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Lately I’ve been thinking about my days in the early ’90s as a Beverly Hills lawyer. That was when I first started asking the deep questions: What was I born for? Who do I want to serve? I sincerely wanted to help alleviate the suffering of the world but working as a lawyer, making money for the first time in my life (I was close to 40 at the time), I started to realize I didn’t want to align myself with the rich and the powerful. I didn’t want to lord it over the rest of society.
I come from a blue collar family and some of my feelings arose from a congenital sympathy for the underdog. But when I began to read the Gospels, I found that this was the stance of Christ as well. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. What I really started to ponder was “Say yes when you mean yes and no when you mean no.” Nothing could have been further from that creed than the “law” of civil litigation.
That was when I began to see that there’s a law of the land and there’s a Higher Law.
That was when I began to see that the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court had no more idea of how the world really works than a Skid Row drunk.
That was when I quit my job as a lawyer, converted to Catholicism and began to write about everything I was experiencing and learning.
My conversion arose from the conflict we all face: between the (apparent) security of this world and the (apparently) precarious realm of the kingdom of God. You cannot serve both God and mammon, and who doesn’t struggle with that every day? Still, from the beginning I understood “Render unto God what is God’s and unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” to mean, among other things, that I don’t love and serve Christ through my country. I love and serve my country—and everything else—through Christ.
Recently I saw a Catholic TV show in which people talked about their conversion to Christ across a jaunty cluster of American flags. This struck me as emblematic of an egregious theological error, one that underlies and derails much of our contemporary Catholic discourse. I’m not claiming to be statesman or a politician or a military tactician here. Far from it. My point is that as a follower of Christ my highest concern is never, say, how to respond to ISIS. My highest concern is the day-to-day orientation of my heart. My concern is that I continue to ask those deep questions I started asking as a lawyer every moment of my life.
I’ve often pondered the passage in the Gospels where Christ tells Peter to go hook a fish, open its mouth, and he’ll find a coin to pay the temple tax [Matthew 17:24-27]. One of the things that says to me is that Christ didn’t agonize much about man-made rules and regulations. Not because those things aren’t important, but because when you’re propelled by love, your allegiance to all that is for and from love, to all that truly goes toward the common good, is settled. “The sons are exempt.” If you’re already giving your whole heart, your whole strength, your whole mind, taxes of any kind are a subsidiary, not a primary demonstration, of our love for Christ.
So as a follower of Christ, I will automatically be the best possible citizen. Out of love, I will obey all the laws that go toward the common good. I won’t lie, cheat, or steal. I won’t bear false witness. I won’t litter, I’ll return my library books on time. I’ll obey the traffic laws (as long as there are no cops around, full disclosure).
As a follower of Christ, I’ll also do many things that are not strictly required by law and refrain from many things that are not forbidden by the law: things that stem from kindness and courtesy and that many of my own neighbors don’t observe at all. I won’t commit adultery. I’ll work hard not to covet my neighbors’ goods. I’ll respect my neighbors by refraining from playing loud music, owning a dog whose barking would disturb my neighbors’ peace, or parking my car so that the back half obstructs the sidewalk. I’ll keep my yard free of junk to comply with municipal laws; but out of love I’ll make my yard beautiful—because out of love we want to make the world beautiful for everyone, even our loud neighbors.
I will follow the law of the land to the extent that it coincides with Christ’s teachings, in other words, but my North Star will be the Gospels, not the U.S., or any other, Constitution. I’ll be the best possible citizen and I’ll also be a good neighbor—which is a very much higher calling than to be a good citizen. I would no sooner own an assault weapon, which is allowed under the law of the land, for example, than I would have an abortion, which is also allowed under the law of the land. I am for life, in all its forms, and violence and murder, of any member of the human family, go profoundly against the commandment of Christ to love one another as he loved us.
