You are Citizens of Heaven (Ph 3: 20)
In two days, Sierra Leone will be holding the general elections. As the time goes by, all political party members have been pitching their candidates for support, campaigning with the zeal and humour that is typical to Sierra Leoneans. Every voter wishes his candidate to win in order to “make Salone better”.
Christians are not set apart from this electoral process. They take full participation in it as an expression of their right and duty as citizens. Early Christians called themselves citizens. In so doing, they expressed the truth that Christians are not a club gathered solely for a spiritual purpose. The welfare of the whole society matters to them. Indeed, being Christian does not only mean to seek for salvation for one’s soul in heaven. It also implies the longing for the coming of the “new earth and new heaven” (Ap 21: 1).
In this passionate time of campaign, during and after elections, the Christian understanding of the idea of citizenship may help to live peacefully and to widen the hope for a “better Salone” which we all desire.
Christians as citizens
Early Christians lived in a Graeco-Roman world where the idea of citizenship was clearly defined. Being a roman citizen implied enjoying freedom and the responsibility for the welfare of the whole society. Participation in key areas of social life was a non-debatable right of every citizen. This includes participation in the political life of the society, in the election of representatives, decision-makers, civil authorities, and the determination of public policies.
Full roman citizenship also gave the right to stand for civil or public office, to make legal contracts, and to hold property as a Roman citizen. Only male roman citizens — from the city of Rome or a city endowed with the rights of full Roman citizenship such as Roman colonies founded in the provinces — enjoyed the rights described above.
Whereas, a female roman possessed limited citizenship rights. She could not vote or stand for civil or public office. However, a roman woman could own property, engage in business and obtain a divorce. Slaves were regarded as property and lacked personal rights. Freedmen were former slaves that had been granted their freedom. A freedman or woman took the legal status of their former master — for example, a freeman of a Roman citizen would become a Roman citizen — but with some restrictions. Provincials — one from abroad— were treated as freemen and were subject to the customary laws and customs of their district.
It is in this sociopolitical background that the early Christians claimed to be full citizens. But their citizenship was of another order. Christian citizenship was inclusive because with baptism, citizenship changes. For them, being baptized means to break all tribal, social and political ties. Baptism makes them all members of one body (Eph 5: 30) whose head is Jesus Christ (Col 1: 18). In a society where each category of persons had defined rights (or lack of) and responsibilities, Christians considered Christ’s death and resurrection as a pledge of their equal dignity. Furthermore, in a divided society, they were aware of being reconciled by the blood of Christ (Eph 2: 13).
There was no stranger among them, and they considered each other as equals, all considered fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God (Eph 2: 19). Therefore, in a society built on distinction, the Christian idea of citizenship becomes a revolutionary idea because it brings reconciliation and unity: “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all and in all (Col 3: 11)”. Should we apply these words to our political context today, we may repeat: For those who have been baptized, there is no APC, NGC, SLPP…We are just all fellow citizens, children of One Father, called to one hope (Eph : 5-6).
Caesar is not God
After the elections, the winning team will guide the country for five years, hopefully for the better. A look on the manifestoes of political parties shows that they are all filled with wonderful promises. It seems that politicians are now going to bring heaven on earth! Again, in this exciting time, Christian faith helps to get a realistic hope, one that forces us to look at reality with courage and empower ourselves with the determination to leave this country better than how we found it.
Christians believe in an almighty God who made heaven and earth (first article of the Creed). They hope for a new heaven and a new earth, a city where nothing accursed will be found anymore, a city where peace shall dwell forever (Rev 21: 1; 22: 3). Are human institutions able to fulfil such a promise? Listening to political speeches gives the impression that it is possible. Thank God, during the last presidential debate where all flag-bearers were called to explain to the sierra Leoneans the content of their manifesto, one candidate called for “realistic promises”, meaning: not to promise too much just because of campaigning mode!
While Christians are called to be “subordinate to the higher authorities” (Rm 13:1), nevertheless, they never worship them. They know that Caesar is not God. They only worship God to whom belong all dominions or principalities or powers: (Col 1: 16). They know that Cesar can do something to improve their life, but they are aware that he doesn’t hold their ultimate destiny in his hand. Christians never expect human authorities to fulfil all their promises. In case, they put all their hope in political institutions, they fall under the lies of the tempter of the desert who pretended to be the owner of all kingdoms on earth (Mt 4: 9). And we know the answer of Jesus: “The Lord your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve” (Mt 4: 10). (For more details, see. J. Ratzinger Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, I. 2006, Chap. 2: The Temptations of Jesus).
Such Christian awareness does not undermine the importance of political institutions. It is meant to widen human hope as long as it places the human history under the gaze of God. If early Christians called themselves citizens of heaven (Ph 3:20), it was not to escape earthly realities. But to express this hope in a better future whose master is God. Such a hope is not an illusion. It is a realistic one. It does not rely too much on the human ability to improve the earth, but it takes the prophetic warning seriously: “cursed is the man who trusts in human beings, who seeks his strength in flesh...Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose hope is the Lord” (Jr 17: 5.7).