Monthly Archives: June 2013

Letting Go

There is an iconic episode in the 1974 documentary Animals Are Beautiful People. It involves a Makgadikgadi tribesman who is searching for water in the hot, dry plain of the Kalahari. Unlike his Khoisan neighbor, the Makgadikgadi does not drink from roots or melons; he must rely on cunning. Knowing that baboons always have a secret source of water, the tribesman drills a hole in an ant heap just large enough for the baboon’s arm. Then, while the baboon watches, he places some seeds inside the hole. The baboon is naturally inquisitive. Although it does not trust the human, it will eventually be overcome with curiosity and investigate. Yet once it grasps the seeds, its fist becomes too large for the hole. The baboon is stuck. Letting go of the seeds does no occur to it, even when it is captured by the tribesman. Then it is too late. After being plied with salt, the captive baboon is so thirsty, it is only too happy to lead the Makgadikgadi to its secret underground pool.

The story is often used by motivational speakers of all stripes to illustrate the folly of holding onto anything from sin to alcohol and drugs. Yet it is a useful analogy and so thoroughly human, a baboon can easily illustrate it.

Over the past few weeks, since Edward Snowden leaked his first leak, the world has watched in consternation the psychodrama that is American politics. Those U.S. citizens for whom major transgressions against the Fourth Amendment seem a small price to pay for a little temporary safety justify it with the question, “But what else will make us safe?” Those, too, for whom such invasions of privacy are intolerable want to know, “Isn’t there a better way?”

Our government would have us believe that they have left no stone unturned in attempting to balance our national security interests and our jealously guarded constitutional liberties. Even a few progressives and activists on the left claim that software does (or ought to) exist that will enable government to do its job of protecting us from terrorism while preserving the right to privacy of law-abiding citizens. Alcoholics in recovery call these “half-measures.”

Is there a more biblical solution? Yes. It’s called rigorous honesty. Those who have studied the Middle East or worked in the diplomatic field realize that the U.S. had few problems with Muslim nations before it started meddling in the region. With our never-ending addiction to ever dwindling oil supplies (there’s another problem to which we could apply the baboon analogy), we are more than willing to become entangled in Middle Eastern affairs and to apply our boot to the necks of those who resist our “benevolent” hegemony.

Want to stop terrorism? Easy. Quit feeding it. Terrorism breeds in the context of injustice and oppression. So if we really wish to stop the threat of terrorism from reaching our shores, we should only have to change our foreign policy.

Back in 2004 former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld commissioned his own Science Board Task Force to study the impact of Bush administration policies (specifically the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) on terrorism and Islamic radicalism. The report found exactly what any logical person would expect: that “Negative attitudes and the conditions that create them are the underlying sources of threats to America’s national security and reduced ability to leverage diplomatic opportunities.”

What are the conditions that aggravate these threats? According to the report,

 America’s direct intervention in the Muslim world has paradoxically elevated the stature of and support for radical Islamists, while diminishing support for the United States to single digits in some Arab societies. Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights and the long-standing and even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf States…. Furthermore, in the eyes of Muslims, American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq has not led to democracy there but only more chaos and suffering. U.S. actions appear in contrast to be…deliberately controlled in order to best serve American national interests at the expense of truly Muslim self-determination.

Change our policies? What could be more simple? Might as well ask the poor beast in the documentary why he cannot let go of the seeds. He would probably reply, “Because I want them.”

Ironically, the government claims it has “American interests” at heart. Few Americans, however, bother to ask themselves what interests these are. Economic interests, of course. Corporate interests. That’s right. All our lives are being put at risk so that cheap foreign oil can continue to flow into our refineries and gargantuan profits into the coffers of oil companies.

Meanwhile, the administration is working its knickers into a twist over all these leaks. Why are there so many leaks? Any plumber worth his $100 hourly rate can tell you that the more pressure you put on a line, the more likely it is to spring a leak. The problem, Mr. President, is not these “un-American” leakers; the problem is the un-American surveillance policies and culture of secrecy that are causing such a crisis of conscience within the security establishment. If the administration is serious about stopping the whistleblowing, they must stop the government infringements of constitutional rights that encourage whistleblowing. Whenever government crosses a line, there will be courageous individuals who love their country enough to risk everything to inform the public. Get over it.

