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Watch 2022-2023 online sermons » Robert Barron » Robert Barron - Don't Demonize (or Divinize) the Powerful

Robert Barron - Don't Demonize (or Divinize) the Powerful

Robert Barron - Don't Demonize (or Divinize) the Powerful
TOPICS: Leadership, Criticism

Peace be with you. Friends, I love the opportunity today to talk about the church's social teaching and the prompt comes from readings one and two, because they beautifully show, if you want, both sides of the church's social teaching, the beautiful balance that we can find in this regard. Let me start with someone, I've mentioned a lot to you before, because I do think, even more than Karl Marx, he's the most influential philosopher of the 19th century. I'm talking about Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche who said that we're kind of beyond good and evil. There are no objective moral values. So what's left, he thought, was the Übermensch he called them, the Superman, who with his great will to power asserts his prerogatives and his authority.

So Nietzsche was obsessed with the idea of power, who exercises power, the right of the strong man to kind of assert himself. Well Nietzsche's influence is everywhere in the 20th century. You see it in someone like Heidegger. You see it clearly in C.G. Jung. You see it in the novels of Ayn Rand, for example. You see it in Jean-Paul Sartre, but I think most clearly you see it in the reflections of Michel Foucault. He was a French philosopher that worked in the '70s and '80s. And I think Foucault is the most influential philosopher when it comes to today's woke-ism. A lot of the attitudes we see today, come up out of this Foucault, and then ultimately Nietzsche tradition.

Now, what am I talking about? Well, looking at social, political, economic, and cultural institutions, primarily from the standpoint of power and the abuse of power. So the tendency to look behind the social, political, cultural institutions, and see actually plays of power, to see oppressive people, powerful people, oppressing the weak and the poor. It's a kind of deconstruction of social institutions, a hyper stress on power, so that our confidence in political, social, economic institutions is sort of shaken.

Now go back, as I record these words, it's a couple years ago to the summer of 2020, that really terrible summer in the wake of the George Floyd murder and there was so much unrest in our country. And you heard from a lot of people, I would say this sort of Nietzsche, Foucault rhetoric. Political, cultural, economic institutions are just corrupt and we've got to tear them down. I mean, think of a slogan like "Defund the Police", not just reform the police or get some bad apples out, but defund the whole operation. Knock down the physical structures that embody political and cultural institutions.

Well, that instinct born of Nietzsche, coming up through Foucault, can I suggest to everybody, is repugnant to Catholic social teaching. Catholic social teaching does not demonize power, whether that's economic or cultural or political power. Now the main reason is very simple. God is described as being powerful. In fact, all powerful. One of the most fundamental things we say about God in the creed is that he's almighty. So if God is powerful, we can't say power in itself is a bad thing. No, in fact, our tradition says that political power is a kind of participation in the power of God. It's a sort of delegated authority from the supreme authority of God. Look, if power is the capacity to affect change, that might be a way just to define it. Therefore, political power is the capacity to affect change in the political and social order.

Well, that's not a bad thing in itself. In fact, it's required for the proper functioning and orderliness of the political reality. Think here of St. Augustine's famous definition of peace as the tranquillitas ordinis, not just tranquility, but tranquillitas ordinis, that means the tranquility of order, the tranquility that comes from a properly ordered society. Well, where does that come from, but from the proper exercise of political, economic, and social power? So we don't demonize. Now, why am I talking about all of this? Well, my prompt is coming from our second reading from Paul's first letter to Timothy, a letter that's interesting in so many ways, but here's the line I'm focusing on.

Paul says, "I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and all those in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life". Well, Paul isn't demonizing political authority. Now in his time he wouldn't have dreamed of the kind of representative democracy that we have. He's accustomed to kings and emperors and so on, but he's not demonizing them. He's saying, "No, they're, they're required for a tranquil and quiet life. And therefore we ought to pray that the divine power, the divine authority, might inform the work that they do". This is reflected of course now up and down the centuries. And you find it in the church's social teaching, which sees the supreme value of political order.

Think too of the fact, everybody, that we've canonized several political figures, maybe most famously Louis IX, Saint Louis, St. Louis, the saintly king of France, but Elizabeth of Hungary and Stanislaus of Poland, I mean, many others. So church doesn't doesn't demonize power, even that kind of supreme power that kings have. More to it, it's in the liturgical books themselves. At every mass when we, every Sunday mass, when we pray the Prayers of the Faithful, well, we're obligated, we're obligated by the church's liturgy to pray for the Pope first, yes, but then for civil leaders. So we're following exactly this recommendation in 1 Timothy.

