We know the season of Advent is one of waiting. Having heard November’s liturgy readings of the end times and closed the year with the feast of Christ the King, we begin the new year waiting for what we just heard and celebrated.
We may also know the season of the “holidays” can be one of arguing. As Christ promised, many families and friends are dangerously divided over who He is as well as over what our political arrangements should be.
These seasons are closely related. We are waiting for Christ to return finally and save us, and we are arguing about what our politics should be while we wait.
“Thy Kingdom come,” we pray in every Mass, six times in every Rosary, a few times often as penance. A powerfully important aspiration about what government we should seek, given to us by Christ himself. We are told to seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness.
Perhaps the most important single divide in politics in the last few centuries emerges from this. Some believe we must do what we can to make things better in our political communities, while we await the coming of the Kingdom. Others have had enough waiting and want to bring about the perfect political system right here, right now (these are usually labeled “progressives”).
And that’s the root of the big arguments that unfold all year long and seem to take on a peculiar intensity during the holidays.
But both sides of the argument know there must be something better coming, a better politics or a better and final Kingdom. How are those two related?
In both cases, we hope for justice. We want what is right.
The psalms are filled with cries for justice, with praise for the just man, with the belief that justice will triumph in God’s rule. Psalm 48: “Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised in the city of our God! . . .[The rulers of the earth] saw it, they were astounded, they were in panic, they took to flight.” Or Psalm 97: “The Lord reigns; let the earth rejoice; let the many islands be glad! . . .For you, O Lord, are most high over all the earth.” Psalm 89: “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.”
No wonder Christ tells us to pray for this Kingdom.
But other sources cry for this city, too. In Mark Helprin’s novel Winter’s Tale, a key to the story is found in the inscription on a grand salver: “For what can be imagined more beautiful than the sight of a perfectly just city rejoicing in justice alone.”
We all long for that city, that community of persons that melds truth, beauty, and goodness.
More ancient sources saw this longing, as well. In Plato’s dialogue Statesman, Socrates watches approvingly as a visitor to Athens helps a young man, also named Socrates, understand what a good ruler, a statesman, really is. Such a statesman knows the souls of his citizens well enough to weave their virtues together for the good of the city, appointing the courageous to be leaders in time of war and the moderate to govern in peace.
The visitor describes six kinds of governments: rule for the common good by one, by a few, or by the many; and selfish or tyrannical rule by one, by a few, or by the many. This scheme of political analysis is still helpful today as we argue about politics.
But the visitor touches also on a seventh kind of government, one that “we must separate out from the other constitutions, like a god from men.” This divine government exceeds human capacity. A good statesman can only know imperfectly the virtues of the citizens. It takes a divine ruler to know men perfectly, and thus only a god could rule perfectly.
Socrates and Plato knew this is how we yearn to be governed. They also know it won’t happen on earth.
Likewise, Plato’s student Aristotle describes the six kinds of government but also sees how real Greek cities fit into that scheme. In the Politics (Books IV and VII), he seems to separate the regimes or constitutions that are actually possible from the government “that one would pray for.” Philosophers dispute the meaning of this, of course, but it seems to me a nod towards Plato’s seventh, divine regime.
The great exposition of this tension between earthly political communities and the rule of God, and the hope for resolution of that tension, is St. Augustine’s City of God. The title comes from the psalms.
St. Augustine sees the divide between the earthly city, those concerned only with the things around us, and the City of God, the saints in Heaven and those still on earth but in the communion of saints. These latter choose God as their final end over physical and material pleasure, ease and comfort.
St. Augustine tells us that these two cities are intermixed here on earth, until the end of time. Sometimes earthly rulers will tend towards justice and tranquillitas ordinis, or an ordered tranquility in earthly affairs that rests on peace and justice. Peace on earth, good will towards men. This order is a reflection of the eternal peace of Heaven.
Other rulers will oppose that tranquility.
But we can never achieve the perfect political arrangement on earth. Eternal peace is only realized in that seventh, divine regime where the seeming contradictions that plague earthly politics are resolved.
Where, in the words of Psalm 85, “Mercy and faithfulness will meet, righteousness and peace will kiss. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from heaven.”
We wait for the Lord. We wait and argue about justice in our politics. We wait for what we will have completely and endlessly only in His Kingdom, the Kingdom which is not of this world.
*Image: The Annunciation to the Shepherds by the Master of the Houghton Miniatures, late 1470s to 1480 [J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA]
You may also enjoy:
+James V. Schall, S.J.’s The City of God
Bevil Bramwell. OMI’s The Peace of God Will Guard Your Minds and Hearts!