You mean, all this federal prosecution of leakers and whistleblowers, designed to strike fear into the heart of every government employee (and journalist), is actually having the opposite effect? No. People are genuinely afraid, in general. But the new tyranny, coupled with the easy digitalization of documents, is producing a new kind of rock-star whistleblower and on a grand scale not seen since the Pentagon Papers. Even Daniel Ellsberg stands in awe.

And in Washington, the administration has been pressing for tighter guidelines for federal employees, to scare not only potential leakers but also the co-workers who fail to report them. The unprecedented crackdown makes it a crime of espionage to leak to the press (something the administration does on a daily basis!). You think Big Brother is watching you?  Your office buddies might be, too.

There is, of course, one difference between us humans and the poor creature in the documentary. At least, it did eventually let go when it was caught.

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Christ Held Hostage: Outside the Camp [Part 2]

[Here is the second part of the first chapter of my upcoming book]

Christ Held Hostage:  The Hijacking of Christianity by the Status Quo

Chapter 1:  Outside the Camp [Part 2]

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Issue-based v. People-based Politics

The Bible is not a one-trick pony. Christ cannot be limited to one or two hot button issues, like abortion or same-sex marriage. Jesus’ concern, as ours should be, is with life in all its forms and with sin in all its manifestations, both individual and systemic. If we wish to be consistent—biblically consistent—then rejecting abortion at the polls is not enough. Some may feel comfortable in thus keeping it at a distance. But not Christians. We must care not just about issues; we must care authentically about people, including those who find themselves in the web of an exploitative abortion industry: most often poor mothers without resources, support, and hope, with nowhere to turn. To talk about abortion is to talk not just about morality, but also about poverty, racism, and greed. It is also to summon a solution from within the church herself to help address these issues. The church is called by God to be salt and light in this world, not only to engage and be involved but to speak with a prophetic, biblical voice.

If we truly want to reduce the number of abortions in this country, we must also address the issues of poverty and hopelessness that drive so many women to make that decision. We should advocate for an improvement in adoption laws and procedures to allow these women to connect with families desperate for a child. Biblically speaking, abortion takes a human life created in God’s image. Yet do we have the right to block abortions unless we are also willing to give of our energies and resources to lend assistance to those who are faced with that excruciating dilemma? Do they need a safe place to stay during their pregnancy? Do they have adequate food and prenatal care? Do they have hope for their baby’s future? It is very easy to wag the finger; it is another thing to offer a helping hand. Jesus rolled up his sleeves and got to work. As his church, we can do no less: holding up the biblical standard and offering a hand. That is what Jesus did because that is who God is: holiness and mercy. Otherwise, we become just a bunch of annoying busybodies whom everyone despises.

A comic once joked that only in America can one be against gun control, for war, torture, and the death penalty, and still call oneself “pro-life.” Funny, yet what a sadly ironic commentary on the unholy marriage between American Christianity and the purveyors of death, nationalism, capitalism, and the status quo.

Does life begin and end in the womb? Should not being “pro-life” mean that we care about the full spectrum of life, from conception to the grave and everything in between? Is it biblical to care about abortion without also caring about poverty, AIDS, gun control, and the victims of war? Is it sufficient to caterwaul over gay marriage, without also taking on the pornography industry with its ties to sexual trafficking, or the high divorce rate among evangelical Christians? Is it consistent to champion family values without also taking on drone warfare, immigration reform, corporate greed, modern-day slavery, a low minimum wage, and other forms of economic oppression? If we do any less, as Christians we are at the very least inconsistent, if not hypocritical. We certainly cannot claim to be following Christ.

Can we still love people while not condoning their choices? Can we treat people with genuine kindness and respect without agreeing with their lifestyles? Jesus did. When we read the Gospels, we see him with one hand holding up his Father’s holy standard, and with the other, reaching out in mercy to help and to heal. “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice through to victory” (Mt. 12:20). That is why he appeared so frustrated with the Pharisees and teachers of the law. They piled up burdens on people’s backs and would not lift a finger to move them.

Sadly, in this country we have people who claim to know and represent Christ marching with placards that say, “God hates gays.” Does God really hate gay people? We know for certain he does not. He loves them deeply. He even died for them. Perhaps those signs should read, “We hate gay people.” At least that would be honest, and they could stop blaming God for their own hatred and bigotry. He is not like that. In scripture we see a Jesus who is the human face of the living, eternal God, who loves sinners. He hates the sin that destroys us, but he loves sinners, so much so that he went to the cross.