One more observation here, and I think it's not commented upon very much, at least I don't find it, but the most famous line in 1 Timothy has got to be that, "This is good and pleasing to God, our savior, who wills everyone to be saved". And that's the source of much debate and controversy, but it's part of this recommendation to pray for political leaders again. So pray, petitions, thanksgiving, et cetera. "This is good and pleasing to God, our savior, who wills everyone to be saved".

Somehow even our salvation follows from the right exercise of authority. And that, to me, isn't very puzzling. If salvation's a function of our right moral behavior, our right moral behavior is to some degree predicated upon the orderliness of our society. Yes, indeed. Yes, indeed. Power, political power, is a necessary prerequisite for salvation. This is the very high view the church has of political power and authority. That's one side of it, if you want, and I'm not going to gain say any of that. All of that remains true. But then we look at the other side and this is the richness of Catholic social teaching. And my prompt here is our first reading from the book of the prophet Amos. Amos, a bit like Isaiah here, one of the great prophets, if you want of social justice, we'd say today.

Amos who was quoted again and again by Martin Luther King. One of the most poetic and powerful critics of the abuse of power. So without going, as far as Nietzsche and Foucault, and simply kind of demonizing political power, is the church with its roots in these ancient Hebrew prophets, very aware of the dangers of an abuse of political power. Yes. And see everybody, I think it makes the Bible very distinctive. You look in the literature of the ancient world, whether it's Babylon, it's Assyria, it's Persia, it's Rome itself. What do you find? Almost across the board you find a tendency to apotheosize political authority. What I mean by that fancy term is to turn kings and emperors into gods. Worship them, they're flawless and infallible. There are no limits to their power.

Look at the transition from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire. It happens through Julius Caesar, then into his adopted son. After Caesar's death, in fact, he's called divus, he's called divine. And then his son takes this title, since he's the son of Caesar, he's the Υιός του θεού, he's the son of the God. Yes, most ancient cultures divinize their political leaders. Then there's the Bible. Oh, read these wonderful accounts. You'll find it in the Samuel literature, when Israel is asking for a king, so they can be like other nations. And the prophet Samuel tells them exactly what kings in their corruption are going to do. But now listen to Amos from our reading today, extraordinary rhetoric. You see why King liked him so much.

"Hear this, you who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land. When will the new moon be over, you ask, that we may sell our grain in the Sabbath, that we may display our wheat". Now, what's he talking about there? People who, during times of religious festivals, that's the new moon, the Sabbath, and so on. They wouldn't do their economic work. They wouldn't do their exploitative work. They can't wait for these religious festivals to be over so they can get back to exploiting the poor. "Hear this, you who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land".

This is not somebody who's acquiescing to the whims of political authority. This is not somebody who's divinizing emperors and kings. Au contraire. He goes on, this is now in the language of the corrupt figures, "We will diminish the ephah, add to the shekel, and fix our scales for cheating". What's going on here but people that know how to work and kind of game the system. Think of it as a sign of economic corruption. We talk about people that play the Wall Street game in a corrupt way. Well, this they're ancient ancestors here.

"We will buy the lowly for silver and the poor for a pair of sandals". Wowee. There's nothing like this, everybody, in the literature of the ancient world, on the contrary. But here's a prophet willing to stand up, as we say today, telling, speaking, truth to power. But naming, naming this deep corruption. "We will buy the lowly for silver and the poor for a pair of sandals". What stands at the center of your economic concern? Here's a question now for all of us. We're all involved in our own economic system. What's at the center of it? Care for the poor? Concern for those who don't have enough? Drawing more and more people into the dynamics of the market so they can benefit from it? Or do we, out of self-concern and self-preoccupation, send more to the margins, send more into the ranks of the poor?

Let the prophet Amos's words get deep down into your mind and deep down into your heart and bug you. How are we exercising political and economic authority? We don't demonize it. No, no, no. We pray for our leaders. We recognize the importance of our leaders, yes, even for our salvation. We require the tranquillitas ordinis that comes from properly constituted political and economic authority. At the same time, with these great prophets, we are deeply aware of the ways that power can be corrupted. There's Catholic social teaching in this wonderful both/and quality. Well, the question that should stay in our hearts and minds is how do we relate to power in our society? How do we exercise it? And God bless you.
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