The University of Notre Dame has been reprimanded by many for what seems to be a myopic decision to invite president Barack Obama—44th president and often staunchly opposed to the Church’s political positions—to give the commencement address at graduation and receive an honorary degree. The invitation has sparked outrage from many students and alumni, the former writing a petition protesting the president’s visit, and the latter withholding donations from the school. None of this, however, seems to me to be the fundamental problem, and I doubt whether these ancillary issues can be viewed correctly until the essential problem is addressed. This essential problem is that Christianity, to many people—including Christians—is nothing more than a moralistic, political ideology.
The issues raised above are not primary if we consider this scenario. Suppose that Notre Dame were to rescind the invitation extended to president Obama. This would mean that the Newman Society and the petition would have "succeeded". They would have won their political battle, protected their turf, kept Our Lady's university safe. And then what? Discussion ceases, the arguments subside, and the Church removes once again into cultural oblivion while seeming ever more like a radical moralist ideology. This is a Christianity that is lived in a ghetto, guided by moralism and protectionism. In short, this is a reduction of the problem and the meaning of life to power, and ultimately a giving in to the nihilism of our age. It does not get to the root of the problem.
The interesting question to me is not “how can we insulate our lives evil?” but rather, “who can save us from our wretched state?” I frankly do not care for an answer to the first question. The second question, however, is endlessly fascinating: the answer to that question is the same man who claimed to be God, the man whom people dropped everything to follow. Zaccheus came down from the tree for Him. Why? Zaccheus was the Tony Soprano of his day: he was feared, hated by the people. He was an extortionist. What was so attractive about Christ? Who was that man? Why did Zaccheus follow him?
The alternative to a paradigm of power is the mercy of Christ’s presence. It is a love for us; while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. It is a mercy that regenerates those who follow and thus generates a new culture. The culture of life will not come, as we think it will, from power and elections, but from our giving priority to this love. The latter position makes us protagonists, while the former position makes us antagonists, always retreating, always trying to block the next move of our opponents, whoever they may be, and always one step behind. Christ is the starting point, and that only seems ineffective or impractical to us because ”Christ” has become a banal word. A word; not The Word made flesh, not the reason for everything. It is not Christ who is ancillary; the problem is the way we look at reality according to our preconceptions about how things are supposed to happen.
The whole situation smacks of a similar dilemma facing the Christians in Soloviev's story of “The Anti-Christ.” The most moving scene in this tale is the point where the Anti-Christ, who is a brilliant leader and politician working for globalized peace and the union of the all the nations of the world, has convinced the majority of the religious people of the world to follow him. In the story there are those who object to the Anti-Christ on various grounds, but when he appeases their demands, they begin to follow. In the same way, there are those who object to Obama on pro-life and anti-gay marriage grounds in such a focused, particular way that Christianity becomes for them a political persuasion, a persuasion that implies that, if the president were to fix our list of issues, he would be our savior. But this is false. We are Christians because of Christ, because of His mercy, and for nothing else:
"In a grieved voice the Emperor addressed them: 'What else can I do for you, you strange people? What do you want from me? I cannot understand. Tell me yourselves, you Christians, deserted by the majority of your brothers and leaders, condemned by popular sentiment. What is it that you value most in Christianity?'
"At this Elder John rose up like a white candle, and said in a gentle voice: 'Great sovereign! The thing we value most in Christianity is Christ Himself—He in His person. All the rest comes from Him, for we know that in Him dwells bodily the whole fullness of Divinity.'" (Soloviev)
Any manifestation of Christianity that falls short of Elder John’s confession is truly impotent and myopic. Impotent, because it lacks its very foundations; it may be correct in its views, it may be able to say the right things, but it will never be able to live an experience of hope based on the certainty of Christ, and thus it will never have any capacity to regenerate the world. Myopic, because in its obsession with moral cohesion as a primary category of Christianity, it is unable to account for Zaccheus, who came down from the tree. Nor are they able to account for the position of my friend: “Obama has been invited to the place where I met Christ. Why wouldn't I want him to go there?” That simple testimony is disarming, but it makes us reinvestigate what it is about Christianity that has allowed it to survive for 2,000 years: a gratuitous, regenerative mercy, a freely given and unexpected encounter. It is a fact that we have difficulty accounting for in our schemes of power.
I haven’t mentioned much about Obama, because I think the issue his visit to Notre Dame has raised is ultimately: “What is Christianity? What about it is so worth defending?” This question remains unanswered unless we arrive to a true recognition of Christ, on the cross, giving us everything. In a sense, this is all that is asked of us. What upset me so much about the whole issue is how devoid of a recognition Christ’s presence the whole of popular reaction has been. If the essence of Christianity is power, as it is being portrayed both by the media and by those utterly outraged at the invitation, then I am not interested in being a Christian. I am interested in what made Zaccheus a protagonist; I am interested in the man who is able to call me down from the tree.