If we say homosexuality is wrong, should we not also offer hope and support to those seeking a way out? Let us be honest. Do we seek constitutional amendments about marriage because we authentically care about gay people, or simply because we do not want them in our neighborhoods (Not In My Back Yard)?

Did Jesus Christ call us to form a militant political movement, or a radical counter-cultural one? Has he called us to be a community of finger-pointers, or one where the love, joy, forgiveness, mercy, and power of God are lived out daily in our lives and relationships?

Christ did not condemn sinners, but he did condemn the religious legalists of his day for their hardness of heart and lack of compassion. Unlike them, he reached out to the broken, to those whom “good society” had ostracized. While never condoning their lifestyles, he was the friend of tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. Instead of rejecting them, he opened wide his arms and showed them a better path. He did not accuse. Their own sin they saw reflected in his radiant, loving, and accepting face. Without condemnation and shame, they were thus freed to change, to be transformed by his radical brand of love.

What about war? As followers of Jesus Christ, how can we say that war should ever be the first response to any problem? Violence breeds violence. Jesus tells us clearly, “Those who live by the sword shall perish by the sword.” History shows us that violent nations come to violent ends. Jesus also says, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.” In scripture our Lord is called the “Prince of peace.” For that reason, we are called to be peacemakers, not warmongers.

Caring for the environment? For Christians, what argument could there possibly be against this? If you turn to the first page in your Bible, you will read, “God created the heavens and the earth.” It’s his, not ours! On the next page, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” That’s our job!

What about immigration? The Bible is filled with references to resident aliens. God even allowed his people to become immigrants in Egypt so that they would learn compassion, so that they would “know how it feels to be a foreigner” in a strange land (Ex 23.9). As an infant, Jesus himself was a refugee. In both the Law and Prophets God reminds Israel continually where they came from. In Leviticus 19 he commands, “‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” The weight of God’s concern is ever with the weak against the strong, the oppressed against the oppressor, the vulnerable against the exploiter. So should ours be.

The Politics of Selfishness

Once President Lincoln was leaving a local church service in Washington, DC. A reporter stopped him and asked what he thought of the sermon. He did not much care for it, he said. When asked why, he explained, “Because the preacher did not ask anything difficult of the congregation.” Regarding our tendency to confine ourselves to two or three hot-button issues, we might well ask, “Do they ask anything difficult of us?” Abortion, same sex marriage, and school prayer, these are important issues to be sure, but what sacrifice do they require of us? Do they affect our wallets or the way we go about our lives? Are they not really more about how other people go about their lives? Are we the ones who have to change? Or is it just other people who need to do the changing? Yes, thankfully, these issues do not affect our corporate bottom lines, profit margins, or 401ks. They allow us to shake our heads or clack our tongues over the sin we see around us and feel quite pious while actually doing nothing. These issues may be biblical, but they cost us very little. In short, they represent a politics of selfishness.

If you want to know the number-one social issue the Bible speaks about more often than any other, it is concern for the poor and oppressed. It’s true, the Bible screams it from cover to cover, from Genesis to Revelation. Listening to most Christian media, you would never know that. If you don’t believe it, try reading the Bible for yourself.

How did we become so out of balance? How did we come to care so much about the rights of the unborn that we forgot about the rights of the born? How did we become so obsessed with the corruption that goes on in people’s bedrooms, that we could care less about corruption at the highest levels of power? Why do we focus so much on the lack of prayer in schools, yet we forget that so many children lack school books, an adequate breakfast, or even housing?

In August 2011 Texas Governor Rick Perry, before he announced his candidacy for President, held a prayer rally, calling on Christians to fast and pray because the U.S. was in decline morally and internationally. Some 30,000 believers attended to pray and listen to a variety of evangelical speakers addressing America’s spiritual state. The governor’s move in holding the rally was seen as sure to win him the evangelical vote. Meanwhile, seven miles away a crowd of nearly 100,000 gathered at a convention center for Houston’s first back-to-school backpack giveaway. So many economically distressed families showed up to receive the free school supplies, immunizations, haircut vouchers, and fresh produce that the gates had to be locked and many thousands turned away. The irony of this juxtaposition of events was not lost on the secular media.

