Sunday, June 04, 2006

Christianity Isn't a Political Party, and Jesus Isn't a Republican

When my friend Peggy was a little kid, her young mind determined that all Christians were Republicans. At that tender age, she didn't realize the word "Republican" referred to politics. Since kids can't yet grasp the concepts of governments and political agendas, the correlation made perfect sense: Her parents and their friends were all Republicans. They were all Christians, too. Thus, "Republican" must equal "Christian."

One day she overheard that a family friend was a Democrat. This puzzled her because this adult--we'll call him Mr. Smith--attended their church. The troubled little girl shared her concern with her father: "Dad, I'm worried about Mr. Smith because he's a Democrat. Does that mean he's going to hell?"

(And here's the second punch line: Little Peggy grew up to become a Democrat.)

Whenever Peggy tells that story, she reiterates this occurred when she was a child. But we all know the real humor comes from the truth within the joke: Many adults believe Christians have a specific political agenda, more specifically, a conservative Republican agenda. Andrew Sullivan, a Time magazine columnist, recently dubbed this stereotype as "

Sullivan and others have tried to demonstrate Christianity isn't a political party. But many have bought into the stereotype. When the term "religious right" is used, everyone knows it's really Christians--and not Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, or other religious practitioners--that are being referenced. Even "evangelical" is used to connote "conservative Republican." Jim Wallis, founder of the liberal evangelical magazine Sojourners, told PBS's Frontline, "I think there is a fear among many Americans about the word evangelical, evangelicals, because they associate that term with the religious right, with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition."

How did the word evangelical--from the root "evangel" meaning "good news," and referring to Jesus' Great Commission to share his teachings and promises with the world--become political terminology? There's a long, tedious answer to how this stereotype developed. But that's far less important than considering: Why are we Christians letting ourselves be defined as a political machine?

A friend once told me he wanted to explore Christianity but had one reservation. "I don't feel comfortable with the church's stance against gays," he told me. He's a heterosexual male who was raised in the church, and now feels his liberal leaning doesn't fit in with the Christian faith. A perceived political agenda is keeping him from seeking Christ.

Sadly, it's not entirely perception. There are plenty of adult Christians who feel one must have certain political leanings in order to be a good Christian. One must be a Republican. One must be a conservative (whatever that means). One must be pro-life without reservation. One must oppose gay rights completely. Sometimes these views come direct from the pulpit.

That definition of a "good Christian" doesn't fit most of the Christians I know. As little Peggy might have asked, "Does that mean they're all going to hell?"

Lest I be hellbound for answering "nay" to some of the above criteria, let's consider what Jesus might have been interested in if he was walking among us today. He'd surely address poverty, calling for more social programs and international aid to feed the 15 million children worldwide that die from hunger each year. He'd reach out to prostitutes and drug addicts, and embrace people most of us are afraid to touch or even acknowledge. He'd give comfort to AIDS patients and to women who've had abortions. He would speak out against hate crimes. He'd support the preservation of his Father's creation (AKA the environment).

Some argue Jesus would be a liberal today, deeply concerned about righting social wrongs. Personally, I doubt Jesus would register with any political party. During his time on earth, his primary "agenda" wasn't feeding or healing--it was forgiveness. Above all else, he wanted everyone to know they could have a relationship with God. His last words to his disciples were to spread this news. Our primary objective then, as Christians, is to share that love and forgiveness with everyone: welfare moms and A-list celebrities. Skid Row residents and billionaire tycoons. Even Democrats.

Jesus also was specific about his secondary objective: reaching out to others. Rather than working through political channels, I bet Jesus today would approach each of us individually and ask us to give our best resources to help the homeless, the hungry, the sick, and the hurting. In fact, that's exactly what he instructs in Matthew 25:37-40:

Then the ones who pleased the Lord will ask, "When did we give you something to eat or drink? When did we welcome you as a stranger or give you clothes to wear or visit you while you were sick or in jail?" The king will answer, "Whenever you did it for any of my people, no matter how unimportant they seemed, you did it for me." (CEV)

In sum, Jesus' political views would be shaped by the Jewish laws he deemed the most important: 1) to love God, and 2) to love people. Today's politicians talk about economic progress, individual rights, equality. Jesus taught about humility, giving up one's rights, being a servant--ideas far more radical than any political school of thought ever has offered.

