On Monday night (Oct 23rd,) Jim Wallis and I had a public dialogue at Bethel University (St. Paul, MN). The topic was, “Politics and Faith: Do They Mix?” The Bethel auditorium seats 1800 and it was packed. I mean PACKED – people sitting behind us on stage, up in the choir section, on the floors. CNN and several Newspapers were there. It was a huge gathering.
Now, I’m told bloggers like the “inside scoop” and “personal dimension” on stories. I don’t really blog, so I wouldn’t know, but I’ll trust my blog-junkie source, Marcia Erickson and start by offering some of my personal reflections. The evening began with Jim and I (and several others) having a wonderful dinner together. Driving separately, we were supposed to go right from dinner to the discussion (a 10 minute drive). What happens? Mr. quasi-autistic airhead (me) got in his car and started driving to my church – the opposite direction of Bethel! Wonderful. I was over half way to my church before I realized it. When I finally got to Bethel (a few minutes before we were suppose to begin) traffic was backed up one mile to get into the campus parking lot…NOT GOOD!
Fortunately, I have wonderful friends in my small group. They phoned me wondering where I was, and when I told them about my situation, several came out and relieved me of my car duties so I could run in get the discussion going. (I LOVE YOU GUYS!!!!). When your brain is as incapable of doing “normal life”, you need good friends!
Any way, I have for years been a fan of Sojourners and I deeply respect Jim Wallis. The man has been a tireless and fearless champion of social justice issues among evangelicals. At the same time, I have been a bit fuzzy about the relationship of my Kingdom theology and his. Brian McLaren, a very good friend of Jim, as well as several others have told me that Jim and I are basically on the same page. Yet, it seemed to me that our views were in certain respects quite different. So the invitation to dialogue with Jim in public was both a huge honor and a wonderful opportunity for clarification.
I personally thought the dialogue was very helpful. I think I now better understand Jim’s position, and he my position – and, consequently, we both see where we agree and disagree. Clearly, we both adamantly agree that the Gospel is not just about a “personal relationship with Jesus.” The Gospel is not the true Gospel unless it has revolutionary social implications. Jesus cares deeply about social justice issues such as racism, sexism, poverty, social injustice, etc., and so must all who pledge their life to him. We also both adamantly agree that large segments of the evangelical Church have been seduced by right-wing politics and that this is damaging our witness to society and the world.
So where do we disagree? As I said in my opening statement last night, so far as I can tell, our most fundamental disagreement is in the “bull’s-eye” that we’re aiming at. Jim has for years done a wonderful job keeping Christians informed on social justice issues, but he does it primary for the purpose of motivating Christians to participate in politics in a certain way. This is his “bull’s-eye,” and I frankly think it’s a mistake.
My conviction is that our target should rather be to motivate Christians to engage social justice issues in unique Kingdom ways, without relying on the help of government or politics. Jesus was all about transforming society, but never by political means. As much as people tried, Jesus never let himself get drawn into the political issues of his day. I believe we should do the same. While I’m of course not opposed to Christians voting and participating in politics however they feel led, the particular way a person does this isn’t part of their uniquely Kingdom identity. Of course Christians should vote their “faith and values” – and Jim encourages people to “vote all their values “ (in contrast to the Religious Right which he believes overly focuses on the pro-life and marriage amendment issues–at the expense of social justice issues). But what is uniquely Kingdom about this? Doesn’t everyone try to vote all his or her values? Does anyone intentionally try to vote against any of his or her values? (By the way, I strongly suspect these sorts of slogans arise because one group of people can’t believe that another group could share their faith and values and yet vote different then they do. So it looks to them like the other group isn’t really voting their “faith and values.”)
In any event, our uniqueness as followers of Jesus isn’t in how we vote; it’s in how we live, how we love, how we’re willing to sacrifice our time and resources for others. Following Jesus doesn’t give us any privileged wisdom on how to fix and run society by political means, but it should give us a greater willingness to transform society by Jesus-looking means – that is, through the power of self-sacrificial love.
Again, I deeply appreciate Jim’s tireless work in raising the awareness of Christians on social justice issues. But if our “bulls-eye” is political engagement rather than simply individually and collectively imitating Jesus’ self-sacrificial love, we are doing something for which there is absolutely no biblical precedent. Not only this, but the political “bull’s-eye” can have at least two unfortunate consequences.
