I was chastised recently by a Trump voting friend for posting a copy of an editorial cartoon implying that Trump’s committed base has traded the babe in the manger, for an evil imitation messiah. It was, he said, in bad taste, especially at Christmas. He was right, in a way. It was in bad taste, as truth is often in bad taste. I complained to a friend that being a priest who writes about politics has its downside. These last four years have sometimes made me feel less like a bearer of the light of Christ, and more like John the Baptist crying “you brood of vipers.” It’s not comfortable, it appears in bad taste, especially in Christmastide.
Some have asked why I write about politics at all. After all, Jesus never said a word about the legitimacy or illegitimacy of Roman rule, or how the Sanhedrin was organized. He was neither a capitalist nor a Marxist, and it’s impossible to pin him down with modern terms like liberal or conservative. People who try to make him into a radical of their choice always push it too far to hold. Why not leave it alone. Let Jesus stay in churches saving those who accept him as their personal savior. What he says about good and bad, right and wrong, is for each person’s private life. Leave politics out of it.
It’s not just that I’ve spent too much of my adult life working in the political realm to leave it behind. It’s not just that politics is the art of deciding how we will live together in community, and those decisions should be important to each of us. It’s much more than that. Holy scripture proclaims that God has standards of justice ‘he’ expects of political decisions, and for which ‘his’ people will be held accountable. As for my experience, there were a few brushes with centers of power, but mostly it was concerned with how main streets and rural interests might provide greater opportunity for more people, how corporations could do well without surrendering moral obligations to the communities in which they operated, and how local public policy decisions could be made with greater concern for the commonweal. The gap is wide between what people want to hear, and what they’re willing to do. Yet, God kept interrupting when bosses and clients were talking, and at some point I had to begin listening to what ‘he’ had to say about politics.
The gospel record of Jesus’ life, teaching, death and resurrection cannot be fully understood except in the context of fulfilling all the law and prophets. It cannot stand apart from what we call the Old Testament, the only scripture known to Jesus and the first generation of his followers. Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, is the source and inspiration that guided its writers and editors. What he taught during his earthly ministry clarified and punctuated its message with ultimate authority, under which all other authority is subordinate. Nowhere in scripture is anything said about democracy vs. monarchy, liberalism vs. conservatism, or socialism vs. capitalism. Yet issues of godly justice with a bias for the poor and marginalized, and judgment critical of systemic disparities between the rich and poor, are central themes for how God holds governments and governors accountable. Whatever form governments take, God has established standards and boundaries for how they are to serve the people.
It is sometimes argued that the Old Testament concerns only what was going on with Israelites and their neighbors in the ancient Near East. With Jesus all that came to an end. It fails on two points. First, the ancient Israelites were given the job of bearing the light of God’s word to the whole world. What they experienced, what God had to say, and what the Jewish scriptures attest to is more than theological allegory or metaphor, it is the light that instructs us as it did them. It is the story of unfolding revelation that continues to unfold to this day. Second, Jesus’ life and teaching defined what personal responsibility means in the life of community regardless of time, place or condition. He established by word and example how Christians are to bear the light of Christ that contains the fullness of godly justice into whatever world they live in. In every place it must stand for what is just against what is unjust, and that engages Christians in politics. What is just, or more particularly, what is godly justice, may be just out of human reach, but it’s always in the direction of loving God (and no other god) with all one’s heart, soul, strength and mind; loving neighbors near and far, like and unlike, breaking down barriers of separation; and loving one’s self as a beloved child of God, no matter the flaws.
To follow Jesus is to rule out individualism’s ethic that defines the highest good as personal freedom to act in one’s self interest. To follow Jesus demands personal responsibility and accountability for the greater good of the community. It demands that Christians do what they can to influence public policy (community decisions) that are just, equitable, non discriminatory, more inclusive than exclusive, and that oppose every form of oppression and persecution. It doesn’t claim that personal freedom to act in one’s self interest is wrong or bad, but that it is always subordinate to godly justice. To follow Jesus doesn’t rule out inequality between persons, it rules out systems that enforce inequalities. It rules out power used to oppress and deny opportunities generally granted to others. It rules out private actions that impose onerous costs on society.
As the ancient scriptures present us with an unfolding story of God’s self revelation, and the people’s struggle to apprehend what it meant to them, so Christian engagement in whatever political arena they find themselves is an uncertain unfolding of what it means to follow Christ with whatever resources are at hand in the midst of those who follow other ways. It demands courage, perseverance, the willingness to admit error, and a determined effort to love others as God in Christ Jesus loves the world. Because they are only human, Christians can never claim to be absolutely certain about their public policy advocacy. Of Jesus, they can be absolutely certain; all other truths are provisional. Fair warning: following Jesus in this way will often be condemned as in bad taste.