Faith AND Politics – humility

As a Christian involved in various forms of political advocacy, I often wrestle with the nuances of how faith and politics intersect. Throw in a healthy dose of passionate emotion, reactionary thinking, and the need to put everything into simple black and white categories – all road blocks to discussing the topics of faith and of politics – and you’ll see why some people caution to never talk about these two “personal” areas of life. But of course, if I am a person of true faith, my call to live into the kingdom of God and “be salt and light” in this world means that my political action (or inaction), should flow from my faith. Too often people compartmentalize their “politics” from their “Christianity” – when Christianity is no more and no less than a way to live, a way to walk by following Christ and imitating Him. Faith must permeate every part of life.

This Sunday morning on our drive to a state park, we listened to an interesting program on Minnesota Public Radio called “Speaking of Faith.” Today’s guest was former Republican Senator and ambassador to the U.N., John Danforth – who is now retired from his days as a stateman, but remains a practicing attorney and an Episcopalian priest. The conversation fascinated me on several different levels – as a person in ministry, a practicing theologian, an organizer with a Christian non-partisan lobby group, and the wife of a man studying public policy. More on Danforth and the two op-eds he recently wrote are available on MPR’s site (and here I am not discussing his past strengths or weaknesses as a Senator or Ambassador), but his comments on the program today centered on the need for humble, “moderate Christians” to caution the rising polarity and sometimes theocractic tendancies of the Republican party. He is a self-labeled conservative, traditional Republican who is troubled by the mis-use of faith and a claim to “truth” in politics lately. Although the word “moderate” is pretty loaded for me, and the topics here are rich enough to make me want to digress on various other threads for quite awhile, I’ve decided to write out more on why faith and politics should mix later on. For now, read an except of what I heard this morning that got me thinking:

It would be an oversimplification to say that American culture wars are now between people of faith and nonbelievers. People of faith are not of one mind, whether on specific issues like stem cell research and government intervention in the case of Terri Schiavo, or the more general issue of how religion related to politics. In recent years, conservative Christians have presented themselves as representing the one authentic Christian perspective on politics. With due respect for our conservative friends, equally devout Christians come to very different conclusions. It is important for those of us who are sometimes called moderates to make the case that we, too, have strongly held Christian convictions, that we speak from the depths of our beliefs, and that our approach to politics is at least as faithful as that of those who are more conservative. Our difference concerns the extent to which government should, or even can, translate religious beliefs into the laws of the state….

Many conservative Christians approach politics with a certainty that they know God’s truth, and that they can advance the kingdom of God through governmental action. So they have developed a political agenda that they believe advances God’s kingdom, one that includes efforts to ‘put God back’ into the public square… Moderate Christians are less certain about when and how our beliefs can be translated into statutory form, not because of a lack of faith in God, but because of a healthy acknowledgement of the limitations of human beings…

Aware that even our most passionate ventures into politics are efforts to carry the treasure of religion into the earthen vessel of government, we proceed in a spirit of humility lacking in our conservative colleagues… To assert that I am on God’s side and you are not, that I know God’s will and you do not, and that I will use the power of government to advance my understanding of God’s kingdom is certain to produce hostility. By contrast, moderate Christians see ourselves, literally, as moderators. Far from claming to possess God’s truth, we claim only to be imperfect seekers of the truth. We reject the notion that religion should present a series of wedge issues useful at election time for energizing a political base….

Following a Lord who cited love of God and love of neighbor as encompassing all the commandments, we reject a political agenda that displaces that love.

Whose Justice?

Of major interest to me are the areas of compassion and justice – how these concepts are rooted biblically and theologically, how they are lived out in community and in local ministry, and how acts like these can actually transform the church (as well as the world), as they help us understand and embody God’s call to discipleship.

My understanding of “justice” as an idea, action, and goal has meandered for some time – and I’m grateful for both my “in the trenches” experience with injustice in urban cities and through relationships, and my more academic studies pulling apart various “ology-s” that deal with justice. Its helped me not just react or label “justice,” but feel it and live it and wrestle with it and think it over. I am in no way done with that journey – but it of course can affect daily life and choices we make, from the smallest way we choose to treat another person, to the largest sense of how we participate in society.

Below is an excerpt from a talk Scot McKnight (former Prof of mine), gave on “Social Justice” at North Park. He brings up many of the issues I’ve studied in the last few years, including what is justice, whose justice, what is the telos (or end goal), of justice, and he writes some of how this interacts with the U.S. political sphere and its notion of “justice.” One of my strongest critiques of both “leftist” and “right” Christians doing political speak since the last election is their over-reliance on party lines while mis-using words to speak of issues like faith, values, life, freedom, etc. Ultimately, as much as I believe in and am engaged in redeeming social life through the political stuctures, my motivation for this work and my ultimate definition is “Christian”, not American citizen, nor Liberal, not Conservative nor Democrat. I’m first and last a citizen of the kingdom of God – whose borders aren’t totally open for new residents yet. Of course what this means for current political debates that affect the welfare of millions, and the way we use our biblical language to talk with people of other (or no) faiths is important to reflect on. McKnight helps me think through this (so does Stanley Hauerwas and Miroslav Volf, for very different reasons, and so does John Perkins and Delores Williams.)

What we are facing in the retributive and reparative debate about justice then is a sense of justice that has almost nothing to do with the biblical sense of justice. The reason there is such a disparity concerns the ontology of the public square and the ontology of the Christian ethical system. In the Bible, the operative words are not equality or freedom or rights. The operative words, in their place, are “image of God,” “love,” and “grace.” I could explore all of this through the lens of one word of Jesus – kingdom – but I won’t in this context. But, let it be said that for Jesus the “condition” he was bringing was called “kingdom,” and kingdom is always about community, about society, and about relationships – and it was not about personal freedoms and individual rights. It was about an alternative society in which relationship to God and others discovered shalom.

rest of “Social Justice”