When I was growing up in Viet Nam in the ’80s and ’90s, those who want to climb up the social and political ladders have to put a picture of Ho Chi Minh with some types of patriotic slogans on their wall. Many people actually did that! You would see a fancy framed picture of the “Beloved Leader” on the wall of many households, as if he is the savior of the country and people, need to be reminded, adored, and worshipped at all costs. Sometimes, you would see the picture of “Uncle Ho” above the pictures of ancestors, too. Those who wanted to be noticed by the government, those who tried to prove themselves to be patriotic and communistic, did that for their homes. Even some “patriotic” Catholics put the picture of Ho Chi Minh on the same level as the Crucifix, pictures of Christ, Mary, or the Saints. However, many Catholics did not. That was why many of us were treated as betrayers, unpatriotic, and too stupid to put the nation first!
I remembered being brainwashed when I went to school. We were taught how wonderful the Communist Party was, and how they patriotically kicked out western imperialism to save our people, and the only worthwhile ideology and political system was the one that was founded by Marx and Lenin. Without knowing much, I thought the same, too! For the longest time ever, I thought that my grandparents and parents were outdated and ignorant because they would never display the picture of Ho Chi Minh in our house like many others. I did not understand why my family never allowed me to join the patriotic movements like other children. I disliked their old thought patterns and became envious of others who advanced socially and politically because they were like everyone else. I never understood the real reason why my family did not make political advances and become patriotic, especially why they remained so stout-hearted by their Catholic faith.
My family did not talk much about the Viet Nam War, perhaps out of fear of being reported by listening ears and spying neighbors who were willing to report us to advance themselves. I lived in an era where you could disappear at night if the government deemed you to be against the regime. I lived during the time when it was very fearful to be summoned by the police or the local government officials just because they think that you were not loyal or patriotic enough. If they deemed you to be treasonous, you would easily end up in a concentration camp that is often labeled in a politically correct term, “re-education program.”
We lived under a hush-hush and fearful environment because we were being watched, questioned, and doubted by others because we did not openly express our affiliation to the Communist Party. We were treated as outsiders because we were Catholics and were not willing to put the ruling party and its representation of “the nation and the people” as they called themselves above all things. Growing up in Viet Nam, we were expected to be patriotic at all costs, putting the Marx-Lenin teachings and Communist Party above all, even before our individual rights and religious beliefs.
As a matter of fact, the party tried to set up a patriotic — simply put, government-controlled and state-run — version of the Catholic Church. They called it, “Catholics Who Love the Nation.” These people, including some priests, were basically trained and tried to dismiss true Catholic teachings in order to “educate” the populace on the real significance and importance of the communist ideologies above their own personal or religious beliefs and practices. They were using politics to change the Church! They were successful in converting some people who wanted to advance themselves politically and socially, but the Church in Viet Nam resisted. That was why many priests were driven underground, the government controlled the number of priestly ordinations each year, parishes’ savings and monies were stolen “for the good of the people” and fell into the hands of corrupt officials, and many other restrictions were imposed on the Church. Yet, in the midst of all of these persecutions, we persisted and stood against popular beliefs!
As a child who grew up in this setting, I am naturally leery about politics and forceful patriotism. I have seen blind buy-in and willingness to let go of moral and religious values for propaganda. I have seen people who put politics and social advances before their own faith and what it takes to do the right thing as Catholics! Perhaps not as extreme as what I have witnessed in Viet Nam, we also have the problem of blind patriotism and allowing ourselves to put politics before our faith here in America.
Maybe people do not have to put the picture of the president or political leaders on their wall next to the Lord Jesus Christ, we have — deep within our heart — put our politics before our fidelity to God and to the teachings of the Church. We tend to think only this or that political party or set of political candidates are worth voting for, else we are traitors, unbelievers, and false Catholics. Nevertheless, what is sad is that not many Catholics do understand the full teachings of the Church! They often pick and choose what they like and vote as they like instead of their conscience and full discernment according to the truth. We become nothing more than the Communist-run state when we force people to only vote a certain way, else they are not real, faithful, loving, or patriotic citizens of the nation.
