"On whatever side of the political fence you stand"
Nero, emperor of Rome from 54 to 68 AD, is remembered in history for everything decadent about those years of the Roman empire. Indulgent, cruel and violent, he framed Christians for the fire that burned Rome for days and consequently, he ordered the persecution and murder of thousands of early Christians – including the apostles Peter and Paul.
But in his letter to his disciple Timothy, Paul writes, “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” (1 Timothy 2:1-2)
It must have been a bitter pill to swallow for the Christians in ancient Rome. Paul asked them to pray for those in authority, and at that time, it probably referred to no one else but emperor Nero.
For the first three hundred years of its existence, the early Church was persecuted by the Roman political establishment, but it is surprising that none of those derogatory, hateful or reproving language can be found in the writings of the apostles, in referring to the political realities of the time. The epistles mention no condemnation of the political leaders of that period, not even a single criticism of the oppression and persecution that believers had to endure under the Roman emperors.
Instead, the apostle Peter was very explicit in his instruction to the Church in Rome: “Honor the emperor.” (1 Peter 2:17)
As President Rodrigo Roa Duterte prepares to deliver his penultimate State of the Nation Address, it is good to be reminded of the apostles’ exhortation for Christians to pray for “all those in authority.”
For many people, it is easier to pray for people that we like, including leaders that we support or for whom we voted. Instead, Peter and Paul made no such preferences nor did they apply any distinctions based on the morality of the lives and legality of the actions of their leaders – they simply asked of Christians to pray and honor their leaders.
Not an easy instruction to fulfill in a time when society is increasingly becoming more divided on partisan loyalties, when citizens fail to uphold the dignity of the political office, regardless of the person who holds it for a time or when our people increasingly find themselves at odds with each other over several issues of the day.
This is not an easy thing to do even for Christians who in good conscience support the President and his administration, considering his open hostility against a number of Catholic bishops and his use of strong language against the Church.
With the COVID-19 pandemic preventing Congress from assembling in joint session, President Duterte will probably deliver his fifth State of the Nation Address from Malacañang – a stark reminder of the exigency where we now live in. This year, the audience expect less of the pompous enumeration of the accomplishments made by this administration, and they are more eager to hear the fate and the future that await this nation after months of this public health emergency.
No other Filipino can best estimate the burden of political responsibility other than the person upon whose shoulders it actually rests. For those of us who have never been in such a position, it may be difficult to resist the pressures of public office, including the pressure to please their constituents, to align with their political party, to fulfill their own interests or to do what is popular, than to do what is right.
President Duterte is no exception. It can be hard for a president or any political leader to find solutions that meet everyone’s wants and needs. In fact, the past six months must have been grueling for the President, who definitely did not anticipate a crisis of this magnitude in the six years of his term.
Interestingly, the apostle Paul did not only ask the Christians of his times to pray for the emperor, but he also assured them with a promise “that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”
Ironically for a country that is largest Catholic nation in Asia, seldom does the Church encourage the faithful to pray for their political leaders, other than the perfunctory intercessions made during Sunday Mass. Could it be the reason why time and again our political leaders have failed us, why corruption persists in our government and our society seemed to have tarried its way to progress?
Early on in his pontificate, Pope Francis asked those attending one of his morning masses, “Who of us has prayed for our leaders? Who of us has prayed for our parliamentarians that they can find agreement and move the country forward?” It is sad, the pope explained that people are often quick to insult or criticize their political leaders, yet we fail to pray for those in government. “How can we leave those who have the responsibility to guide their nation alone,” the pope queried, “without asking God to bless them?”
The apostle Paul asked the early Christians to pray for the emperor not only to benefit him – but to transform us, to enable us to live in “godliness and holiness”. Paul knew fully that praying for their political leaders will help the early Christians to understand more their role in the larger society, and instead of sowing discord and division, they were to bear witness to the Gospel of truth, justice and peace in a fallen world.
We may agree or disagree with our political leaders. We may choose to support or oppose their policies and platforms, but nonetheless, it does not absolve us from praying for them, that they do their jobs well, to use wisely the resources that they have been given and to exercise their authority with integrity of character. When we look at politics and those in power and those striving for power, admittedly, it can seem like praying for them is a futile task. But our political leaders are stewards of a public trust, and as Christians, we must not fail to inspire them to use that which has been entrusted to them – whether finances, resources, authority, or decision-making power – for the good of all people.
In the Sermon of the Mount, Christ himself has launched a social revolution rooted in the Beatitudes – one that openly and drastically contradicted the political and social affairs of his time, with the assurance that those who embrace this path to righteousness, even at great potential risk to their own lives, will find their true value as human persons.
However, a Christian’s moral obligation to pray and honor our leaders is not optional. In fact, Pope Francis stressed that, “A good Catholic meddles in politics, offering the best of himself, so that those who govern can govern. But what is the best that we can offer to those who govern? Prayer!”
The Pope concluded, “A Christian who does not pray for those who govern is not a good Christian.”
So whatever side of the political fence you stand – please pray for the President. Regardless of our political opinion of their character or their policies, the exhortation of the apostles remain true to all Christians of our time. As President Duterte delivers his annual report on the affairs of the country, please remember to pray for him that he may govern our nation well and love our people, even in ways that may be different from the political principles that each of us espouse.
“It may be dirty, just like any profession can be dirty. We are the ones who dirty something but it is not so by nature. I believe that we must convert our hearts and pray for politicians of all stripes, all of them! Pray for people in government.” – Pope Francis