The Intersection of our Political and Spiritual Lives
Obviously, somebody can be a Christian without being overtly political. I assume that there are, for example, cloistered people in religious orders who never vote and who aren’t political in any direct sense of the word. They might be political in their prayers, but they are certainly not political in any way we would normally think of it. And so, yes, it’s completely possible to be non-political and be a Christian.
However, I would argue that a mature Christian faith, for somebody living in society, does involve a political dimension. I think the political passion of the Bible is at least half of the Biblical witness. So I would say that, minimally, mature Christianity should affect the way you vote. I’m not just saying that a mature Christian should vote. I’m really saying it should affect the way you vote. It should sway your voting in the direction of economic justice and concern for the well-being of the poor and the marginalized.…
So, yes, I would say a mature Christianity that sees the whole of the Biblical witness would be very much concerned about the political order as the way we create a more just society. It’s not just about charity. It’s about tax policy. It’s about health care. It’s about all of those systems that are ultimately political systems.
For many people a personal acceptance of Christ as savior is key to their faith, and developing and nurturing their personal relationship with God is their number one priority. Do they need to broaden this vision?
Many Christians speak of the importance of accepting Jesus as your personal lord and savior. And I agree, that’s critically important. I would say, however, it’s equally important to accept Jesus as your political lord and savior.
To accept Jesus as our political lord and savior affects how we think wealth should be distributed in society. It affects whether and under what conditions we think war is justified. So, a way of following Jesus that emphasizes only personal lordship sees only half of the message. It’s about a political lordship as well.
How can we integrate our faith into our politics without creating an atmosphere of divisiveness and resentment between those whose views are similarly grounded in faith but whose conclusions over policy differ radically?
It’s a very difficult question. Let me use an extreme example that I don’t think applies to the United States today. Go back to Germany in the 1930s when there are Christians who are enthusiastic supporters of Hitler and Christians who are very uneasy about Hitler, and some who are deeply critical of Hitler. Now, should we say, “For the sake of unity in the church, we just shouldn’t talk about Hitler?” I think all of us would say “No, no…that’s a critically important issue.”
In the American church today, we face questions like “Is it legitimate for the United States to start wars?” If Christians disagree, that needs to be talked about among those Christians and between those Christians on both sides of the question. We should not set the question aside because we don’t want conflict within the church.
Thousands and thousands of lives are at stake, and on Christian moral grounds, as well as grounds of national self-interest, it’s an extraordinarily important question. The most helpful way to talk about such questions is to do so in the context of shared worship, shared prayer, thoughtful exposure to the voices of the tradition, so that we, both on the left and the right, submit our political opinions to the working of the spirit through the Bible and the voice of the larger tradition. Our private opinions about political matters need to be subjected to the searching scrutiny of the spirit.
Have you witnessed examples of people coming together and new understandings emerging?
I’ve seen it to some extent in conversations about the status of gay and lesbian people in the church. People who came into the conversation strongly committed to what they saw as the traditional Christian position had their minds changed after talking with the parents of gay and lesbian people, or with gay and lesbian people themselves. However, I have not been part of any discussions that have tried to bring together Christians who strongly favor our current foreign policy and Christians who are strongly opposed to it. So I don’t have any examples of that.
How can we ensure that the politics we claim to be Christian are truly grounded in love and compassion?
My best suggestion is that a group of people, whether they’re already on the same page or on different pages, do a Bible study together of the Book of Amos. I suggest the Book of Amos because it’s not very long—9 chapters—and because the political passion of the Bible is perhaps clearer in the Book of Amos than anywhere else. When I suggest a Bible study, I don’t mean simply a single session; I think it should be at least six sessions, and people should actually read the book together, going through the chapters verse by verse. It could be done two chapters per session for four sessions, with an introductory session of group-building. A sixth session would be centered around “What did you get from this?”
Such a Bible study does not guarantee that the political opinions formed are genuinely from God, but at least it will be a political conversation that includes the Bible itself, and not simply people combating one another with their strongly held opinions.
You chose an Old Testament book rather than one from the New Testament. Is there a reason?
Partly because the Book of Amos concentrates so exclusively on politics— there’s not a lot of other material that can distract people—and because the prophets of the Old Testament are speaking to a nation—a people, Israel, still living together.
Much of the New Testament is for very small, scattered communities of Christians living in many different parts of the Mediterranean world. The issue there isn’t “How do we structure the society as a whole so that it reflects faithfulness to God?”
The prophets, however, are still speaking to a single society.
There certainly is a political dimension to the New Testament; two of the most familiar phrases from the New Testament are religious-political phrases. “The kingdom of God” is utterly central to the message of Jesus and at the same time is a political metaphor in the first-century world, because kingdom was a political reality. There was the kingdom of Herod. The kingdom of Rome. Here is Jesus speaking about the Kingdom of God. To his hearers, that would have meant “this must be something different from the kingdom of Herod and the kingdom of Rome.”
The other very familiar phrase from the New Testament that is strongly political as well as religious is that short phrase, “Jesus is Lord.” Lord was one of the titles of the Roman emperor. To say “Jesus is Lord” is to say the emperor is not. To say “Jesus is Lord” is a radical criticism of the imperial power of the day. The New Testament as whole is a struggle between the lordship of Christ and the lordship of Caesar or the lordship of empire. So the political dimension very much exits in the New Testament. Yet the wonderful concentration that we find in Amos is what makes it such a fine book for a group Bible study.
So, would it be fair to say that for you, a spiritual person is one who is also active politically?
In the Bible, both New Testament and Old Testament, I see the personal and the political as two sides of the same coin. And if you don’t have one of those sides, you don’t have a coin. Now, I also would say that in the development and maturation of an individual Christian’s life, that individual Christian might be much more aware of the personal, and become aware of the political only later possibly, possibly not ever. But nonetheless they are joined together in the Bible.It’s not that the Bible is primarily about our personal relationship with God and oh, by the way, there are a few political implications. The Bible is a pervasively political document from beginning to end.
The story of ancient Israel begins with the Exodus from Egypt. What is that? It’s liberation from an oppressive economic system, it’s liberation from a system of political domination, and it’s a religious liberation. The same thing is true with the prophets of Israel. They are God-intoxicated voices of religious social protest against the monarchy and aristocracy of their time. Then Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God; Paul says Jesus is Lord; the Book of Revelation is about the struggle between the lordship of Christ and the lordship of empire. So the Bible is pervasively political from beginning to end, even as it is also about our relationship with God.