It is astonishing to me that politicians who are eager to identify themselves as Christians so readily declare the irrelevance of Jesus. Not that they claim he is totally irrelevant. They are perfectly willing to acknowledge his importance in the fenced-in territory of private life. But when it comes to public life, the influence of Jesus is simply not welcome. Yes, he can have an unsubstantial ceremonial role. These politicians gladly appeal to his name while on the campaign trail and at public events they might fondly speak of him. But that’s about it.
Food stamps were a topic on Capitol Hill last week. The House Agriculture Committee approved legislation that would reform farm subsidies and trim the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program by roughly $2.5 billion a year, leaving an additional nearly two million people without needed help. A former Jesuit priest, now a congressman, pointed to the parables of Jesus and his teaching in the Gospel of Matthew chapter 25 regarding the importance of caring for the poor.
A congressman who opposes action that would enable more people to have access to food stamps took exception. “I read this chapter of Matthew 25 to speak to me as an individual,” Texan Mike Conaway, a Southern Baptist, said. “I don’t read it to speak to the United States government. And so I would take a little bit of umbrage with you on that. Clearly, you and I are charged that we do those kinds of things but [our government is not] charged with that.”
In fact Jesus never addressed people as “individuals” in contrast to whatever else they might be, perhaps citizens or members of a profession or class or race. Nothing we find in Jesus –or writers of the New Testament- suggests that what Jesus had to say was reserved for some narrow portion of life and without bearing on other significant portions of it. But Rep. Conaway has lots of company in trying to limit the relevance of Jesus. It is crucial for them to do this to free them to throw their support to priorities and values that fly in the face of what Jesus said and did.
While I agree that Jesus didn’t suggest how to run governments, neither did he use the restrictive category that the good Congressman labeled “an individual.” Instead Jesus called people to be disciples. Discipleship is not something we do as “individuals.” It is what we practice with others and for others as we serve God. And discipleship is not something that ceases to apply when we start dealing with the government.
While Jesus didn’t tell governments what to do, he did tell his disciples the sorts of things they should do. And the things he wanted them to do, were to be done everywhere. Certainly a case can be made for the belief that a disciple shouldn’t be involved in the work of government. If one can’t follow Jesus and at the same time do what is necessary to govern then a choice must be made. Obviously, Rep. Conaway doesn’t claim to take that position. Instead he believes that he, a Christian, can be involved in the government but promoting the priorities and practices of Jesus regarding the care of the poor are irrelevant in this area. Apparently, for him Capitol Hill is a discipleship-free zone.
An equally misguided, supposedly Christian companion in Congress, Rep. Doug LaMalfa, stated, “It always looks good when politicians can go say, we brought a bunch of money to this project here or that project there, standing next to this big, giant blown-up check somewhere and saying, ‘look what we did for you.’ That’s all someone else’s money. We should be doing this as individuals, helping the poor.”
Taxes are not simply “someone else’s money.” Rather these are the funds necessary for the operation of a safe and decent country. They are the funds owed by citizens and other residents of a nation to insure crucial services are made available for the common good. And, like it or not, the payment of taxes was supported in scripture (Romans 13:6-7). The concern shown by some politicians about spending “other people’s money” apparently does not extend to paying for weapons systems and wars that many people oppose.
I don’t hear LaMalfa and other politicians of his ilk expressing any sense of responsibility about “other people’s money” when it comes to spending massive amounts of it for instruments and endeavors of death. Recently Congress has insisted on continuing the flow of money for tanks that the Pentagon has said it doesn’t even need or want. Yet there was no outcry from those in Congress who now want to withhold adequate funding for food stamps. Useless military expenditures are being supported by Christian politicians while real human needs are being treated as concerns that are not appropriate for the government to address. Nothing resembling discipleship can be seen in this posture.
Hunger and food insecurity are not problems that are going to be resolved by “doing this as individuals” any more than the wars and weapons systems will be paid for by private donations. Disciples whose vision and lives are shaped by Jesus have no basis for giving priority to projects and programs of death over those that improve the quality of life for people in need. There is nothing commendable about Christian politicians whose practice and priorities suggest that Jesus is largely irrelevant.
Craig M. Watts is the minister of Royal Palm Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Coral Springs, Florida and Co-Moderator of Disciples Peace Fellowship. He authored the book Disciple of Peace: Alexander Campbell on Pacifism, Violence and the State (Doulos Christou Press: Indianapolis, 2005) and his essays have appeared in many journals such as Cross Currents, Encounter, the Otherside, DisciplesWorld and more. Craig blogs on the Disciples Peace Fellowship’s, “Shalom Vision.”