My preaching for the past several weeks has tried to show how following Jesus involves both individual and political obligations and expectations. To put it another way, there are obligations and expectations about how individuals are to behave, but also about how societies, including nations, are to behave.
Individual obligations to love God and love one’s neighbors are well understood because they so easily fit into the myth of American individualism with its emphasis on self reliance and voluntary charity for those in need. As they should, the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the new commandment to love one another as Christ loves us, encourage us to live in more morally responsible ways with one another. It means our conversations about morals, or ethics, seldom stray from a focus on personal beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. As essential as they are to following Jesus, they also contribute to a comfortable separation of discipleship from the political sphere, leaving it open for opportunists and religious charlatans.
God, throughout scripture, has also laid down obligations and expectations for the way nations are to behave, and has a great deal to say about public policies that fail to meet them. God does not endorse any particular form of government, but is crystal clear about what is expected of any nation’s public policies if they are to embody godly justice. To follow Jesus, whom we proclaim to be the image of the invisible God in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell (Col. 1), requires us to be well informed about what God has to say through the ethical prophets of Hebrew scripture, because that’s where God’s political agenda is most clearly stated. Amos intrigues me the most, but God’s words on public policy are also recorded in Isaiah, Hosea, Micah and Habakkuk. Even the ancient laws in Numbers, Leviticus and Deuteronomy begin the process of limiting retributive justice, deescalating violence, and expanding human rights.
The abundance of religious leaders flying the Christian flag, while promoting political agendas they claim to be biblical, are rarely in the same political arena as God. The religious right is one example. What they call traditional family values, with its suspicion of any deviation from the social-sexual norms they endorse, is an influential political force, however weak its scriptural warrant. The religious left is less organized. It lacks the coherence of the right, but it’s spawned its own array of political activists who wave the Christian flag with abandon, sometimes following Christ, and sometimes ignoring him. In the meantime, lukewarm denominations happily mumble support for the way things are according to the social standards of their congregants. Leaving politics to politicians, they stick with urging members to live good Christian lives. To their credit, they also engineer impressive charitable works in the communities they serve, and of late, most have become welcoming and affirming of all.
In large part, predominantly white mainline denominations have sat out political engagement, leaving it to the black churches on one hand, and conservative white evangelicals on the other. The latter, obsessed with sin and sex, appear to have become Jesus praising agents for secular right wing libertarian nationalism that seems to have little connection with godly justice.
It’s time for mainline preachers to be bold in Christ, fearless in bringing politics into the pulpit. Not as Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, but as prophetic voices proclaiming what God expects justice to look like in any society.
So, what does godly justice look like? I touched on it in a recent column, but it bears repeating. God expects international treaties and compacts to be honored; crops and food supplies to be off limits as weapons of war; weights and measures to be honest; foods to be unadulterated; civil violence to be avoided; legitimate civil authority to be respected; workers and the poor to be protected from manipulation into the bondage of debt; usury to be avoided; justice to be impartial, giving no preference to the rich; the poor not to be cheated out of opportunity and the necessities of life; the courts to be uncorrupted; monopolization of resources to be avoided; taxes to be fairly apportioned; and excesses of income inequality to be addressed.
It’s not an exhaustive list. You might find a few more to add. The point is, what God expected social justice to look like almost three thousand years ago continues to be as true today as it was then. You want truth, absolute godly truth? This is as close as you’re likely to come. It stands up to examination through the lens of Jesus: love God with all your everything, love your neighbor as yourself, love one another as I love you. For Christians, everything in scripture, old and new, hangs on these and is interpreted by them. Prophetic words about godly justice are given even greater authority through Jesus’ words and deeds that break down barriers separating us from one another, heal and reconcile us to one another, and cry out for the oppressed and poor.
Conservatives who are nervous that this looks like a camel’s nose under the tent for a politically liberal agenda, it’s time to get over it. For the lukewarm who would rather avoid conflict than face it, it’s time to take a stand. Each has needed gifts. Conservatives help keep things on track. The lukewarm, gaining courage, help mediate toward agreement. But God’s agenda takes precedent over all.