God cares so much about justice and the poor, why don’t we? How can we regain a balanced worldview that is neither conservative nor liberal, but simply Christlike?

There are some Christians who strive to gain the ascendancy in every arena, from broadcast media to politics, to grasp the greasy pole and kick their way to the top. Gaining enough power, they believe, will force America to become righteous, from the top down. Yet Jesus did not live that way. His example was that of the humblest servant. “He who would be great among you, must become slave of all.”

Christians are called not to control the political arena, but to influence it. Not to grab for power, but to speak truth to power. To call greed greed. Deception deception. To call our elected officials to a greater level of accountability, civility, and honesty. And most importantly, to speak up for those who have no voice:  the weak and marginalized, the poor and disenfranchised.

Increasingly, what is really at stake in our elections is not just the worldly ambitions of particular parties, but the question of whether simple values such as truth, community, and caring for one’s neighbor can continue to have a role in American politics, or whether they will be shunted aside by Corporate Greed’s selfish mantra, “I Got Mine.”

Do we want to live in a country where greed shows nothing but contempt for the weak and poor, where hatred, militarism, racism, and sexism masquerade as patriotism, or worse, as Christianity? Should we not shudder when arrogance guised as industry beats its breast and claims, “Look what I built!” and shares no credit with the humble worker on whose back all fortunes are made. To call such superciliousness “consistent” with biblical values is a blasphemous delusion.

Neither party will solve our country’s major problems, simply because both parties are part of the problem. Our country needs all of its citizens, and especially its Christians, to put partisanship aside and work together to confront the big wooly demons of poverty, yawning income inequality, militarism, racial injustice, and the domination of corporate cash over government. These are issues that should unite, not polarize Christians. The fact that they do so often divide us tells a lot about where some of our priorities lie.

In Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera Iolanthe, Private Willis, a sentry guarding the British Parliament, intellectualizes on the profundities of politics and God’s creation:

    I often think it‘s comical – Fal, lal, la!

How Nature always does contrive – Fal, lal, la!

That every boy and every gal

That‘s born into the world alive

Is either a little Liberal

Or else a little Conservative!

Fal, lal, la!  (Iolanthe, Act 2)

There is no shame in being a liberal or conservative by nature, unless, of course, we forget that we are Christians first, citizens of heaven, owing obedience first and always to the One who called us out of darkness into his glorious light, and owing one another the debt of love. Are you a conservative? Fine. True conservativism conserves what is good, lasting, and beneficial to all. Are you a liberal? Great. True liberality is generous in mind and purse. Conservatives give society stability; liberals give it vision and change. God knew what he was about in creating both.

Yet one error both liberals and conservatives often fall into is in making God over in their own image. Jesus was neither liberal nor conservative. Ideally, therefore, Christians should not lock themselves into one camp or the other. (Oh, what mischief comes from our overidentifying ourselves with a single party, as recent history demonstrates!) If we are honest and truly following the teachings of our Lord and his Word, then we will frequently find ourselves on both sides, depending on the issue.

Outspokenness regarding such biblical issues as poverty, war, and justice may make you a “liberal” in the eyes of many of your conservative friends. Meanwhile, if you hold a biblical line on abortion and homosexuality, calling them “sin,” the liberal camp may consider you a right-wing fanatic. We cannot please everyone, nor should we even try. Jesus does not call us to fit into any worldly mold or swallow a whole political platform, but to follow him on a very narrow path that often takes us “outside the camp.”

Again, Twain:

Look at the tyranny of party — at what is called party allegiance, party loyalty — a snare invented by designing men for selfish purposes — and which turns voters into chattles, slaves, rabbits, and all the while their masters, and they themselves are shouting rubbish about liberty, independence, freedom of opinion, freedom of speech, honestly unconscious of the fantastic contradiction; and forgetting or ignoring that their fathers and the churches shouted the same blasphemies a generation earlier when they were closing their doors against the hunted slave, beating his handful of humane defenders with Bible texts and billies, and pocketing the insults and licking the shoes of his Southern master.

Shame on us if we jump on any bandwagon, spouting someone else’s talking points without prayerfully digesting or fact-checking them. Call us foolish if we ever put our trust in men or believe their promises. Politicians lie; so do governments—most of the time, in fact. God’s Word calls us to respect and obey authority (so long as it does not force us to disobey Him), but nowhere does he command us to implicitly trust or believe authority. Let us be honest: both parties ultimately are underwritten by people whose god is money and whose motto is More. There is no fear of God in them. Not really.

