Religion Against Religion: Forgiveness and Faithful Citizenship

This Sunday’s readings include a difficult dilemma from St Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. What happens when religion becomes part of the problem, not the solution? The context here is quite complex and the subject of much theological argument. However, Paul was seeking to address the situation of believers wrestling with the tensions that arise at the intersection of God’s law, human traditions, and the coming of Jesus Christ (in this case certain Gentiles’ turn to observance of the Jewish law rather than to Christ for their inclusion in the God of Israel’s salvation).

The Galatians passage is situated in the lectionary between two passages about repentance and forgiveness: King David’s confrontation by the prophet Nathan and the confrontation of the Pharisee with Jesus whose feet were bathed in the tears of the ‘sinful woman.’ On the one hand we see a political ruler seemingly above reproach, called to account by the words of the prophet. On the other, a religious leader challenged by Jesus’ gift of (debt) forgiveness to a woman showing great love.

What is the link here? Jesus is the Son of David who brings forgiveness and restoration to all and whose faithfulness justifies and gives us life. The God of Israel in Jesus Christ steps into the middle of our sinful muddles and systemic injustices and illuminates the darkness. Political rulers are brought to account, repent, and find forgiveness. Religious leaders are confronted with their prejudices – even the ways that we can use the law as a bludgeon rather than understand it as a guardian/tutor (as Paul puts it elsewhere).

The hinge is the unexpected offer of forgiveness, the undeserved favor, the love of God in Christ which changes everything. It is not religion which justifies us but the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. Some will take this as a rejection of ‘religion’ (like some versions of Christianity did/do with Judaism or the Protestant Reformation did/does with Catholicism) – it is not. Rather, God is teaching us to be one human family. Christ in us, uniting us to himself, incorporates us into his Body to be witnesses to a world where forgiveness, love, and restored relationships – rather than vengeance, fear, and fragmentation – are the basis for a future together. That is, a politics of Jesus is possible!

What does that have to do with Faithful Citizenship? Well, we had a primary election this week (June 7th!) and election season for months to come. In some ways our politics has become a religion. The parochial American liturgy of voting-with its sacristans, relentless rituals, interminable cycles, and obscene offerings-often eclipses the bonds and allegiances established in the liberating liturgy of Word and Eucharist. It must not be so for Christians! We are citizens, first, of heaven: the place where Jesus rules in love. (For a helpful citizenship guide, read the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew chapters 5-7, which St John Paul II called the “magna carta of Gospel morality.”) Other citizenship and loyalties come after, if at all (surely, there are some loyalties unfitting a follower of Jesus). The U.S. Bishops “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” document is a reflection on Catholic teaching and political life, given our status as “citizens of the heavenly Kingdom, whose reign is not yet fully realized on earth but demands our unqualified allegiance” (FC, Introductory Note).

Fundamentally, the problem is not that the church is too partisan. It’s that we’re not partisan enough. That is, we settle for globalized tribal warfare and frustrated consumer pleasures, instead of deep devotion to Jesus in the face of people-particularly the poor and the stranger-and the wonders of the created world. As Catholic leaders and parish communities, may we give ourselves over fully to Jesus, true hinge of history, true religion in the flesh. And may we never let our partisan loyalties and even religious (human) traditions keep us or others from the forgiveness, truth, and love of God.


– Greg Walgenbach, Director of Life, Justice & Peace, Diocese of Orange