Our faith does influence our politics, just as it influences every aspect of our lives. This Tuesday, June 6, please prayerfully go to the polls and let your individual voice be heard. I plan to take my biggest Bible and to wear tons of Christian jewelry in hopes a TV camera crew will pull me aside and ask for my opinion on the Christian vote. Just so I can tell them, "I didn't have enough time to call all the Christians in the country and get their input. But I did call my mom. Wanna hear how she voted?"

To ponder:
In your conversations with friends who aren't Christians, what are their biggest complaints about the church? What generalizations do they make about Christians and the church?

2) We sometimes create "rules" for how a Christian should think, speak, and act, possibly because it allows us to measure our own spiritual success. For example, one rule I had for myself was to read at least one chapter from the Bible every night. It began as a way to create a good habit, but soon it turned into a chore. I'd pat myself on the head when I did it, and mentally kick myself when I didn't. Eventually, I realized it wasn't about my relationship with God--it was about me feeling good about myself.

What are your rules? Do these rules improve your relationship with God, or do they just make you feel like a better person? Have your rules hurt your relationship with other Christians?

3) Many years ago, I felt disappointed when I learned a Christian woman was working at a Planned Parenthood clinic. I couldn't understand why a Christian would want to dispense birth control to people who weren't married, or discuss abortion with pregnant girls. After hearing the woman talk about her work, I realized God had placed my friend in that very difficult job. She was a compassionate Christian who had the unique opportunity of comforting scared young teens.

Think about a time you felt disappointed or angry with someone because they did something that didn't seem appropriate for a Christian. Did you discuss your feelings with them? Did you treat them differently?


Anonymous said...

Nice piece, H. It made me think a lot. I wrote a little bit in reply, some of which is just echoing your writing. Nevertheless, I'd like to give you my thoughts as well. -paul

I think it's interesting to note that for those who believed in Him, one of the biggest misconceptions about Jesus in his time was that he was a political entity. When He came into Jerusalem on palm sunday, everyone thought he was coming to accomplish the polical goals they had as a people, one of which was to be freed from the Roman rulers over them. They were shocked when instead of this, he was tried and crucified.

Also interesting to note is that there was an established political entity which was there to administrate Jewish religious matters. Rather than polical activism, Jesus spent his time addressing people's needs directly by teaching, healing, feeding, and loving, not arguing about what should or should not be allowed behavior or organizing a comission to study the effects of homelessness on jewish society.

I think we make the same mistake today regardless of political affiliation. We thin that as Christians, our avenue to change the world is to elect people who will do the work for us. We think that we can stand up for our moral convictions (for Republicans) or stand up for the poor and needy (for deomocrats) by political means. While these approaches might help to some extent they never, ever excuse us from teaching, healing, feeding, and loving the people we meet everyday, as Jesus himself did. If our world does not change, it is our fault, not the elected officials, not the right wing concervatives, not the homosexuals, not big business. We are His avenue to change the world, one individual at a time.

If Jesus became a man to set up a political machine to administrate his purpose for humanity, he would have spent his time in politics, and he would have told us explicitely to do so.

Anonymous said...

I thoroughly enjoyed your latest! I have something in common with Peggy. I too am a PK and am a Democrat. My parents are both Republicans. However I accuse my dad of being a latent Democrat at times. I tend to be a left leaning moderate and my brother is probably a "Green" liberal. Where did my parents go wrong?!

