Not long ago someone challenged me about the role of religious leaders in politics. In today’s contentious political environment, it troubled her to hear religious leaders using the name of Jesus as they advocated political views. Jesus, she said, was not political. He was only about God. A few months later I was confronted by an online piece claiming liberals, all of whom are socialists, have misused Jesus’ name because he was really a first century libertarian. Jim Wallis and my own presiding bishop, Michael Curry, lead a politically oriented movement to reclaim the name of Jesus. It’s not new. For good or ill there is a long history of religious leaders having a lot to say in the political arena. Preachers in the black community have long been vocal advocates for political reforms affecting civil rights. Conservative white Protestants have not been shy about supporting conservative politicians, and Catholic clergy are all over the map but seldom reticent about having their political say. All in the name of Jesus.
Well, there you go. It’s difficult to understand in today’s environment of deeply partisan electoral politics that politics in the larger sense is the art of deciding among ourselves the kind of society we want to live in. Partisanship has a legitimate role, but there’s more to it than just that. Religious leaders have their role too, and as a Christian, it’s to their part in it that I write.
Hans Küng offered a thought that may be helpful. The name of Jesus, he said, signifies power, protection, and refuge. It’s opposed to inhumanity, oppression, untruthfulness, and injustice. It stands for humanity, freedom, justice, truth, and love (Küng: On Being A Christian, 547). A little later on he suggests that Jesus is not what he called “an optimal model” to be copied in every detail, but a “basic model” to be realized in an infinite number of ways according to time, place and person. That leaves a lot of wiggle room.
Because of the wiggle room, it’s not helpful advice for anyone who wants Jesus to be an immovable rock, known in one definitive way, and that’s the right way. But it is helpful advice for Christian libertarians, socialists, and those in between, who want to sit in conversation about how best to organize the society in which they live together so it can become better at how it demonstrates humanity toward all, assures personal freedom, protects from oppression, provides equal justice, rewards truthfulness, and expresses love toward one another.
Among followers of Christ, there will be arguments about what it means to be humane, free, just, and loving. There will certainly be arguments about how truth is to be understood. As long as the argument remains committed to following Jesus wherever he leads, they will not go too far off course. If, on the other hand, they move their own agendas ahead of Jesus, the conversation will fall off the cliff. Keeping Jesus at the forefront is simple, and also hard. The simple part is to measure everything against the Ten Commandments, Sermon on the Mount, Two Greatest Commandments, and the New Commandment. The hard part is exercising the prayerful discipline to do it.
Having said that, a pious claim to follow Jesus can also be an excuse for doing little or nothing: ignoring obvious issues of inhumanity, oppression, injustice, and untruthfulness in the interest of stability, predictability, and keeping peace. After all, who can deny that every side is represented by good people of good intention? This is where things get muddy, because there’s no promise of equivalency between differing views in an argument about humanity, freedom, justice, truth, and love. If nothing else, it’s what King’s well known Letter from Birmingham Jail pointed out. Broods of vipers are still broods of vipers no matter what their ecclesial rank or public acclaim. Blind guides are still blind guides no matter how often they shout the name of Jesus. And tepid followers who are neither hot nor cold are still worthy of being spit out.
Another way to keep a constructive Jesus led conversation from going anywhere is to claim the right to speak for Jesus because it’s Jesus’ own agenda for which one is speaking. It helps to add that after a long night of prayer, God put it into one’s mind to say it. “I speak for Jesus because it’s Jesus’ position, and God told me to do it.” Who could argue with that? Jesus maybe? Well, you never know, so put it in brackets and get back to the issue at hand.
Naming the issue is to name the sin. To name the sin is to open the door to repentance, not to guilt, but to a new direction. It gets complicated because we (or at least I) don’t like changing directions when we’re certain the one we’re on is the right one, and all others are wrong. And we’re quick to name the sin of the other, with disbelief that they stubbornly stick to it, astounded at their temerity for throwing the sin hand-grenade right back at us.
It all happens. To keep from getting derailed, go back to the basics. How does the conversation about the political issue at hand measure up to the Ten Commandments, Sermon on the Mount, Two Greatest Commandments, and the New Commandment?