of callings that are generally not chosen, but given. Like the calling to be someone’s child or sibling, the calling of the citizen is defined more by discernment of the how than the whether. My commitment to the news has been an important part of my particular how. Aided by a long commute with lots of listening time, I have hoped to bring the needs of the nation and the world into my prayers and my actions.
But now I’m asking myself whether absorption of the day’s news is really leading to the lively citizenship I imagined. Far from the excitement of many election seasons, I feel mostly dread of the tweet-fueled tempest moving toward us.
I have hoped to bring the needs of the nation and the world into my prayers and my actions.
As a New Testament scholar, I naturally compare our present contentious American politics with the political complexities of first-century Galilee and Judea. Under Roman occupation Jesus and his companions were not citizens, so they lacked both the responsibilities and the freedoms that we have. But still – they set out energetically to engage the powers of their time with compassion, often with wiliness, with humor, with prophetic critique, with indignation, with each other.
The first how of citizenship is a common call to discernment
In essence, the plot of the Gospels involves the conflict between the life-giving power of God and the more imminent threat of powers that can destroy life, but not create it. In the first century, as now, the political forces of destruction often masqueraded as the necessary bringers of peace and prosperity. Encounter by encounter, the Gospels contrast the power of God in Christ to the destructive force of the systems and authorities that kept Galilee and Judea in thrall to Roman rule, teaching disciples how to discern the power of God from its counterfeits.
The lethal tangle of imperial power is revealed in the harrowing banquet scene in the court of Herod Antipas (Mark 6:14-29), Rome’s client king, where John the Baptist is beheaded as part of a birthday celebration. No one at the dinner party wields straightforward power: Herod is afraid to embarrass himself in front of the local leaders and officials who have come to dine; Herod’s wife uses her daughter to wreak the revenge she cannot get on her own; the little girl is caught in a web of adult desires that she surely does not understand; the soldier who actually beheads John the Baptist cannot disobey orders. All of these people have more power than anyone else in Galilee, and yet they are bound up in patterns of fear, suspicion, and self-interest that result only in destruction.
By contrast, Jesus succinctly characterizes the power of God when he responds to messengers from John the Baptist who want to know if he is truly God’s anointed: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them” (Luke 7:22).
Jesus’s response is not a list of miracles, but a practical guide to discerning the power of God. God’s power for life is entering the world:
- people are enabled to see and hear what is true without obstruction;
- people considered peripheral are at the center of concern;
- those who had given up hope are finding life;
- an end to poverty is heralded.
Jesus’s own calling, outlined here, is evoked by his unwillingness to hold himself back from the sufferings of his time and place.
So often, we picture Jesus’s attention focused compassionately on individuals, on the particular woman suffering from a hemorrhage or the Gerasene man howling from the tombs. But our habit of hearing the stories only within such a small frame is like separating the sounds of a piano’s strings from their resonance throughout the sounding board. Every account of an individual in the Gospels achieves its fullest sense as it resonates through the political systems that kept the local populace sick, hungry, bent over, in debt. The larger picture of the Galilean people’s suffering is expressed through the 5,000 hungry people on a hillside; the crowds around Jesus’s door, so deep that the desperate dig a hole in the roof to get to him (Mark 2:2); the masses of people coming and going so that the disciples “had no leisure even to eat” (Mark 6:31). The landscape of Galilee is a sounding board of human suffering.
The second how of citizenship: a personal calling
Looking back at the headlines scrolling beneath my fingertips, an odd patron saint of citizenship appears in my mind: Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector of the region around Jericho. I see him sitting at his tax booth, hearing the approach of Jesus and his followers on their way to Jerusalem. I see him leave his desk and climb, branch by branch, high up a sycamore tree to get a glimpse of the important man (Luke 19:1-10). But from his perch he can see so much more. All of Jericho and the fields that surround it spread out before him – so much more to see than the daily line of anxious taxpayers sweating as they face him at his booth.
He can finally see the whole patchwork of desperation, how the extensive landholdings of the absentee wealthy require the cheap labor of former subsistence farmers now descending into debt-bondage and slavery. He’s high enough to see past the security of his own family to the role he has played in his neighbors’ slide into debt. I wonder if he flinched at the view as I do when I read the present-day headlines.
Zacchaeus is high enough to see past the security of his own family to the role he has played in his neighbors’ slide into debt.
But from this vantage point he also sees Jesus. He sees and hears clearly. He comes to life from somewhere deep within. Zacchaeus climbs down and does the one thing that he is uniquely equipped to do: he makes reparations of quadruple the money he has extorted from his neighbors (Luke 19:1-10). He has seen the suffering, weighed the consequences of response. Holding back is the one suffering he chooses to avoid.
Voting: point of decision
The call of citizenship, of sharing a community with 328 million people, is a magnified form of the Christian call to be a neighbor. Its point of decision, its Jericho Road (Luke 10:25-37) is the voting booth where we either go toward our neighbors with the resources we have, or we make up a story about why we never saw their need, couldn’t stop, didn’t know what to do. Attending to the news is how we get ready for the journey, how we study the map of suffering and advantage, how we learn to recognize the track of God’s power moving through the events of the day. A Satellite Lets Scientists See Antarctica’s Melting Like Never Before. Here, where I come flinching into knowledge, I also have a chance to hear the intimate call hidden inside of the very things I thought I could not bear to know.
The call of citizenship is a magnified form of the Christian call to be a neighbor.