Over the past week I have seen a number of people share on social media a letter written by Roman Catholic Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò to President Trump. Since a number of people have asked me for my thoughts on the letter I thought I would take a moment to respond. If you would like to read the text of the letter itself, you can find it by clicking here.
I am not coming at this article with a political axe to grind and will not be addressing the political tone in the letter. Instead, I want to look at it from a theological perspective.
Archbishop Viganò begins his letter by stating, “In recent months we have been witnessing the formation of two opposing sides that I would call Biblical [emphasis his]: the children of light and the children of darkness.” The idea of “children of darkness” and “children of light” are certainly biblical concepts. We see it in places like 1 Thessalonians 5:5, Ephesians 5:8, and Luke 16:8. Without going into full Bible study mode here, the biblical idea is that those who are in Christ Jesus are “children of light.” 1 John 1:7 states, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” So the “sons of darkness” are those who are not in Christ, who still walk in darkness. So my initial concern with Archbishop Viganò’s opening statement is that he proposes that these two “opposing sides” have just formed in recent months. Is he suggesting that until recently there was no such distinction? I would argue that this distinction is much older than our own days. So the question we must ask is, how is he defining these terms? I would propose that it isn’t in a strictly biblical way as he proposes, because all who are or have been in Christ throughout history are the biblical “children of light.”
He continues with his next sentence, “The children of light constitute the most conspicuous part of humanity, while the children of darkness represent an absolute minority.” If the first sentence hadn’t done it already, this one surely sends up a theological red flag. I may be misreading it, but this statement seems to be the equivalent of the secular humanist proposition that all people are basically good, but a small minority are evil. This is not what Scripture teaches us. One only needs to read Genesis to know that all of humanity is fallen and sinful. Romans 3:23 reminds us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” If the Archbishop’s proposition is true, then we have no need for a savior. But Scripture teaches us that our hearts are corrupt, that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves. Our basic human inclination is to evil. That, in fact, is the entire meta-narrative of the Old Testament and why there is a need for a New Testament and a Savior. Romans 5:8 tells us, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Our justification is by grace through faith. We do not become righteous on our own, but rather Christ’s righteousness is reckoned to us. Of course there is much, much more that could be said to refute the Archbishop’s initial premise, but I hope you get my point. The entire article thus crumbles under this faulty theological presupposition.
He continues to set up a false dichotomy of “the good people” and “the evil people.” He says, “In an apparently inexplicable way, the good are held hostage by the wicked and by those who help them either out of self-interest or fearfulness.” Again, this assertion completely ignores our fallen human nature. To assume that only “the evil minority” operates out of self-interest or fearfulness is naïve. We all do that to some extent. Paul famously says in Romans 7, “For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.” This battle that Paul talks about plays out in the hearts of all people, not just a select few. To suggest that only a certain group of people are pure evil and others are pure good has no basis in Christian theology.
He continues, “On the one hand, there are those who, although they have a thousand defects and weaknesses, are motivated by the desire to do good, to be honest, to raise a family, to engage in work, to give prosperity to their homeland, to help the needy, and, in obedience to the Law of God, to merit the Kingdom of Heaven.” Is he suggesting that we, through our good motivations, somehow merit God’s kingdom? Again, Paul says in Ephesians 8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” We don’t merit God’s kingdom, Christ alone does that. Now, these are all certainly noble desires, but I have known plenty of atheists who are motivated by the same things, so we can’t use them to define “the children of light,” at least not in biblical terms. He continues, “On the other hand, there are those who serve themselves, who do not hold any moral principles, who want to demolish the family and the nation, exploit workers to make themselves unduly wealthy, foment internal divisions and wars, and accumulate power and money: for them the fallacious illusion of temporal well-being will one day – if they do not repent – yield to the terrible fate that awaits them, far from God, in eternal damnation.” I certainly agree that these people exist. What he describes is our fallen human nature, and I tend to believe that it is much more common than the Archbishop proposes. However, he is once again missing the point that stopping these behaviors is not what will save people from eternal damnation. Only Jesus Christ can do that. Our good behavior is the fruit of our salvation and sanctification, not the cause of it.
Since the remainder of the article is really based on these initial propositions I won’t continue critiquing the rest of it. After all, the danger in my view is not necessarily his political position, but rather his theological one. He very dangerously sets up a dichotomy of “good” and “evil” that I don’t actually see either in scripture or in real life. “Evil” is not a problem for “them,” as he seems to suggest. It is a problem for all of us. Regardless of your political party, your ethnicity, your family of origin, or your nationality, we all have evil desires in our hearts. We are all selfish. We all act in ways that go against God’s will for us. We have all disobeyed the command to love our neighbors as ourselves. This is not an “us verses them” problem. It is an “us” problem. It cannot be fixed by politicians and worldly leaders. It can only be fixed by the blood of Jesus Christ. As Christians, we have been called to be reconciled with the Father through the atoning sacrifice of the Son and proclaim this Gospel of reconciliation to the world. As the story of Pentecost teaches us, this is not a Gospel of division, but a Gospel of inclusion. It is not about digging in and facing off against the other, but rather it is about sharing this good news with others, even those who oppose us.
Finally, I am by no means opposed to using Scripture and theology to come to a political decision. Quite the opposite, in fact. I think our politics should always be informed by our theology. That is why good theology matters. If we are going to use the Bible, we need to use it properly. If we are going to use terms like “children of light” and “children of darkness,” we need to use them in the same way Scripture does. The “children of light” are those who are in Christ Jesus, who have been saved by the blood of the Lamb, who have their eyes firmly fixed on the kingdom of God. To confuse or conflate this with the kingdom of man leads us down a dangerous path.
I know that it is tempting to make everything simply about “good and evil” or “us and them,” but simplicity is the mother of heresy. The problem with an “us-them” position is that it takes all of the responsibility off of “us” and puts all of the blame on “them.” Before I can take the speck out of my brother’s eye, I need to take the log out of my own. I can only truly examine my own heart, and I assure you, there is plenty of work for the Holy Spirit to do there to last a lifetime.
In the end, only Christ is truly good. Christians must recognize that even though we are washed in the blood of the Jesus, evil and sin still dwells within all us. We stand before God not because we are righteous, but because Christ is righteous. Thanks be to God!
The Rev. Eric Zolner
Father Eric is a 3rd generation Anglican and the Rector of All Saints Anglican Church in Springfield, MO.