First, if our “bull’s-eye” is encouraging people to participate in politics in a certain way, we run the risk of people getting distracted from our call to sacrificially serve the world Jesus’ way. As David Kuo so eloquently testifies in his recent book Tempting Faith, there’s something seductive about political power. If our focus is on politics, we can easily begin caring more about having our “superior” ideals and plans win than we do about engaging in the far more difficult task of sacrificing ourselves for others.
Think about this: If you raise Christians’ awareness of social justice issues with the goal of motivating them individually and collectively to imitate Jesus in response to those issues, it will in all likelihood affect how they vote. If Christians care about social justice issues and are informed about social justice issues, it will be hard for them to vote the wrong way when there’s an obvious right way to vote. But this will take care of itself. But if you instead raise Christians’ awareness of social justice issues with the goal of motivating them to participate in politics in certain ways, it will not automatically mean that they’ll also engage in the far more difficult task of imitating Jesus in response to those issues. Living sacrificially never takes care of itself. Our focus, then, should always be on BEING the church, the body of Christ, the Jesus-looking Kingdom of God.
Second, when we make political involvement our target, we are inevitably tempted to think that our particular opinion about how Christians should vote is “the Christian way” to vote. Now, to his credit, Jim Wallis tries hard to remain non-partisan, repeating over and over that “God is neither Democrat nor Republican.” But he nevertheless ends up with a set of (mostly democratic sounding) opinions that he believes does in fact constitute “God’s Politics” (the name of his book). Unfortunately, the minute we attach a “God” or “Christian” label to one set of political opinions, we legitimize others attaching the label “God” or “Christian” to their set of political opinions. And now the Church gets divided over how God wants to tweak the kingdom of the world – something Jesus never so much as hinted at being interested in! Instead of being united as we imitate Jesus while building the kingdom of God, we’re divided as we imitate congress over how to tweak the kingdom of the world.
The undeniable reality is that political issues are almost always very complex and to some degree ambiguous, to the point where good and decent and Bible-believing people can and do disagree about them. If we forget this and christen our way of working through the political fog as God’s way of working through the fog, we unnecessarily polarize the Church.
I’ll give one illustration of what I’m talking about – one that I discussed last night. Jim Wallis has become rather famous for his trenchant critiques of Republican economics (and most other aspects of the Bush administration). For him, to care about the poor means opposing tax cuts for the wealthy. And since “God’s Politics” clearly involves caring about the poor, he believes all Christians should oppose these tax cuts. Now, I empathize with his political point of view, but is it really this clear cut? Is it the case that all who disagree with Jim are either less concerned with the poor or less informed than he? I personally know some very informed Christians who care deeply about the poor but who passionately believe that, while it may look more sensitive to resist cut taxes for the wealthy in the short run, it actually hurts the poor in the long run.
Of course, both political sides demonize one another. Some Democrats proclaim that Republicans don’t “really” care about the poor and have sold out to the wealthy and corporate America. Some Republicans proclaim that Democrats are “bleeding heart liberals” who are just ensuring votes among the poor while they create economic dependents (i.e., people dependent on welfare). On and on the judgmental mantra goes. Fine. Typical political ugliness. But why should we invite any of this judgmental divisiveness into the church?
The simple fact is that we’ve been called to follow Jesus Christ, not someone’s economic or political ideas – however good and wonderful and brilliant some may think they are. And if we just focused on imitating Jesus Christ, a Republican Matthew and a Democrat Simon would get along just fine, despite their massive political difference. In fact, as they follow Jesus and are increasingly transformed by Jesus, they both might just find their political ideas morphing in the process, perhaps even coming together in significant ways. But this would take care of itself. By contrast, if Matthew and Simon ever stopped making Jesus their “bull’s-eye” and instead focused on coming up with Jesus’ specific opinions about politics (something he consistently refused to give), it’s not likely they’d both be following Jesus together for very long.
That’s my take on the night, and on where I stand vis-à-vis God’s Politics. While Jim and I have similar visions of the always socially-relevant Kingdom, and while I deeply respect Jim and appreciate all he’s done to make Christians more aware of social justice issues, I really do wish he was shooting at a different bull’s-eye.