In the Errol Morris documentary “The Unknown Known,” former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has, or seems to have, no doubts, no regrets: not about our involvement in Iraq, not about the abuses at Abu Ghraib. When confronted with the controversial U.S. failure to prevent looting of the Iraq National Museum, with its extraordinary collections of Babylonian, Sumerian and Assyrian artifacts and rare Islamic texts, Rumsfeld had complained, "The images you are seeing on television, you are seeing over and over and over. It’s the same picture of some person walking out of some building with a vase and you see it twenty times. And you think, my goodness, were there that many vases? Is it possible that there were that many vases in the whole country?"
“Stuff happens,” he’d continued. “[F]reedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.”
“What keeps you awake at night?” Morris asks in the film. Without missing a beat Rumseld replies, “Intelligence.” In other words, Are they going to get us before we get them?
Right there is the difference between a citizen and a follower of Christ. Because the follower of Christ is kept awake by his conscience. Personally I lie awake at night thinking how very, very far I have fallen short during the day, one more time, from loving my neighbor the way Christ loved us. My question has to do with Matthew 25. That’s what I agonize over. When I’m not agonizing, I’m giving thanks. That’s another mark of the follower of Christ: gratitude.
If Christ stands for anything, he stands for the radical, revolutionary idea that we are no longer going to be energized by, order our lives to, or take pleasure in hating our enemies. We are going to try to live instead by rigorous honesty, vulnerability, and the childlike heart that persists in feeling the full force of our yearning to have everyone around the table—without using violence to achieve it. The kind of almost insane courage required to even say such things out loud, never mind try to live them out, itself tends to engender the worst kind of violence—as Christ well knew.
Let others parse whether and when self-defense is justified; we can never go wrong if we’re moving toward, orienting our hearts, toward, peace. That’s not a statement of military strategy or an insistence upon pacifism as ideology; it’s a statement of the deepest desire of Christ’s heart: that our joy may be complete. The problem with spending our time wondering whether we’re going to get them first or they’re going to get us—whether “them” is a family member, our boss, the IRS, or ISIS—is that we will have missed our whole lives.
"Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell,” Christ taught [Matthew 10:28]. What a crazy idea! When Peter heard it, he “took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, "God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You" [Matthew 16:22]. And Christ—who knew full well they would get him—turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” [Matthew 16:23].
We do want to save our souls, and the souls of our brothers and sisters. We do agonize over these questions. We do pray for those in power. We realize no-one would want to have to make the decisions our politicians are called to make.
But we also know that at the end of the age when the time comes for Christ to separate the sheep from the goats surely we hope to have something more compelling to say for ourselves than “I know you said Blessed are the peacemakers but I spent my life defending my Second Amendment rights.” Or “I know you gave us trees and birds and flowers and each other but I chose to spend my life on earth watching videos of beheadings.” Or
“I know you said we will be judged on whether we clothed the naked, gave the thirsty a drop of water, or visited the prisoner but I couldn’t bear to be around that kind of poverty. I couldn’t bear to face and feel the poverty in myself: my hemorrhaging heart, my mother who was an alcoholic, my father who beat me, my life-long terror that I wasn’t enough: not smart enough, not pretty or handsome enough, not strong enough, not worthy enough of love.
“And because I could not bear to face any of that, nor to share that with another human being, nor to come naked myself before God and his Son, I chose instead to confuse you with a nation-state. I chose to align myself not with you—because the truth is, nailed to a Cross, you looked kind of weak. You looked kind of like me—but with the most powerful country on earth.”
I’ve hitch-hiked across my country; our country. I’ve driven back and forth across it twice. I’ve camped, hiked, and walked its mountains, deserts and streets. I’ve prayed on its freeways, wept at its beauty, grieved at its struggles. But, bound by the First Commandment, I don’t worship a flag. I don’t kneel before a political system. I don’t adore a military power.
I kneel before the altar in a Catholic church. I worship Christ.
Only one thing would be suitable to set on the table over which to tell the story of my conversion. That would be a crucifix.
Heather King is a Catholic convert, sober alcoholic, and writer whose most recent book is STRIPPED: Cancer, Culture and The Cloud of Unknowing. She speaks nationwide and blogs at Heather King: Mystery, Smarts, Laughs. For more, see her new About page.