taking the words of Jesus seriously

I love my country . . . I mean, you gotta’, right? Even during its awkward cycles of uninhibited vitriol, come election time (with its debates). In so many regards, its ethos and heritage are so ideal driven, so optimistic, and yet so . . . practiced. What I love is its being foremost about the people—their lives, their liberty, and (imagine) their pursuit of happiness. From the jaded vantage point of a fallen and corrupt human history, it’s only reasonable to marvel at the great “experiment’s” miraculous conception, never mind survival.

Even so, I can’t say I’ve been particularly zealous in insisting it is “Christian.” To a great many of my younger brothers and sisters in Christ, this begs the jaded question. They’ll shrug: What does that even mean, “Christian nation”?

But since my decidedly evangelical childhood in the 60s, that has been my faith’s quite literal party line. It has morphed through Sunday sermons, Sunday schools, Christian schools, Christian radio, and talk radio. It has been and remains the evangelical battle cry for the better part of the modern and post-modern eras.  Here we stand—to claim the nation for Christ upon any and all “moral” grounds—we can do no other.

Can’t we?

Like so many in history, we have always wanted to believe our nation to be the particularly Christian one. And very naturally we believe the measure of its Christianity is in how we legislate and enforce moral truth. But after decades of moral certitude and reasonably tempered moral indignation on any number of political fronts, I find myself peeking my head above the political fray of late and being joyously surprised by . . . ambivalence. Understand, this is not apathy that has lured me to even flirt with the enemy. If anything, it is ironically a kind of repentance.

But know that what brings me to my political knees is not a recanting of biblical morality or sin. It is, rather, the profoundly skewed priorities that have long driven evangelical politics—for that, mea culpa.

If a people were to be known as Christian, what should be their hallmark? It shouldn’t be by our laws that they will know we are Christians. It is by none other than our love. That which Jesus insisted was the supreme law, the supreme theology, the supreme doctrine above all others—love for God, and (like unto it) love for neighbors. This is how the Church must be identified. And if a community, and accordingly, a nation is to be known as such, it must be above all else because of how it practices love.

This much I know: how I’ve argued and voted for years has been with very little concern or interest in love. But I’ve only been a good little practitioner and advocate of my evangelical culture—all along we evangelicals have tended to be suspicious of love’s relevance to politics. That’s “liberal” domain.

If anything, to vote Christian has meant to legislate truth while marginalizing and denying love’s relevance in our politics. In fact, we evangelical types actually like to admit that legislating the application of love for our neighbors—above all other legal standards—is not what we mean by a “Christian” nation. This, though we all know what Jesus’ standard was.

We evangelicals are a people whose theology favors grace transcending law. So how is it we can deem it unjust to legislate mercy and social justice, and yet with that same political tongue, ferociously demand the legislation of morality? (As if the latter were anything but meaningless without the former, a la 1 Cor. 13.)

How is it? Why, by keeping love in its place, that’s how—behind church walls and out of politics. We are like little children who believe love to be a limited commodity. If we go handing out love by way of government, what will we have left to give? It’s as if allowing the government to represent our loving interests might somehow prevent us from practicing love ourselves. We dare not employ allies of love lest we excuse ourselves from doing even the little we already can.

It’s as false a dichotomy as they come.

Love has no bounds—there’s no good reason why in a Christian’s sensibility love should be applied only through non-profit ministry. Christ called us to practice his love always and by all means, political included (perhaps especially).

So I confess I’ve cordoned off love from my political views. I’ve so easily found my mind and language being conformed to the rather worldly ways of those on the “right” side, for whom “socialism,” and “redistribution,” and “class warfare” are anathemas. And the insidious rationale has followed accordingly: I’ve actually found my language conforming around wealth accumulation, as if it were my tacit supreme virtue in political discourse.

Of course, we all know better than to claim materialism as orthodoxy by Christ’s standard. But many of you are like me on this (I’ve heard us): we whistle quite easily in the darkness of political orthopraxy.

