Divisive politics seems to poison every aspect of contemporary life. So there is an urgent need to reconsider what it would mean if what we were to seek is not an illusory political “unity,” but what true public harmony depends upon: Christian brotherhood.
When we say brother, the immediate, literal meaning usually comes to mind: He is my brother, by blood. If we are thinking about the brotherhood of mankind, our thoughts are typically more abstract, often sentimental aspirations. What do we mean when we, as Christians, refer to one another as brothers in Christ?
The sin of Adam and Eve mortally wounded human nature. The world became subject to the divisive influence of the Devil, the “Prince of this world.” Unity gave way to disunity. Adam blamed Eve for his sin. Cain murdered his brother Abel. In His justice, God sent a flood to destroy the wicked, sparing the righteous Noah and his family.
Following the Great Flood, the divide separating God and man widened. Presuming they did not need God’s grace and could reach the heavens without God, the people constructed the infamous Tower of Babel. But God punished their arrogance, scattering the peoples and confounding their speech so that they could no longer understand each other.
In various ways, groupings of families and tribes have clustered around ethnic language groups. Their sinful pride institutionalized the social disunity that comes with differences in language. The tribes were necessary not only for survival and self-defense, but also for warfare and conquest.
Still, in the plan of God, tribes would play an essential part in the history of salvation. The twelve tribes that emerged in ancient Israel served the unity of the Israelites. Each tribe had its essential purpose. The tribe of Levi, for example, was a tribe dedicated to offering sacrificial worship. The priesthood was the destiny of men born into this tribe.
The tribalism of ancient Israel had many benefits, including the loyalty of family and extended family ties. Tribes had important military purposes, conquering Canaan and protecting their homeland. In battle, members of the tribes fought and died for their brothers. The bonds of blood unified them. The tribes of the Chosen People prepared an ethnic cradle for the coming of the Messiah.
But tribal differences also presented many difficulties in ancient Israel – as they do today. Tribal and family bonds often spark useless blood feuds and wars. We see the damage tribalism has inflicted, particularly in the Middle East and Africa. The Kingdom of Israel and Judah split into two kingdoms because of tribal quarrels. The mutual tribal hatreds of the Judeans and Samaritans remain evident in the Gospels. And even American folklore records family feuds, most famously the Hatfields and the McCoys.
But the Old Testament already points to ways of transcending and overcoming the evils of tribalism. God sends Jonah, the reluctant prophet, to the Ninevites, the archenemies of the Jews. He preaches repentance, and lo and behold, the enemies of the Jews repent! The message is loud and clear. Israel’s enemies are not necessarily members of a hostile tribe, only those unrepentant and in league with Satan.
The real enemy of the Jews is sin, evil, and the Devil himself. Beyond all previous expectation, after repenting of their sins, the Ninevites became their brothers – which forced the Jews to rethink what Jewish exceptionalism meant.
Jesus continues to teach repentance as the fundamental requirement of brotherhood. He begins His ministry in continuity with the teaching of John the Baptist: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15) Before we can be members of the tribe of Jesus – the kingdom of God – we must first renounce sin and reform our lives. He continues His saving ministry by enlisting the Twelve.
The number was significant to attentive Jews. They must have sensed the connection to the twelve tribes of Israel. Indeed, Jesus replaced the twelve tribes with a brotherhood that transcends all tribes in His new and everlasting Covenant.
The renunciation of sin followed by the obedience of faith forms the foundation of the tribe of Jesus. As Christians, when we call each other brother, we are not referring to the bonds of blood in a family or a tribe. We are brothers in the Lord, members of the Mystical Body of Christ. The blood that we share and have in common is the Precious Blood of Jesus. So the brotherhood of Jesus Christ extends beyond national boundaries. The brotherhood of Christ is properly called universal – i.e., Catholic.
So we must not first think of ourselves as Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, even Americans. We are Catholics. Our world view is Catholic, knowing the difference between good and evil.
We must struggle to see the world as Catholics with the unity that comes with repentance and faith.
The Blessed Eucharist, the source and summit of the Christian life, is the sign of our tribal unity in Jesus. But when clerics distribute Communion to those who publicly, manifestly, and obdurately oppose the Church’s faith and morals, they violate Church unity and introduce ideological tribalism.
We are no longer Catholics, brothers in Jesus. We find it necessary to self-identify as “conservative” or “liberal,” blurring the distinction between membership in the tribe of Jesus and membership in diabolical tribes of ideology. Indeed, the Devil prefers a politicized Catholic enemy to a far more formidable authentically Catholic enemy.
Traditional faith and morals form the cornerstone of our unity. But the restoration of Christian brotherhood is not painless. Breaking sinful patterns of ideological impositions on our religion requires the work of repentance. Jesus does not sugarcoat the difficulties: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34)
Now is the time to transcend divisive politics with Christian brotherhood and Catholic unity, even if it first requires the sword of division.
*Image: A Eucharistic procession in Madison, Wisconsin on August 15, 2020 [CNA photo by Joe Ptak, Diocese of Madison Catholic Herald]