New Evangelicals Pt 2: Jesus isn’t on your political spectrum
Recently I heard a news story of a Senator voting against a nominee in the Trump administration, based partly on the [Christian] nominee’s attitude toward people of other faiths. Whatever your thoughts on the ethics or constitutionality of this Senator’s decision, it got me to thinking. For us who identify as evangelicals — people of the gospel — what does that identification mean practically, especially (in this case) as it pertains to leadership, politics, and interfacing in a public forum with people of other faiths, whom evangelical theology affirms are not under the umbrella of Christian saving faith? Is this attitude inherently discriminatory, or disrespectful to other faiths? Can a leader who holds such views be trusted as a public official to act fairly and justly toward all?
What is the goal of evangelical theology? The practical objectives for life on earth? Is is to create a theocratic utopia a la The Handmaid’s Tale, of which it is often accused? Is it to “convert” the entire world to Christian faith? Any consideration of the definition and form of true evangelical (gospel-centric) thought, this practical concern quickly becomes a foremost concern. Clearly Christians want everyone to embrace Christ as Savior and Lord, but knowing that this will not happen, what does that mean for continuing to pray and work for the kingdom of God here and now, often with people who do not share our faith?
In my previous post about “the new evangelicals,” I spoke of the natural desire to form a new tribe to reflect new values or identity — more and more I feel this tension with fellow evangelicals who insist on making peripheral [political] issues centrally important issues. Rather than forming a new “group” on the classic spectrum of anarchist/libertarian/ conservative/liberal/communist, how do we truly become Jesus people who engage our culture with the Gospel without becoming just another political or theological group on a spectrum? How do we engage the culture while disengaging the culture wars?
If we look to the ministry of Jesus as an example, he indeed did form a new tribe, but unlike every other tribe, they were not “on the spectrum,” so to speak. It was intended to be something else altogether. In one sense, borrowing the good and beautiful from all the other tribes, yes, but really they were more than that. Jesus people were and still are a community that operates by a completely different standard than the systems of the world, be those systems conservative, liberal, moderate, or otherwise. The way of Christ is not about finding “middle ground” or simply an additional way of thinking about certain subjects. It’s a new thing altogether, or to borrow/paraphrase Jesus’ words, “change your minds and hearts, because the rule and reign of God is right now breaking in on earth” (Matthew 4:17).
Jesus, in the tradition of all Israel’s prophets, isn’t talking about changing one’s mind from conservative to liberal, pro-choice to pro-life, anarchist to socialist, as we often think of change. He’s talking about a much more fundamental shift away from me being the god of my life to Yahweh being the God of my life.
The first commandment, in other words: “Love Yahweh your God with ALL your heart…”
The ancient world was not entirely unlike our own. The principal difference between 1st century Palestine and 21st century America is that they were oppressed, where we are… not. We are the Roman empire of the day, for better or for worse. But the groups into which humans classify themselves are as old as time, and were not so different in the days of Jesus as they are today:
1) the “Pagans”: Romans, idol-worshippers, sinners, unclean in some way, “outsiders” to the community of faith.
1st century name: Gentiles.
2) the “Conservatives”: resistant to change, high sense of morality, see economic and political failure as consequence of or punishment for failure to follow God’s law.
1st century name: Pharisees.
3) the “Liberals”: skeptical of all things supernatural, willing (too willing?) to compromise doctrine and values for political expediency.
1st century name: Sadducees.
4) the “Separatists”: fundamentalists, see the solution to the world’s brokenness in retreating from the world into their own isolated communities, where they try to force-build their own version of the “kingdom of God.” (Irony?)
1st century name: Essenes.
5) the “Anarchists”: ranging from the libertarians, to the anti-establishment to homegrown vigilantes and terrorists — the problem is the government; freedom/liberty is the ultimate goal.
1st century name: Zealots.
The first followers of Jesus came from all of these groups. It would be easy to see the way of Christ as a kind of synthesis of all these worldviews, a “best of” mixtape of sorts, not dissimilar to how many in our culture look at religion — many ways to God, every religion has some things right, blind men describing the elephant, etc. There was a group (more like many groups) like this in the ancient world as well, a religious subgroup that had some crossover influence in early Christianity: they were called the Gnostics, named for the Greek word for knowledge, which they apparently had secret insight into.
