Odysseus and the Ideological Sirens; Pray for our Politicians

In St. Paul’s letter to Timothy he says,

First of all, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity.

It seems like common sense to pray for those in authority. If we want to enjoy economic stability, if we want to avoid being conquered by foreign powers, it makes sense that we should want our civil authorities to lead us well. It gets a little trickier when it comes to putting names to politicians we are supposed to pray for. At all branches and levels of government, there are people we may not particularly care for because of their policies. If we bring them to prayer at all, we may find ourselves praying about them instead of for them. It’s helpful to remember that our leaders are probably not as good as their friends make them out to be, but neither are they as bad as their opponents want us to believe. They’re just people, with strengths and weaknesses, virtues and vices. So they need our prayers. They need God‘s grace, just as we all do. We need to remember that God sees them through the eyes of a loving father.

It’s also important to remember that in our system of government, power is not as heavily concentrated in one position, like it is with other forms of government. There is a separation of power between the three branches of government, between the state and federal government, but also, between the power that resides in the people. And I’ve heard it said, “what difference will my little vote make? It’s not going to change the outcome.”

But by not voting, we allow for a more centralized power, we allow fewer and fewer people to make important decisions. This is precisely what our system was designed to protect against. It’s like abdicating our throne of responsibility which has been handed onto us, by the sacrifices of so many.

Besides feeling like our vote won’t change the outcome, I think there is another reason many Catholics are hesitant to engage in politics. We have likely all met people who have become obsessed with politics. (Maybe we have been ourselves at points in our life.)  When the election goes their way, they become ecstatic. When the elections don’t go their way they become angry and miserable. Many people wrongly believe that this is the natural end of engaging in politics, but it isn’t true. How do we rightly engage in politics without becoming obsessed, angry and miserable people? St. Paul gives us an important way to do that. We have to be well-grounded in our faith and in prayer.

 I recently heard an interview with Judge Amy Coney Barret. She is a recent appointee to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, and a former professor of law at Notre Dame. In the interview, she was talking about how judges need to be anchored. She tells her students a story to illustrate what this looks like. Now, most of us here are not judges. But the lesson she gives applies, in a way, to all Christians as well.

The story she uses is that of Odysseus and the sirens. Odysseus is warned that the sirens’ song is so beautiful and seductive that it drives men mad, and in their desire to get near the sirens they willingly steer their ships into the rocks. Odysseus takes the warning very seriously. He orders his men to stop their ears with wax. He leaves his own ears unstopped because he wants to hear the sirens’ song, but he has his men tie him to the mast of the ship. He tells them, no matter what he says, they are not to untie him until the ship has passed the island into safety. In this way, Odysseus is able to hear the song, but is not able to do himself or his men any harm.

For Judge Barret, a judge must be able to hear the siren’s song, the ideological appeal of certain laws. But, the judge must be bound to something solid. She tells her students that the mast of the ship is the Constitution of the United States. It doesn’t matter whether a judge is sympathetic to a cause that a law is trying to promote. All that should matter to a judge is whether a law is constitutional or not. This is what prevents the ship from crashing into the rocks.

As I said, most of us are probably not ever going to be Circuit Court judges. But the point is, every one of us is susceptible to the power of the sirens’ song, the call of ideology. We underestimate this truth at our own risk. The songs often begin by highlighting an injustice against a person or a particular group. We are beckoned to enter into solidarity with that person or group. That much, we must continue to do. Like Odysseus, our ears cannot be stopped. We have to hear the cries of the marginalized and those who suffer from injustice.

But when the ideological song goes beyond the call to solidarity and the refrain settles on a person or group to blame, a scapegoat, upon which we can focus our anger, and frustration, it becomes very seductive and can even feel righteous, to the point of madness.

Any law, which holds that a body, whether an individual or a group, can set the value of another’s life at zero, puts us on the ultimate slippery slope.

In such a setting, politics become not just one important aspect of the social realm, they become the most important aspect; because individuals begin to understand that their only hope for security in this setting, is power, gaining it and maintaining it. And anyone who enjoys the slightest advantage in power, becomes a threat.

Our ship, as Catholics, is the Church and her mast is her Master, Jesus Christ, and all that he revealed to us on the cross. He prayed for his persecutors, showing that the fruit of his suffering and death was offered, even to them. The world still thinks that some things in life are worth killing for. Jesus showed us that each and every person, is worth dying for.

This is the mast to which we must be bound. That by simply being human, regardless of age or stage in life, regardless of race, religion, or any other factor, every person has a dignity which gives them an inviolable right, to be. (A just government doesn’t grant this right, it merely recognizes what is already there.)

In all of this, we must never forget that Christ revealed these same truths about our civil authorities. Yes, even those politicians we don’t like very much. If Jesus thinks that they were worth dying for, we had better believe that they are worth praying for.

In St. Paul’s words, “It is my wish, then, that in every place men and women should pray, lifting up holy hands, without anger or argument… that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, (even politicians!) that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity. This is good and pleasing to God our savior.

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