No single person can effect the changes needed in this country, even if they wanted to. “Power concedes nothing without a demand,” said Frederick Douglass. “It never did and it never will.” True, power never yields, except in response to the sustained and outraged protests of people working together. Real and lasting change occurs only with the steady, consistent banding together of people who share similar concerns. These bands of people become movements, and those movements become a roar that cannot be silenced. During the previous two centuries, Christians in this country united to take on the Goliaths of slavery, poverty, child labor, women’s suffrage, and racism. Their prayers were united with organized action, and their voices fueled by a thorough knowledge of the Holy Scriptures.

In this book I hope to explore many of these issues from the perspective of the Bible and history. If in the process I manage to offend anyone…well…good. I have done my job if it means I have challenged you to think, to search your soul, and to seek the Lord and his Word. That is what I have been called to do as both a preacher and a pastor: to borrow a phrase from the old comic character Mr. Dooley, “to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” Amen.

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Christ Held Hostage: Outside the Camp [Part 1]

The following is part one of the first chapter of my upcoming book.

Christ Held Hostage:  The Hijacking of Christianity by the Status Quo

Duccio1 copyChapter One:  Outside the Camp  [Part 1]

 

And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.—Hebrews 13:13,14

Several years ago on the radio news, a reporter interviewed an American who identified himself as a moderate Muslim. This man complained about the control terrorists have over how Islam is perceived in America and the world. He said it felt as though his faith had been “hijacked.” In fact, it seemed as though his own life had been taken hostage as well. For since 9-11 he had been trying relentlessly to represent and defend the true face of Islam to anyone who would listen, a battle he felt he was losing—all because a handful of his co-religionists had gone mad, committing ungodly and inhuman acts of carnage in the name of God.

Perhaps many of us Christians can relate to this man’s sense of outrage as he watches the faith he holds dear being used as a weapon of hatred and manipulation to further the agenda of violent men. We may identify with his feeling of frustration as the media continues to use the grim photographs of terrorists as though they were the true face of his religion. We, too, feel as though our religion has been taken hostage: forcibly wedded to a certain political ideology, or else stripped down to a couple of hot button issues, like abortion and same-sex marriage, as though to oppose these were the sum of our faith. It is as if we are told, “Just pull this lever on election day and you’ve done your religious duty.” Or perhaps we can relate because Christians so often come across in the media as fearful, hate-mongering, gun-toting misogynists, spewing anathemas on every kind of human progress.

America is a religious country. Our politicians have long used God and the language of piety and morality in public discourse. Yet as God’s people, whose agenda are we following, God’s or a more narrow set of objectives set too often by the greed of economic elites and corporate interests? In reality, of course, no single party can have a monopoly on morality; none can justly claim to represent God, the Bible, or Christianity in its fullness. In this book I will argue that as evangelicals we have allowed a kind of “civic religion”—a syncretistic and patriotic blend of Christianity, nationalism, and free-market capitalism—to replace the radical faith of the New Testament. Ironically, in our efforts to “take back America,” as some Christians would have it, we have ourselves been taken captive by the prevailing culture and politics of imperialism, militarism, greed, racism, and xenophobia that surround us. Instead of reflecting an authentically New Testament brand of counter-culture, we have contented ourselves with a parallel subculture that not only mirrors, but often takes the lead in many of the worst aspects of our national character. And so the struggle for the soul of a nation has instead become a struggle for the soul of the church.

Inevitably, after I have preached a sermon on these issues, someone comes up to me and remarks—sometimes kindly, sometimes not—“Well, I can tell you’re a Democrat,” “It was interesting to hear from a liberal,” or even “I didn’t know you were a socialist.” When I inform them that I am none of these, they look befuddled. I try to explain that I do not have any party affiliation. I do vote. I am vocal and active in the political process. Yet I do not consider myself a conservative or a liberal. Nor do I subscribe to any particular economic ideology. I want simply to be a follower of Christ, first and always, struggling to follow the Master. That, at least, is how I see my life today, but it was not always so.

