We have raised the question: can our encounter with the God who in Christ has shown us his face and opened his heart be for us too not just “informative” but “performative”—that is to say, can it change our lives, so that we know we are redeemed through the hope that it expresses? Before attempting to answer the question, let us return once more to the early Church. Christianity did not bring a message of social revolution like that of the ill-fated Spartacus, whose struggle led to so much bloodshed. Jesus was not Spartacus, he was not engaged in a fight for political liberation like Barabbas or Bar- Kochba. Jesus, who himself died on the Cross, brought something totally different: an encounter with the Lord of all lords, an encounter with the living God and thus an encounter with a hope stronger than the sufferings of slavery, a hope which therefore transformed life and the world from within.
Spe Salvi 4
Reflection – The distinction between ‘informative’ and ‘performative’ is something Pope Benedict has explained earlier in the encyclical. It means something I referred to a couple posts ago - that the Christian revelation is not just interesting (maybe) data about God and the world, but that it does something to us. It changes us, or it least it is meant to, and if we receive it sincerely, it most certainly will, for that is its very nature.
In this passage we touch upon the delicate and complex question of the political ramifications of Christianity. It is important to read this passage correctly; a quick or careless reading could make it sound like the Holy Father is removing Christianity from the sphere of political change or liberation entirely.
This is not correct, nor is it what the text says or even implies. Pope Benedict has lived, as a 20th century European, through a great deal of political upheaval and violence. He is well aware of the tendency in the past centuries to locate messianic hope or eschatological expectation in the sphere of political change. If only we can establish the right form of government, the proper social and economic structures, the right leadership… then and only then we will have a just and peaceful society.
He knows well the dangers of this approach. Elsewhere he writes that when politics becomes messianic it promises too much and becomes demonic. The effort to usher in the kingdom through political change, because it is doomed, leads to greater and greater intensity of effort, terminating in violence and tyranny.
It is the encounter with God that changes the human heart that ushers in a world of peace, justice, and love. We are indeed supposed to transform our world; we are supposed to seek justice for the poor, care of the needy, a beautiful society based on social justice and charity. But the primary field of transformation is the human heart; without this inner transformation, which can only come from a living encounter with the God of love, nothing really changes.