Here’s a timely example. Do we really need to speculate very much as to where Jesus and his early-church apostles would come down on Christians’ willingness to pay more taxes, just so the sick may be cared for, even by a social medicine? What do we suppose Jesus’ response might be to the argument against legislating for a society’s welfare, simply because of its guilt by association with “socialist” ideals?

“No, Jesus,” we want to protest. “You don’t understand. Of course we believe the church should be helping the sick and caring for the poor as best it can, through its own resources. We just don’t believe we should be expecting (and paying) our government to be doing it instead.”

And I’m sorry, but only lately I’ve been hearing Jesus ask, “Instead?”

When you start actually believing in the priorities of Christ’s kingdom, you really do need to ask some pretty hard questions of your culture, especially when election time comes round. You can bet Jesus will in good time; it’s telling that the rest of the world is asking those hard questions right now.

Why is it that evangelicals can be so opposed to their nation’s corporately helping and loving its neighbors?

And why is it tantamount to anti-Christ heresy when a nation should pay taxes for (of all things) feeding its poor or caring for its sick?

I’ve been finding it very disturbing when I start to think biblically about these matters. More and more in these desperate economic times, when we Christians like to lead the way to circling fiscal wagons and protecting our own, I am wondering: to how many party platforms (and their constituencies) will Jesus have to conclude, “Away—I never knew you”?

A theoretically grace-centered electorate should be living up to its Christian name by prioritizing the unearned favor for all of its neighbors—especially its weakest and most vulnerable.

Just imagine: what if the Evangelical obsession for personal rights could be reputed for its dedication to the pursuit of a neighbor’s happiness . . . not its own? What if we actually were thought of as being just plain weird that way—radically other-centered, even? What if we were resented by the world, not for trying to impose moral rules upon it, but rather for imposing mercy? What if the dogma for which our nation’s broad populace found us to be unconditional was love, not their surrender?

Christians—they are so frustrating. They’re always pushing that James’s “true religion” down our throat. They have no right to impose being loving upon us.

Doesn’t it seem tragic that our gut reaction must be, “Impossibly naïve”?

Suspend disbelief for a moment longer, and consider this little retelling of Jesus’ parable for the uninspired paraphrase that it is. (If it’s not true to the letter of Luke 10:5-37, it should be so in spirit):

On one occasion an evangelical lawyer (and rising politico) stood up to show his party’s righteous sympathies with Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what should a nation do to be truly Christian?”

“What is written in the Law?” Jesus replied. “How do you read it?”

“Well,” said the lawyer. “That’s the problem. Our nation doesn’t have several of our party’s platform planks written into law . . . Not yet, anyway.” He smiled, looking around to the crowd as if to say, “Am I right?” to the nods, smiles, and smattered clapping.

“No, not political platforms or legislation,” Jesus retorted. “The Law—the biblical prophets, and the New Testament, if you like. What does God’s word insist is the absolute law above all others’?”

The lawyer answered, “Ah, right . . . well, as you know, that would have to be, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind.’”

More clapping.

Quickly he added, “Oh!” Then waving his finger and rolling his eyes in exaggerated acknowledgement, he confessed, “Of course there’s also, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly, to the letter,” Jesus replied. “And any people who do this could represent themselves as a nation truly living as my kingdom.” Jesus looked back around to the crowd. “Next?”

But the lawyer wanted Jesus to justify his agenda. So he pressed him further. “And who in our God-fearing nation should we consider our neighbors?”

In reply Jesus said: “A certain nation’s evangelical electorate was heading down from primaries to election day, when they were assailed from the left and right by particularly negative ad campaigns. The media battle and news hype stripped them of all security and trust, leaving them unable to act in love: they felt vulnerable, angry, and afraid for the future (especially that of their children).  

