To Rome, one way or another

March 29, 2010

Although I avoid the news as much as I can, since I get a little too… involved in it, I am aware of the recent health care bill passage and at least some of the reactions it has sparked. Opponents are outraged, appalled, fearing for our country, slamming the President for being a fascist, etc. While all these reactions may be valid responses to certain evils of bill passage, I think a little perspective is needed to keep all of us at peace.

Living in the pocket of a foreigner is eye opening at times, and especially so when it comes to politics. Although neither me nor Chris are political enthusiasts, we have our views. More so I have realized that we have our assumptions shaped by the society around us. Particularly, Americans have the assumption that democracy is the best system and the majority is right.

We were watching Star Wars with our three-year-old daughter, Isabel, the other day. Don’t worry, it was a highly edited version. In episode III, the Republic was being taken over by the soon to be Emperor and Padme says, “This is how freedom dies, with thunderous applause!” Later, when confronting her beloved Anakin about whether he had turned to the dark side, she didn’t seem overly upset at him “killing younglings”. Instead, it was when he turned his back on democracy that she gasped in horror and left him. My parents like most Americans also have this weird idea that Christianity, and goodness itself, is inextricably tied to democracy.

Democracy is a system founded on the power of the vote, but a vote is only as good as the opinion of those who cast the vote. The vote is ruled by the majority, and in the absence of a moral code, the majority is not always right. Effectively, the majority becomes the mighty, and the vote ensures that might makes right.

Another weak point in the American system is that it is not actually a democracy. It is a republic. We elect officials who vote on issues for us, and once they are elected we can do little to affect their vote. Most of the time, our “representatives” are not representatives. These legislators have their own ideas of what is right and wrong and will make laws accordingly. Moreover, we are limited in our choice of those we elect to those who run for office, which in turn is limited to the wealthy or those backed by the wealthy. There may be exceptions, but this is how it generally goes, and most the time Americans vehemently defend this system as if it is, in itself, a righteous absolute or basic human right. It is merely the best we can do right now, and as we have seen recently, it is not nearly good enough.

The reason the democratic ideal in America is failing is that its people are in the midst of a long and painful divorce from the philosophy that has for so long shaped their morality. Far too few people have a clear picture of the history of the world, and the flavors that filled the world in different times. Before Christ came, Rome ruled what was known as the civilized world, surrounded by what they called “barbarians”, those outside of the Roman Empire. Although barbarians were seen as uncivilized, it can be easily seen from Roman culture that nothing during the time immediately preceding the coming of Christ could be called civilized by our standards today. The Roman Empire was a military run society, loosely an oligarchic republic of sorts, but holding all sorts of vicious and inhuman behavior as acceptable. Without a second thought for the value and dignity of an individual human, they practiced forms of brutality like gladiator games, slavery, abortion and cruel punishments like crucifixion. There was corruption in the form of exorbitant taxes, extortion, and distorted sexual behaviors like homosexuality, male infidelity, incest, pedophilia, and prostitution. Although these offenses occur in current times as well, in the Roman Empire they were culturally accepted. The powerful created the laws, and the weak were crushed underfoot, because the society was shaped by the philosophy its people held. Although the ancient Romans had religion in the form of multiple gods like Jupiter, Mars, and Neptune, there was little morality beyond that of the mighty. Strength was admired and victory was noble. Power over others was the highest Roman virtue, and there was no lasting hope for the people, for even the power they possessed was lost at death.

Jesus Christ preached a message of self-sacrifice and eternal hope. He taught us to give our lives for others rather than seeking power over others, and Christ Himself gave His life for the forgiveness of our sins as our perfect example of the love we are to have. In a society that despised the powerless, Christianity thrived because it gave hope in a world of despair. There was meaning in its message of love and resurrection, and so Christians faced persecution, humiliation, and martyrdom against all apparent reason. The Christian civilization that rose from the moral ashes of ancient Rome had a new life. These people sought a moral goodness that was well defined by the Catholic Church who united, strengthened and expanded their society. Slavery faded as a practice until it disappeared, since a Christian could hardly keep a fellow Christian brother as his slave. People were urged to give to the poor, to make sacrifices for God and the Church, to spend their lives in service to others, and to be content with having the necessities of life instead of seeking great wealth. The high middle ages were a beautiful time for the human soul. This was the nature of Christian morality that laid the foundation for our society today.

Yet a century or so before the Reformation, this high Christian society began to face the inevitable poisoning of corruption from those who still sought power instead of goodness. The Reformation protested the corruption for good reason, but the Reformers lost sight of the cause of the problems, and broke with the institutional authority of the Catholic Church, rejecting and revising all her teachings rather than just the corrupt practices. Over the next century, the separation became permanent, and the Christian institution that had for so long directed the society around it was weakened. Five centuries after the Reformation, Christian society is even more fractured and its influence on the philosophy of secular society has steadily decreased.

There is now a battle going on between those of differing philosophies. The Christians, more and more so only the conservative Christians and I believe eventually only the Catholic Christians, hold to value and dignity of individual human life. We oppose abortion and euthanasia. We call for right action and fairness toward all people. We desire goodness rather than power. Those who hold secular philosophies are not without morality, but they are without an absolute morality. They retain a vestigial morality like a distant memory of their ancient religion, but the grounds for what they believe is right and wrong shift as their position shifts. They legalize and fight for the right to infringe on the lives and dignity of others when it is convenient for them to do so. The life of an unborn and unwanted child is seen as insignificant only because it has no ability to defend itself, and in the absence of Christian morality, might makes right. Power is sought and the strong make the rules. The majority wins in a democratic society, and without the foundation of Christian morality the majority will not care for the weak and powerless. As the moral tide of our society continues to turn away from the Rome of the Catholic Church, it is returning to the barbarism of ancient Rome.

As individuals, we make a choice whether to live for ourselves as the Romans, or to live for each other as the Catholic Christians. The world and our country are made of individuals, but we cannot make their choice for them. Though their failing morality and hence our failing democracy saddens us, it should not make us despair. Our hope is not, nor has it ever been, in our own power to create a perfect society or perfect governmental system. Our hope is in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, His death that we share that we may also share in His glory and resurrection. Though the world around us falls further from goodness, it is only a sign of the movements of society as a whole, and the light of Christ has never failed to shine in the darkest places at the darkest times. We are His light, and whatever governmental laws are passed, we will still act in accordance with the laws of God.

Let us try to keep this all in perspective when the health care bill fails to uphold righteousness in many respects. We can also be thankful for the improvements it has made, since it is criminal to drop an insured just as they need the insurance they have paid so long for, or to not cover a child on a pre-existing condition when they need care. Above all, we can be grateful that Christ has come and changed us, so that we are no longer barbarians, and have through Him the ability to be in this world and not of it.