[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]
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.”
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.