When Pope Benedict XVI recently established a Twitter page, I was very excited. Ironically, the length of Twitter posts is well-calibrated for Christianity, whose founders were known for punchy kerygmatic statements like “Jesus is Lord.” We should use technology to sanctify the world. Sadly, the world does not reciprocate its appreciation. If you take a moment to observe the responses which the Pope’s tweets received, you’ll see the filthy underside of the internet: foul language, abuse, libel. Underneath the responses to the Pope lies incredible hate. His recent announcement of resignation has only provoked more hatred. What is it about this mild-mannered and diminutive academic that provokes so much hate?
Pope Benedict doesn’t stand for himself, but for the entire Gospel of Jesus Christ. And in rejecting him, people really are rejecting what they perceive of Christianity. The world isn’t free to perceive the Gospel as light and truth. In truth, the Gospel answers the deepest aspirations of the human heart, and sets us free from the slavery of sin and the unhappiness it causes. But the world perceives the Gospel’s light as darkness. The restrictions the Gospel places on human moral action seem like a terrible and abhorrent tyranny. We might well cite the Gospel of John which says,
And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed (Jn 3:19-20).
One Christian writer from the second century, in the Epistle to Diognetus, expresses our paradoxical relationship with the world. Christians are not from just one country or homeland. We are pilgrims in this world. At once, he says, “every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is a foreign country.” Christians marry, but do not commit infanticide. We share a common table, he says, but not wives. He continues,
To put it shortly what the soul is in the body, that the Christians are in the world. The soul is spread through all members of the body, and Christians throughout the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, but is not of the body, and Christians dwell in the world, but are not of the world. The soul is invisible, and is guarded in a visible body, and Christians are recognized when they are in the world, but their religion remains invisible.
Although our true homeland is in heaven, that doesn’t mean we have contempt for the world. We don’t wish them evil, but we love them. He continues:
The flesh hates the soul, and wages war upon it, though it has suffered no evil, because it is prevented from gratifying its pleasures, and the world hates the Christians though it has suffered no evil, because they are opposed to its pleasures. The soul loves the flesh which hates it and the limbs, and Christians love those that hate them… the soul dwells immortal in a mortal tabernacle, and Christians sojourn among corruptible things, waiting for the incorruptibility which is in heaven.
Our culture is diverging sharply from Christianity. We no longer hold similar goals and values in common. It is no surprise that as we do so, the world becomes increasingly intolerant of us. It pours the foulest slander on the Pope. It also expresses itself by promoting and enacting laws, which push us out of the public square, ask us to violate our consciences, and exclude us from respectable society. These conflicts and setbacks can be the occasion for us to reflect fruitfully on how being Christian affects our relationship with the world.
It may be surprising that the Christian is always in tension with the world. But perhaps all this is a blessing. Extending the analogy of soul and body from above, the same early Christian author notes that, “the soul when evil treated in food and drink becomes better, and Christians when buffeted day by day increase more.”
Image: Jan Styka, St. Peter Preaching the Gospel in the Catacombs