The relationship between people of faith and the larger world is one that vexes every spiritual community now and then. For the church, which started out as a misunderstood sect persecuted by the ruling authorities, this has been an especially thorny problem to sort out. Over the last two millennia believers have tried many approaches to this issue, from absolute non-participation is political matters to partnering with rulers and politicians who claim to represent “Christian values.”
The dilemma is complicated by the fact that, both in the Roman Empire and in today’s United States, participation in civic affairs is not only expected, it’s actually vital to a healthy society. Simply put, it’s good to vote. It’s good to educate oneself on the issues of the day, while listening to advocates of all sides in the process. And it’s certainly right and proper to discuss these matters with others – with a civil tone, and, when necessary, agreeing to disagree without being disagreeable. If one thing is abundantly clear about both religion and politics, it’s that people of good will can hold very opposing views.
The question of how much those who identify as Christians should engage in political activity is more problematic, however. Jesus was non-partisan in his attitudes towards human beings; we are all equally sinful. We all have the capacity to turn into monsters given a halfway decent excuse. The people who burned “witches” at Salem and “heretics” during the Inquisition were fundamentally the same as you and I. So were those who destroyed churches and imprisoned believers during the Soviet era, for that matter, or those who enslaved African-Americans by the millions right here in the Land of the Free.
If you want to know what kinds of people are capable of such atrocities, then just look in the mirror. It’s a small step from insulting and dehumanizing anonymous strangers on the Internet to burning them at the stake. All you or I need is a flimsy rationalization to justify our brutality.
Jesus was quite familiar with this dark side of human nature. That’s why he demanded self-examination. It’s why he told his followers to focus on their own shortcomings rather than those of others. He insisted that people look at themselves as they truly are.
That’s probably why many of his followers abandoned him. It’s popular to preach against sin, so long as you don’t mention the sins your congregation is fond of. Hence the phenomena of the minister who rails against homosexuals to a room full of straight people, or the one who preaches about corporate greed to a group of left-wing activists. It’s always fun to look down on the other tribe while simultaneously patting oneself on the back.
What does any of this have to do with politics? Simply this: when Christians import the same level of urgency to issues like gay marriage, the minimum wage, global warming, universal healthcare, etc., as they do to matters like repentance, faith, and humility, they ignore Jesus’ message and dilute the faith. Evil people will always figure out ways to ruin any system, whether or not it taxes the rich, outlaws marijuana, provides welfare, or subsidizes farmers. Acting as if a particular approach to those controversies can solve the world’s problems is like expecting an aspirin to cure cancer. It ignores the malicious sickness that underlies the problem.
This hasn’t stopped people of all political stripes from trying to recruit Jesus to their side, however. Since the late 1970s millions of Evangelical Christians have blurred the line between right-wing causes and the church’s mission. These people have towed the party line, organized at all levels of society, and, in general, proclaimed God a conservative.
The fruits of their labors have been bitter indeed. The issues they care the most about, abortion and gay marriage, have gone in exactly the opposite direction they intended. So have other matters to which many of them have given a theological spin, like taxation, welfare, drug laws, and environmental policy.
But, even more dismal is the fact that they have alienated millions of people who might otherwise have been drawn to Christ. The world sees the shallowness and lust for power that underlies their motivations and rightly turns away in disgust.
If Christians would learn the true lesson behind this debacle, then there might be hope for the future. But, instead, many of them have missed the point by going in the opposite direction. Instead of wrapping Jesus in the cause of the GOP they turn him into a leftist revolutionary. Instead of hating gay marriage he’s all for it. Rather than opposing abortion he respects a woman’s right to choose. He believes in global warming and wants all of us to drive hybrids or ride a bike. He installed solar panels on the roof of heaven and supports Obamacare. And, when he eventually does return to earth, it will be in a battery-powered car with zero emissions.
In short, he now looks a lot like the left-leaning people who, just like those on the Right, are anxious to make him one of their own.
The problem is, Jesus isn’t going along with the Left’s agenda any more than with the Right’s. He’s no more likely to endorse Hillary Clinton than Ted Cruz. No matter what tribe you’re a member of, he’s still going to stand apart from it. And he will look at you with eyes that cut right through your pride, vanity, and self-righteousness.
That’s because he’s not interested in winning votes. He’s after far more than that. He wants to save our souls. To do so, he will call us to turn our accusing gaze away from both those dirty liberals and those heartless conservatives. He will compel us to turn our wrath on ourselves, ripping apart any basis we have for believing we’re on “his side.” Then he will do it again, and again, and again.
This is a Jesus who nobody wants around. So we build a plastic substitute for him and mold it in our image. He will have none of it. And he will have nothing to do with our efforts to build a “Christian” Right or Left. The position he demands of us isn’t horizontal but vertical: down on our knees or prostrate on the floor, not comparing ourselves to others but only to him, and saying in response, “God be merciful to me a sinner.”
That’s the real Christ of the Bible: one who is not interested in our politics or our prejudices. He will not be reduced to a party platform, and he won’t give you a reason to hate or belittle others, no matter who they vote for. And that’s just the way it is.