Out of the Blue

Raised in a staunchly Republican, upper-middle-class home, I had been a conservative child, even by my family’s standards. My father claimed that I was “born a 90-year-old man,” and that even as an infant, as soon as I could walk, I squeaked. My college years were the first time I was exposed to and challenged by opposing views, and I responded by spouting what I had been taught. Free-market capitalism. The economic survival of the fittest. America as a land of opportunity. America the only good cop in a bad world. I appalled my more liberal friends with statements that could be considered nothing if not reactionary. Then, in the middle of my Junior year, along came Jesus, quite out of the blue.

One morning before dawn, I had a dream. It was World War I, and I was in the midst of a mobile army hospital. We were under heavy bombardment. There were hundreds of soldiers lying on cots and screaming or moaning in pain. Yet one patient was lying so quietly he caught my attention. I could tell he was suffering, but he made no sound. I found a dipper and, filling it with water, offered it to him. Once I looked into his face, however, I knew this was no ordinary man. Not a word passed between us, but suddenly, I felt I was in the very presence of God. I was overwhelmed with a sense of my sin. I do not mean my individual sins; I mean my Sin. I was immediately aware that I was a sinful human being who needed forgiveness. The earth seemed to give way beneath me, and I fell on my face sobbing.

Then, an even more amazing thing happened. It was as if an invisible hand, warm and loving, gently penetrated my heart, removed something dark and horrible, and replaced it with something beautiful and blissful. I was forgiven. My tears stopped, and I awoke from sleep so peacefully that I did not want to move. It took me some time to sort out exactly what had happened in that exchange, but I knew I had met Him. I was no longer the same person; my life belonged to Jesus Christ and would be used in service to others.

That was over thirty years ago, and since then, as a follower of Christ and a pastor, I have seen myself grow more compassionate, especially in regard to the poor and oppressed. I have also become more willing to think outside the box I was raised in. The more I read the Bible and what it emphasizes, the more I am convinced that concern for the poor and suffering is one of the greatest burdens on God’s heart.

It was around the year 2000, just in time for the Presidential election, that I received a kind of political epiphany. I had been growing increasingly disturbed by what I saw as the cynical manipulation of the religious right on the part of politicians who knew they could get the votes they needed merely by pushing the “abortion” or “family values” buttons. I felt the Lord showing me that I was being used—and by people who really cared very little about these issues; they certainly did not care squat about the poor. He showed me that if I had been led astray it was because of my own vested interests. In short, I had wanted to be deceived because it was comfortable: I could point the finger at others for being the source of our nation’s problems and never have to face my own complicity in a corrupt and unjust system.

Leaving the party of my upbringing, I first dabbled in politics as an independent, but soon found that the small parties in my particular state were merely rubber stamps for the two larger political machines. Instead of running their own candidates, the “indies” would back one or other of the major party candidates—for a price. Besides, I had had enough of party politics, which I saw was more about advancing the agenda of greedy people than the kingdom of God. It was time to step outside the camp.

Someone once said that when you mix religion and politics, you get politics. Politics can be a dirty business. Campaigning seems to grow muddier every year. Attack ads spew muck and lies like a dredging barge. Citizens (even Christians) cheer their favorite team and anathematize the opposition with all the enthusiasm of British soccer hooligans. As Mark Twain once said, “When you are in politics, you are in a wasp’s nest with a short shirt-tail.” It is an arena in which the devil loves to parade—a fact that may cause many Christians simply to bow out. Yet we are not called to cop out of the human race; we are to be in the world, though not of it. As followers of Christ, how ought we to be engaged and active in the political sphere? Surely, we are called to be loving but firm, respectful but vocal, on behalf of our fellow human beings, especially in the areas the Bible is most vocal about, such as poverty, injustice, and caring for the weakest members of our society. Their voices desperately need to be heard.

Beyond Party Politics

In January 1842, a young Charles Dickens stepped for the first time upon the shores of the New World. He came in his capacity as a social critic to measure the progress, or lack thereof, of a new republic. The author was astonished by the savage brutality not only of slavery, but also of American politics and its unscrupulous henchmen in the press. Politics, he found, was a constant topic of conversation here:

Quiet people avoid the question of the Presidency, for there will be a new election in three years and a half, and party feeling runs very high: the great constitutional feature of this institution being, that directly the acrimony of the last election is over, the acrimony of the next one begins…

Of our elected representatives in Congress, he also had very little good to say:

Despicable trickery at elections; under-handed tamperings with public officers; cowardly attacks upon opponents, with scurrilous newspapers for shields, and hired pens for daggers… Dishonest Faction in its most depraved and most unblushing form…

Not much has changed in 170 years, except perhaps that we have got partisanship down to a science. Seldom in our history has our nation been so divided or our federal government so paralyzed.

