As Christians who are American, we enjoy a dual citizenship. By native birth or naturalization, we are citizens of the United States. By baptism, we are citizens of heaven. We are blessed with the heritage of the Founding Fathers who recognized that our life and liberties are endowed to us by God who watches over the affairs of the world. And we are blessed with the legacy of the Apostles and saints who have passed down the Gospel vision of a good society that is reflective of God’s kingdom of love, truth, justice and peace.
Many years ago, early on in the history of the Church, some viewed followers of Jesus with suspicion, asserting that if you were Christian, you could not be a good citizen of the state. This led to periods of severe persecution and martyrdom. The same is happening violently in various parts of the world and more subtly here in our own country where, very recently, the Church and her teaching has been criticized for being antithetical to specific political objectives being advanced in this election year. The President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops recently issued a statement noting, “There have been recent reports that some may have sought to interfere in the internal life of the Church for short term political gain.” He went on to remind us that, “The Gospel serves the common good, not political agendas.”
In light of the ongoing efforts to manipulate the Gospel for partisan, political purposes, we can benefit from the second century Letter to Diognetus where it is explained that “Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs.” Yet there is something extraordinary about them. “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. . . . To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body.” The letter then adds, “Christians also live for a time amidst perishable things, while awaiting the freedom from change and decay that will be theirs in heaven.”
Tertullian, one of the great voices of Christianity in that second century, also explained how Christians led lives of generosity, justice, and purity, wearing charity like a brand upon their bodies. He wrote of how people came to say of Christians, “‘Look,’ they say, ‘how they love one another . . . and how they are ready to die for each other’” (Apology, 39).
Tertullian does not speak in pious generalities, but lists the specific ways that Christians habitually helped others, even at the risk of their own lives. Christians “supply the wants of destitute orphans, and of old persons who are homebound; those who have suffered shipwreck, or have been condemned to the mines, or banished to the islands, or shut up in prisons” (Id.). Saint Justin Martyr, a convert, confirms Tertullian’s testimony by an almost identical list of charitable deeds (First Apology, 67).
When the Roman Empire fell and some started blaming the Christians, Saint Augustine wrote his epic work, De Civitate Dei, in which he describes human history in terms of the City of Man and the City of God. You will not find these cities on a map or on a globe. They are mystical cities. Nor can you differentiate their citizens by the passports they carry or by their ethnicity. You can tell their citizens by what they love best: self over God (the City of Man) or God over self (the City of God).
The City of God does not impose a temporal regime, and it is compatible with any decent earthly government. Its citizens love the good in every community, in every culture – whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious (Philippians 4:8) – and they reject only the things that are harmful to good and just society. They work for tranquil order in the lands they inhabit and for lasting peace on earth.
Citizens of God’s city and kingdom work to help build up that realm of goodness and light in our world, but unlike earthly kingdoms of man, we will take no one by conquest, no one by coercion. Instead we pray for others, we converse with them, we befriend them, we invite them. We share our faith with them and offer the voice of an informed conscience.
As in Augustine’s time, many today wonder about the things that are passing away in this relativistic, secular age. They strive to discern, in the midst of all that seems so transient, the things that last. The Christian citizen can offer them the assurance of a city, kingdom and life that will last in eternity. Like the great theologian, we persevere in trustworthy hope, confident in the providence of God and that his grace can renew and build upon whatever good can be found in society and culture.
Since “our citizenship is in heaven,” the Lord is always near. Our fellow citizen Saint Paul reassures us, “Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:5-7).