My biggest frustration is being able to find a political candidate/party which I can get behind. I look at my first citizenship as being Kingdom citizenship and I find it difficult to find candidates whose political stands line up with a Kingdom lifestyle. Aren't there more Christians out there like me? Not that I claim that I've got it totally right. It seems as though even within Christianity there is the religious right (evangelical) camp and the left wing, social justice, (theologically liberal) camp. Both extremes seem to let their politics dictate their theology. I propose a third option. That is a Kingdom of God camp where we let our theology dictate our politics. More importantly, we let it dictate our lifestyle. The best way to promote the Kingdom is, like Paul (W., not the apostle) said. We need to get off our duff and live it. We need to work on reducing the gap between what we say we believe and what we actually do. Christians who have taken up a political agenda, be it left or right, often are busy yelling at each other and at the world at large instead of actually living the values of the Kingdom. Case in point; Hollywood. The Christian right is at war with Hollywood. There are so many lost and hurting people in that industry. But I'm sure that many of those same people have written off Christianity because they feel that "Christians" have declared war on them. Instead they turn to all kinds of other avenues in their spiritual search. The same could probably be said about the homosexual community. Instead, what if Christians took Christ's approach? What if we actually made it a point to be incarnational? That would mean we would have to do things we may not want to do or make friends with people who have a different world view.

Holly, I picked up an evangelical bent in your post when you said, "During his time on earth, his primary 'agenda' wasn't feeding or healing--it was forgiveness." I would disagree with that a bit. Jesus announced His agenda when He read from Isaiah in the Synagogue. He read the following: 18 "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." Jesus came to proclaim and demonstrate that the Kingdom of God was at hand. In order for the Kingdom to break through into our lives and world, there has to be a sense of restoration of what is broken. There is a sense of wholeness and restoration whenever we speak of Kingdom realities. That is part of the problem with evangelicalism and its current lean to the right politically. There is an overemphasis on one aspect, albeit a central one, of Jesus' mission. That is the forgiveness of sins. However forgiveness isn't everything. Jesus came to restore what was broken, including our severed relationship with God. People who had previously been locked out, who were unfortunate politically, economically, religiously, etc... were now ALL invited in. Jesus demonstrated God's love and he did it in real practical ways right at the level of need where people lived. That is the Good News! We evangelicals have reduced the good news of the Kingdom to "Salvation through faith by grace alone." There is nothing wrong with that. I believe in Salvation by grace. But if that is all there is, we begin to think that our only mission on earth is to save people for heaven. Jesus did not say, "Go and save people." He said, "Go and make disciples." What is a disciple? It is a follower. What did Jesus do? He proclaimed the good news of God's Kingdom AND he demonstrated it by loving people at their point of need. Ultimately, He loved us all at our greatest point of need by laying down His life so we could be restored into right relationship with God. That is the door into the Kingdom. But it is the starting line and not the finish line. The religious right are busy trying to save people for heaven, but seem to have little interest in working on building the Kingdom here and now. The religious left are busy trying bring about a better here and now, but minimize or even deny the need for salvation. True disciples focus on following Christ and continuing the work of building His Kingdom in a holistic sense.

Anonymous said...

I wanted to tell you that you are doing a great job! I read a few of your most recent articles and your ideas were very reasonable and well thought-out (and, most important, very Biblical).

As a person who greatly admires people like Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo, I really appreciated your article on political parties and how Jesus is not a Republican (or a Democrat). I would like to add that I am deeply saddened by the fact that millions of people now have more negative feelings about evangelical Christianity because of George W. Bush. Christianity Today recently reported that 64 percent of Americans would vote for an evangelical presidential candidate; 78 percent said this 10 years ago, before Bush gained power. I believe Bush has done more to bring down Christianity (and America, and the world) than any other person since 2000, especially because he is waging an immoral and unjustified $300 billion war in Iraq, killing thousands of U.S. soldiers as well as more than 30,000 Iraqi civilians.

And the worst part is that many millions of conservative evangelicals continue to strongly support him -- partly because they are confusing their political beliefs with spiritual beliefs. Why did conservative Christians abandon Jimmy Carter in droves in 1980? Carter was, and still is, a great Christian leader, towering above Bush in every regard. But Carter was a so-called "liberal" (really a moderate), and the only kind of leader that is palatable to many evangelicals is a hard-core conservative on the issues that they deem to be "Christian" (apparently concern for the poor is not one of them). Thus Bush gets their vote, even though it is obvious to me that Bush is just cynically using and manipulating evangelicals, and all he really cares about are money-related issues (particularly giving huge tax breaks to the wealthy).

This is the danger that can come about when Christians identify too strongly with one particular political party or candidate. I hope everyone learns some lessons from this.

Thanks for reading this. Keep up the great work.