“Now in those days leading up to the election, many of the nation’s pastors just happened to be preaching down that same political pathway, following ever so closely upon the heels of the ads. But when they saw in their people the destruction wrought by consuming self-preservation, they nevertheless preached away from perfect love, following instead as quickly as possible after the footsteps of fear and loathing.

“So too, the religious pundits, when they came to that same place of fear-driven politics, deftly passed right on over to the other side of love, favoring their greater interest (and first love)—money. In the name of “good stewardship,” they recognized this threat as the root-of-all-evil that it was—the threat to personal and corporate wealth. And quite naturally they went around it.

“But then there came that same electoral way a motley collection of self-described “Christians.” But these were folks whom all good Evangelicals knew to be nominally Christian at best: post-moderns, emergents, left-leaners, tree huggers, or just old fashioned socialist liberals.

“So these were heading down that same pathway of politics where the evangelical electorate found itself paralyzed against love. And when they saw the immobilizing fear and anger and loathing, they took pity.

“They demonstrated faith to their brothers and sisters through very strange priorities: they sacrificed to provide healthcare that would bandage all wounds; they poured their resources into prioritizing stewardship of creation, above greed for oil; they lifted up social justice for society’s abnormal: the myriad pariah and the globally enslaved. They prioritized love, even above enforcement of moral truth (or qualms for guilt by association). And they actually brought the poor and homeless in and took care of them.

“But then what they did went far beyond “the first mile” of that political way. They took their precious votes and resources, and gave them to the society’s keeper—their agnostic, amoral government. “Help us look after the least of these, our weakest and our most vulnerable,” they said. “And when it comes time to vote, we will reimburse you willingly with our support and (yes, even) our taxes.”

Jesus paused, fixed his gaze upon the lawyer, and asked, “Now which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the electorate, in whom true religion had been left all but dead by self-promoting politics?”

The expert lawyer replied, “I suppose your point is, those who preferred mercy. But—“

Jesus interrupted: “Again you have answered correctly! Now, go and vote likewise.”

Shouldn’t it seem to us an especially bitter irony that we want to call our nation Christian, when our priorities are far more about the love for our dogma and money than love for our outcast and marginalized? It should be no less bitter that inevitably, all of our world knows we will vote accordingly, en masse. We will vote for our evangelical culture’s standards of a Christian nation, not our Bible’s. We want to be a nation that is Christian in its moral rectitude, regardless of societal wellbeing—in its so-called truth, regardless of love.

But then we should know better, after all—there is no such thing as a truly Christian nation at heart, and there never really has been . . . not by Christ’s standards for a kingdom, anyway. And in all fairness, there probably could never be such in this fallen world, this side of Christ’s return. (Yes, there’s always our eschatology that can save us from our calling.)

Indeed, we do know better. Christians from a nation “of this world” can still be Christian to this world. In good conscience we can actually show ourselves to be quite “strange” and “alien” to our own beloved nation and its culture, just as the apostle Peter described (1 Peter 2:9-12). We’ll even confess (when pressed) with our Lord, that our “kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). This is because our patriotism is for Christ’s kingdom, above any of this world. We’ll embrace the folly of holiness—of love for neighbors, over love for money and power and self.

So when it comes to Christians’ voting, how do we suppose Jesus would judge sheep-voting versus goat-voting (a la Matt. 25:37-45)?  Indulge me in one more biblical reframing (though much closer to the inspired):

The righteous [voter] will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”

The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did [even in your political choices] for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me . . . Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do [or vote] for [the sake of] the least of these, you did not do for me.”

p.s. It should be noted, no elephants or donkeys were harmed in the writing of this essay.

—–
Craig Bubeck is Director of Product Development for Wesleyan Publishing House, in Indianapolis, IN. He is also a published non-fiction author, a freelance editor and writer, and he has served in various senior-level editorial roles for CBA industry publishers over the past 15 years (including Scripture Press, Victor Books, and David C. Cook). In addition, for over 20 years Craig has been a regular adjunct professor of English at several colleges.

This article was originally published at Internet Monk

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