21st century name: Oprah-ism, Mormonism, “Restorationist” movements…
No, Jesus’ way was and is not a synthesis of all of the above. It was not on the left-right spectrum, as if true Christianity is just a moderate or balanced position between two cultural extremes. “Balance” is almost always viewed as a safe and wise position to take (read: compromise?), yet the embrace of the teachings of Jesus have never once made any human being safer. The Gospel has always been radical, even subversive, because it refused to pledge allegiance to the flag of the United Empire of Rome and its god-appointed, often deified, emperors. In many ways, Christian teaching had and has always had similarities to the conservative subgroup — most likely because of the finely tuned sense of morality and justice of the Jesus people. But the way of Jesus is not conservatism or moralism any more than it is All Dogs [Elephants] Go To Heaven.
Moreover, Christian groups throughout the centuries have always been the most notorious of the Separatists, from the monks of the ancient and medieval world to the Anabaptists of the Reformation to a group literally called Separatists in colonial America to today’s Amish community.
And of course, the idea of fighting for freedom has always been close to the heart of Jesus followers. After all, Jesus fought for our freedom, though ironically by submitting to violence, not perpetrating it, as most freedom fighting efforts eventually embrace.
One of the chief tasks and tensions of the people of God throughout history has been to be none of these, even while being accused of being any combination of them. We march to the beat of a different drum, but not as Separatists, fleeing to the desert (or Massachusetts) to build the “kingdom of God” that so often eventuates in a kingdom of a man or men merely (claiming to) speak in the name of God.
So what sets “evangelicals” — people of the Gospel — apart? We too often these days are associated with conservatives, or perhaps even fundamentalists, the Pharisees and Essenes of our day. Certainly even the earliest followers of Jesus had high concentrations of Pharisees in their midst, but the Pharisees in the early Jesus communities had to lay down their rights and die to their pet doctrines and values as much as anyone, probably more so!
If we are to be true to the name evangelical, our goals in and for the world must be gospel-centric. What does that mean? Pharisees (ancient and modern) tend to take “gospel-centric” to mean that everyone, regardless of faith commitment or conviction, submits to some moralistic code in which certain behaviours are outlawed or at least frowned upon enough to prevent their widespread practice (read: homosexuality and general sexual liberation).
“Liberals” (Sadducees) see “gospel-centric,” if they would even use that word, as meaning little more than a commitment to social justice — good works in the world — essentially gutting Jesus’ teaching of any of its supernatural/miraculous and often even eternal elements.
The practical goal of the Gospel is to see God’s kingdom established on earth (Matthew 6:9), but through what means? Politics, violence, and war? I hope by now it is clear that these means are hopelessly misguided and antithetical to the teachings of Jesus. Conversely, is it simply an ethic of “nice?” Is our religion to be kindness alone, as the Dalai Lama so eloquently put it? Or is it more? Is it some happy middle ground between these two?
I dare say it is both — and neither. it is human flourishing. It is shalom — all that is good and right and peaceful in the world, brought about not by the coercion of politics, not by a reigning ethic of “niceness,” not through restrictive moralism or open-handed libertarianism, but through the gospel — the transforming power of the miraculous and mystical spirit of Jesus. No, the gospel is not purely rational, or even rational at all! What is rational about loving your enemies, or fighting for the lowest rung on the ladder? Nothing — but in God’s economy, it is everything. God’s spirit is mysterious and mystical and does not coerce.
Human flourishing can continue to accelerate even as many do not claim the faith of Jesus.
We Jesus people can (must!) still believe the gospel and believe that it is best for all humankind to follow Christ, while understanding that not all will — and we can still accept others as fully human and get on with the goal of human flourishing. We know that not all will see human flourishing as reaching its pinnacle in Christ. What of it? It matters not if they see flourishing as summed up in the word kindness. If we have a grander view of the cosmos than that, informed by our faith, wonderful! Will not kindness alone be an acceptable starting point?
By all means, let us as Jesus people, as evangelicals, lead the way on the kindness train. We need not pursue a theocracy or an oligarchy of clerics or Pences to see God’s kingdom come on earth. In fact, such a goal is decidedly antichrist and personally scares me more than a Bolshevik revolution or Sharia Law.
Instead, we can pursue human flourishing from the foundation of, and to the end of, the gospel — that God is here and means to restore all things to himself — whether or not we all get it right along the way. We will invite all people by the gospel to join us in this great objective of the gospel, whether or not they embrace the gospel.