We become despicable when we put our political interests and ideologies before our faith! We become narrow-visioned and totally missed the mark when we forced our faith and fidelity to the Lord and His Bridesmaid, the Church, before a political allegiance. It will become sad when our very nation becomes divisive and destructive as people stand behind their political righteousness and conform their faith to fit their politics instead of letting their faith guides their discernment and decision. If that is the case, we are nothing than people who worship false democracy, freedom, and politics instead of being disciples of Christ. If that is the case, we are nothing more than political animals behind faith labels, putting our social or political pledges before fidelity to our moral, eternal, and Christocentric values.
Sadly, but true, too many of us have allowed our politics and its manipulative games to shape our faith and belief instead of allowing our faith and commitment to transform our society and its agenda. As a priest, I have seen so many people who are trying to persuade me and other people to vote or choose a political candidate that they think will fix all the problems according to their primary political conservative or liberal values — noticing the word “political” — instead of taking the time to learn, be informed, and understand what the Church really teaches about the matters at hand. I think we have lost the battle as Catholics, because in a secularistic and pluralistic society with different faith backgrounds and cultures, it is very easy to simply let go of what one truly believes and professes in order to conform to the general norms and expectations. Hence, too many of us have made the government and politics our only hope and source of value, existence, and expectation instead of higher, transcendental, theocentric teachings.
In a secularistic society, even though we do not like to admit it, but similar to a Communist state, faith is often and only treated as a personal and private matter, it is no longer at the front line to shape, transform, and challenge our social and political values. We would rather let our humanistic expectations and agendas dictate our society and world instead of what comes from the Lord. Hence, we have cheapened our real human dignity and value created in the image and likeness of God. We have allowed ourselves to be played and set side on different political camps instead of first recognizing that all of us are in it together, united as brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus, especially the poor, voiceless, and suffering.
Our whole life’s quest, dignity, mission, purpose, and value is theocentric. This relationship cannot be eliminated as the foundation of our society and faith, even though it is very tempting and easy to ignore, be forgotten, or dismissed by secularly-minded people. Our relationship with God has to be reflected in the relational and social dimension of our politics and communion with one another, especially mindful that we are of the same dignity and equal value even though we might be different. Our communion with Him challenges us to build genuine, transparent, personal, and the good-centered relationship of respect and reciprocity that gives life to society and nation. We are reminded that we have been entrusted to one another, therefore responsible and obliged to care and serve out of love.
This is where our Catholic and holistic understanding of stewardship and responsibility comes in! Our priorities carry higher responsibilities and interests than political definitions and scopes. Our ultimate fidelity, stewardship, and discipleship are based on Christ and not political priorities. Do we dare to lose all things as long as we remain with Jesus and abide by Him as His disciples? Are we willing to bear all wrongs, persecutions, and mistreatments because of our faith in the Lord? Are we willing to conform ourselves to Him and allowing our faith to form lives in humility and obedience to the Master?
I know that I will be labeled by politically-minded people who think that I am not conservative or liberal enough. I know that what I spoke about the Vietnamese Communist Party will be tracked, and my name will probably be moved higher up on their system so that they will make my life harder when I visit Viet Nam to work with the poor. I know all of these consequences, especially knowing that too many people do not think I speak strongly enough for one party (that they think are right) over another, but I speak as a Catholic who lived under the oppressive dictatorship of government and a Priest who have studied and seen both sides of the political spectrum in comparison to what our faith truly teaches. Being Catholics do not satisfy the either/or approach because we have always chosen a third, unpopular way — the way of Christ Jesus — to truly embrace the moral and social teachings of the Church and of Christ as His stewards, disciples, and believers. At the end of the day, no matter what might happen to me, I choose to be a Catholic and to try my best to follow and embrace all that Christ and the Church try to teach me.
This world was entrusted to us so we are reminded of our vocation to live in every one of our actions, words, thoughts, and deeds. We are called to give and protect life because we are collaborators of the Lord‘s vineyard, given dominion over the world and animals to keep and protect, and that is why we need to exercise responsibility — not only for our good or benefit but for the greater good of all. We are entrusted, individually and communally, to the care of this world that God has created and given to us, not to be exploited and depleted for our immediate or desired goods, but with responsible reflection, discernment of good and evil, theocentric and intellectual decision-making skills through our free will. Hence, this is what it truly takes to be Catholics and to put Christ above all else! Simply put, to be true believers, our fidelity to the Almighty needs to be above everything else in this world.