I’ve never been a huge G.K. Chesterton fan. Not because I don’t like him, but because I just haven’t taken the time to explore his life or thought in detail. I do know that he seems to have something of a cult following in Catholic circles, especially among converts. But he’s been popping up in a number of places for me recently, including – of all places – in a book on U.S. Foreign Policy by a professor who taught me at Penn. (The book, by the way, The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy: How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest, is an eye-opening survey of how the United States effectively abandoned the foreign policy principles of Washington and John Quincy Adams in the name of quasi-imperialistic hegemony. But I’ll save that juicy line of thought for another time.)
In an e-mail the other day, someone I know sent along these words from Chesterton:
“If I am to answer the question,
‘How would Christ solve modern problems if He were on earth today’,
I must answer it plainly; and for those of my faith there is only one answer. Christ is on earth today; alive on a thousand altars; and He does solve people’s problems exactly as He did when He was on earth in the more ordinary sense.
That is, He solves the problems of the limited number of people who choose of their own free will to listen to Him.”
I read that about six times, and then sent it along to a few people. Yes, that is the answer, isn’t it?
So many people claim to know how Jesus would vote, at what level he would set the minimum wage, for whom he would vote on America’s Got Talent.
But Christ did not come with a political mandate (cf. Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est 28). He certainly did not leave an economic blueprint for maximizing growth. Rather, he brought God. When Nicodemus spoke with Jesus Christ at night (relayed in John 3), he was speaking to a Divine Person. That’s what made him different from anyone else. Those who wish to invoke the name of Christ in order to advance their own narrow agenda are being intellectually dishonest (this is true in a corollary way for those who speak of “compassion” and “fairness,” completely ignoring the possibility that those on the other side of the debate might actually have a person’s best interest at heart as well).
We are having many consequential public conversations right now, about opioids and mental health, immigration policies, health care delivery, free speech, and the relationship between violent rhetoric and actual violence. All parties should earnestly engage such debates. That’s what makes America great (that phrase isn’t under copyright yet, is it?). But those of us who are Christians should take comfort by the fact that on our own we cannot fix what is wrong with ourselves, let alone our society. Those who seek purely this-worldly solutions to all the problems that vex us will either go insane or decide like Lenin that the only option is to impose a solution by force of arms. That has not worked well in practice either.
For the Christian, neither liberal activism nor conservative corporatism are the answers. In the end, they are basically the same: publically sanctioned pursuit of one’s own self-interest. Instead, the way Christ solves the problems of those who listen to him is by drawing them deeper into a relationship with him. This is why Saint Paul could say so boldly: Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ (Phil 3:8).
The next time we shoot off a tweet, sit down to dinner with a family member we don’t agree with, or quietly despair over the state of our world, why don’t we meditate upon those words anew? Then we might discover that the solution Christ gives for the problems of our lives and of the world is nothing less than himself. When we realize how very real his presence is – both in the Eucharist and the Church, the mystical Body of Christ – then we can seek the renewal of the world in Christ. For Chesterton and for Paul of Tarsus, anything less simply will not do.