Where do we look for salvation?

I’m not much of a political person. Part of it is that I am under-informed, a deficiency that I am certainly willing to admit. Moving Now, as we all are pulled by the gravitational field of the forthcoming election, I have been trying harder to understand the space of contemporary politics. I go in armed, however, with an assumption — maybe more of a conviction — that very few of the loudest political voices express, if it has even occurred to them at all: politics cannot save us.

Far from a frustrated cry of political inefficacy, this conviction is simply a reminder of the nature of things, namely that we live in a fallen world in which the hyperbolic promises of political campaigns will echo emptily, regardless of where and when they are said.

Nor is this conviction based in a distrust of politicians or the current political process. This or that politician may accomplish the vision put forward by a party program, but whether it’s universal healthcare, a revival of the economy, or the restoration of pre-COVID life—none of these things, whether achieved by governmental or non-governmental means, will save us.

One might be tempted to believe that one’s personal woes will be resolved by the success of a certain political party. That one’s own life as well as the collective life of the country is at stake. That, save political action to reform healthcare to secure or uphold this or that right, all will be lost. I have heard people talk about politics in this way, considering their personal fortunes dependent on political outcomes, hinging their happiness to the holder of some political office. And while there may be political dissidents and persecuted parties whose lives might indeed depend on the outcome of an election, those people live closer to Tehran or Moscow than they do to Washington, D.C. And while such elections of existential import have occurred, it is hard to juxtapose them with the 2020 U.S. general election in November, as much as some pundits try. The stakes have been greater, many times and in numerous ways. And even when the stakes were great, they did not command the force to save us.

Evidently, the whole matter turns on whether we think that salvation—not just the improvement of material conditions or the temporary averting of catastrophe but the enduring achievement of how things ought to be—is possible. Viewed in the sobering life of history, the success of a politician is that of a custodian: he or she keeps the system running, repairing a particular mechanical failure, occasionally adopting an innovation. What the believer in salvation rightly understood keeps in mind, though, is that the custodian is aboard a ship which, as C. S. Lewis once forcefully put it, is sinking, invariably on its way to the ocean’s depths.

“My Kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus says before Pilate, the politician of His day. He did not, of course, urge His followers to abandon politics: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto God what is God’s.” The exact ramifications of these lines are difficult to parse, but what remains clear is that to be a Christ follower entails going beyond the concerns of election outcomes and realizing that political action is only the start of how we consecrate our lives which, moreover, are not ours to save. 

Pope Francis says something to this effect in his latest Encyclical Fratelli Tutti when writing on “political love,” reminding us that “All this can help us realize that what is important is not constantly achieving great results, since these are not always possible.” (§195) Indeed, the greatest result, salvation of the human race, has already been made available to us through the sacrifice of the Cross.

That’s the reassuring thing about Christ’s message: He is the one who saves us. And not, as Pilate wrongly supposed, because He is king of some faction but because He is the source of all that is and ought to be.

Charlie Ducey graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 2016 with a degree in German and English. He can be reached at cducey@alumni.nd.edu.