In his Farewell Address to the nation, a retiring George Washington warned the American people of the destructive power of faction:

[A party spirit] serves always to distract the Public Councils, and enfeeble the Public Administration. It agitates the Community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption…The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.

Old George was right. Spiritually speaking, party affiliation inevitably leads to “party spirit” or “faction,” which the apostle Paul lists among the works of the flesh that endanger the spiritual life of the believer and divide the body of Christ (Gal. 5:20). For Christians, partisanship also leads to a kind of moral blindspot:  When you are a member of a party, you suddenly find yourself always having to defend that party and its policies in order to justify your membership. For example, when one party is in power, the opposition party condemns the president’s military or security policies. When the roles are reversed, the party now in power suddenly finds voice to defend those same policies when practiced by their president. Party fealty also seduces us into supporting candidates whose principles, or lack of them, advertise the very opposite values we wish to promote. Partisanship may be difficult to avoid in our culture, but in the followers of Christ, it ought to be anathema, part of that conformity to worldly–mindedness we are enjoined to shun like the plague.

I do not recommend being politically neutral, as in the case of our corporate news media (the part that is not unabashedly partisan), who feel they must represent both sides of every issue, no matter how outrageous or mendacious. Neither would I advise Christians to become apolitical. Rather, the issue is one of whom we follow, whose interests we bring to the discussion table.

During the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of War said, “Mr. President, there’s nothing to worry about. God is on our side.” Lincoln, turned to him and replied, “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.” That should be our concern as well. As Christians we should be more concerned with following where Christ leads, no matter on which side of some imagined political fence we happen to find ourselves, whether the world labels us as “liberal” or “conservative,” “reactionary” or “socialist.”

A few years ago the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church, his All Holiness Bartholomew I, gave an address at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.  The European press has labeled him the “Green Patriarch” because of his supposedly “progressive” or “leftist” stand on several environmental issues. Yet in the introduction to his address, he eschewed this title. Instead, he noted that Christianity has always been a faith that is both conservative and revolutionary. It is conservative in that it is dedicated to conserving what is ancient and original, but also, paradoxically, what is conserved is something deeply devoted to change, even revolutionary. Such a stance may cause the world confusion since they always want to know on which side of the political divide we stand. “The only side we take is that of our faith,” said the Patriarch, “which today may seem to land us in one political camp, tomorrow another—but in truth we are always and only in one camp, that of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

When the church, aligns itself so completely with any specific political party, ideology, or agenda, or even a particular economic system, it runs the risk not only of alienating itself from those of the other party, but also of insulating itself against the very call of the gospel. Even if we should see our Lord and Savior Jesus himself, he just might appear as a stranger, or worse, an enemy, because he seems so unlike us: he does not look like us, talk like us, or act like us; he does not vote like us; he does not seem to care about the things we care about.

In a sermon, I once quoted the words of James, the brother of Jesus, who in his letter (Jas. 5:1-6) quite uncompromisingly castigates the rich for their exploitation of workers and hoarding of wealth. A Christian friend rebuked me afterward for citing this passage. “That sounded Marxist and crazy,” he said. At first, I thought he had to be joking. Yet he turned out to be quite serious. Apparently, although having read the Bible many times, he had never really encountered that passage before. It scared him. His response perfectly illustrates what happens when we read the Bible through our cultural or partisan filters, only hearing what we want to hear. In this case, the American worship of capitalism, our love of wealth, and the old Cold-War fear of communism had managed to deafen my friend to the Word of God. When it comes to the Bible, what we don’t want to hear may well surprise, or even frighten us.

Is not this precisely what bothered the Pharisees and scribes about Jesus? He wasn’t one of them. They were so focused on what they thought was important, they could not see the forest for the trees. They not only missed the big picture; they missed the Messiah as well. Of them, Christ said,

“They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them…You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill, and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness…You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matt. 23:4,23,24)

[Stay Tuned for Part 2]

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