“Of course I’m political. I’m trying to follow Jesus!”
Perhaps with a bit too much exasperation, that’s what I said by way of a response. The “constructive criticism” he laid at my feet amounted to this: “For a Christian you’re way too focused on social and political things, and not enough on spiritual things.”
Interestingly, over the years I’ve heard this criticism from opposing sides in the religious debate. Atheists and Christians alike have argued to me that Christianity ought to just stay out of the public square.
Too much mischief in our history for Christians to go mucking about in the world of law, and finance, and public morality. And believe me, I understand. Christians have managed to screw up a lot of good things by insisting that everybody else should do it our way.
So, it’s no wonder that some of my atheist friends get antsy when Christians start talking about advocacy and activism. Who wouldn’t? Images of placard-wielding bigots screaming hate in the name of Jesus immediately come to mind when the subject comes up. Westboro Baptist Church. (I know, low-hanging fruit, right?) Condemn them all and let God sort them out … wait, no need to bother God with all that judgment, when Christians seem perfectly capable of pronouncing on it right now as God’s prosecutorial proxies.
Every time Christians start screwing around in politics, the thinking goes, somebody ends up burned at the stake. The Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, the Scopes Monkey trials, Franklin Graham and Pat Robertson … none of them our finest work.
Let’s be honest, it’s never enough for us to have a cultural leg up; we’ve always got to try to be the boss. And not the nice, go-ahead-and-take-the-rest-of-the-week-off-to-tend-to-your-ailing-child kind of boss either, but the mean, spiteful Dabney-Coleman-in-9-to-5 kind of boss.
But what if Christians didn’t try to be the boss? What if we gave up the pretense that our primary responsibility involves guarding against the depredations of a cultural “war on Christmas” or policing everyone’s bedroom, and took as our guiding principle Jesus’ command to love everyone — including our enemies and those whom other folks consider unlovable? Maybe that might ease some fears. (Of course, even attempting to hold to that standard of public engagement didn’t prevent people from imploring Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, Jr. to keep their religious fingers out of the political cookie jar.)
On the other hand, some of my Christian friends have been just as vocal in their complaints about mixing religion and politics: “Christianity is about a personal relationship with Jesus, not about all that political stuff.” In this popular version of Christian theology, Christianity is about one thing only — getting people’s heavenly bus passes stamped. Make sure people pray, read the Bible, go to church, and believe the right stuff. Everything else takes a back seat to what happens after you die.1
To these folks, focusing on politics is taking your eye off the theological ball. The most important question isn’t about whether people have sufficient health insurance, but whether those people have adequate fire insurance. Poverty, hunger, homelessness, racism, systemic injustice are, for some segments of Christianity, issues largely unrelated to personal salvation.
But what if they are related? What if salvation has everything to do with how we respond to poverty, homelessness, racism, and systemic injustice? What if your “personal relationship to Jesus” is informed not just by how much you pray or whether you have the proper view of the trinity, but by how you treat the people Jesus had a nasty habit of hanging out with — you know, the folks on the fringes … the ones on food stamps, the ones who get fired for being gay, the ones whose children languish in jail cells on non-violent drug possession charges, the ones who come to this country as refugees trying to escape the death and violence in their homelands?
What if salvation has everything to do with politics?
Jesus seemed to think so (Matthew 25:40), and he’s the one I’m trying to follow. So, of course I’m political.
1. I know. I can hear the cries of indignation: “Straw man! Stereotype!” I understand that this particularly snarky description doesn’t apply to all Christians. However, as a description of some strains of belief it is true enough to underwrite the popular cultural trope of the Christian who’s “so heavenly minded he’s no earthly good.” In fact, I’ve been that guy. So, please don’t email me. ↩