The Bible recounts this exchange between the Roman governor Pilate and Jesus Christ prior to his crucifixion:
“Art thou the King of the Jews?"
“My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence."
“Art thou a king then?”
“Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth” (John 18:33-37).
There it was, as stark as it ever has been: the conflict between power and truth. Jesus chose the truth.
The life of Christ was not as a political leader; nor was His a political kingdom. Yet billions of lives on earth today have been touched or transformed by the event celebrated today as Easter Sunday.
About 32 percent of humankind (2.18 billion) are Christian, about the same percentage as a century ago. In our globalized world, Americans are more familiar now than ever before with great faith traditions besides the Judeo-Christian, including Islam (23 percent of the world’s population), Hinduism (15 percent), and Buddhism (7 percent). Although many think of the United States as ethnically and religiously pluralistic, it is only moderately diverse, according to a Pew Research Center study this month.
What do Christ’s teachings say about living in a society where not everyone is of the same religion? Consider how these values impact civic life in democratic nations:
Showing civility toward those with whom we disagree, even to the point of turning our other cheek toward them.
The use of non-violence in the achievement of political goals.
The role of second chances. Innovation springs forth from an appreciation of the blessings of failure, and the opportunity new beginnings bring us for redemption.
Being a good Samaritan to those who seem to be strangers; or as Paul wrote, “ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens. ...”
Doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.
How faith in God brings hope to individuals’ day-to-day lives; how both lead people to have greater charity toward others.
Truth, honesty, justice, purity, virtue and praiseworthiness — how these principles and behaviors should be encouraged in society.
These are substantive teachings with a deep, and deeply positive, impact upon culture. They affect personal morality, and they affect our political morality.
Judeo-Christian culture and values are at the very core of Western society. There is good fruit born of this culture in nations throughout the world, wherever they be physically located. In the case of the United States, there is no metaphor more powerful than John Winthrop’s “city upon a hill,” his own 1630 sermon on the mount.
Two hundred years later, it was the gentle adaption of Christianity that struck Alexis de Tocqueville most forcefully: “In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom pursuing courses diametrically opposed to each other; but in America I found that they were intimately united, and that they reigned in common over the same country.”
The diversity of Christian sects did not pose a problem for democratic self-government, de Tocqueville said in “Democracy in America,” because “religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must nevertheless be regarded as the foremost of the political institutions of that country; for if it does not impart a taste for freedom, it facilitates the use of free institutions.”
Nations around the world that respect freedom of religion experience this robust civil society and self-governance. Or as U.S. President-elect Dwight D. Eisenhower said in 1952: “Our government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don't care what it is.”
Is this still so today?
Can democracy survive without the ethical undergirding provided by a respect for faith in God? Are the inalienable rights with which we have been endowed by our Creator valid no longer if society has disavowed the Creator? Can we call ourselves civilized, granting personal and professional courtesies due those who are weaker or different, when we discount and demean the intentions of people of faith? Rather than seeking comfort for the creature through violence and selfishness, we find — in looking to God — a wellspring of refreshment and a profound reason for honesty in all of our dealings.
By its nature, belief in and a willingness to follow God are a matter of personal conscience and life experience; it is something that is and must be freely exercised. This is why current threats to banish God from public life, if successful, would leave us without truth and subject to the whims of earthly power.
That is the message that Jesus Christ delivered to Pilate. He delivers it to us, too.