A Call to Transform Politics
Someone asked me recently what I thought of something “as a member of the Christian Left.” My insides tightened and screeched into a ball. It was as if Freddy Krueger had run his sharpened fingernails across the black board in history class. Christian Left? Left of what? When did I sign that membership card?
Maybe it’s the title of my last book, Left, Right and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics, which was co-written with a Tea-Partier who is also an evangelical Christian. The book does frame me as the one on the left, but if you read my chapters you’ll see that is not my mind or my heart.
In times like these, when politicians are sweating to sway voters to their side, or frame their opponents as the polar opposite—the enemy—it is tempting to begin to define ourselves and each other through the frame of politics. We place each other in convenient little political boxes—boxes not made by scripture or the church, but by politicians and the media.
The political “left” and “right," Dems and GOPers, Progressives and Conservatives claim to stand on fixed points of impervious truth on a linear spectrum that stretches across a horizontal plane from pole to pole. The spectrum’s fixed middle marks the permanent philosophical and political “center.” And, politicians conveniently cry that political party is synonymous with political philosophy. It does not work this way and has never worked this way. Rather politics’ center point is mercurial and its far left and right philosophical boundaries move with the ages. Parties and platforms flip philosophies and shape-shift to match the ethos of the age.
Let’s consider history: In President Abraham Lincoln’s day the Republicans were the economic and social progressives while the Democrats fought to conserve the economic and social status quo. Republican President, Teddy Roosevelt, was a leader in the progressive movement at the turn of the 20th century. A believer in more regulation for business and the conservation of our natural resources for the benefit of the general public, Roosevelt coined the phrase “Square Deal" — a symbol of his domestic agenda, which promised every citizen a fair shake at access to the American Dream.
Likewise, conservative Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower expanded Social Security, continued Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” instituted the interstate highway system, and sent federal troops into the south for the first time since Reconstruction to enforce desegregation policies. His conservative Vice President, Richard Nixon, gained the distinction of becoming only the second president in U.S. history to press for a National Universal Health Care plan.
Democratic President Barack Obama took National Universal Health Care off the table and would not allow it to be considered from the start of his legislative health care battle in 2009. Even the “public option” (a historic middle point) became a political lightning rod and was taken off the table by President Obama. President Jimmy Carter, the hawk in dove’s feathers, escalated the American naval presence in the Persian Gulf and established the Carter Doctrine, which laid the foundation for the last 30+ years of U.S. foreign policy in the Gulf—policy that has prioritized middle east oil reserves as an American interest worthy of military engagement.
And, finally, consider immigration policy. In 1882 the Republicans tried to block legislation that barred Chinese immigrants from entering the country, but the Democratic congress pressed for and passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. It was the first time in U.S. history that legislation blocked a group from immigrating solely based on their race or nation of origin.
The sands of politics and political philosophy shift with the ages. One can anchor herself to political philosophy and find herself in the party of “the enemy” within one generation. Conversely, one can anchor himself to a political party and find his philosophical and theological convictions compromised within one election cycle.
So, I reject the moniker “Christian Left." It is drawn in hasty response to the “Religious Right” a political movement (not a theological one). I do not set the standards of my political engagement in response to some random political point on a line. No. Rather than anchoring my politics on the shifting sand of a linear continuum, I ask a higher question: “What is my axis?” What does my political engagement revolve around? Is it political ideology? Is it political party? Is it biblical theology? I choose the later.
I am a Kingdom Christian, not a leftist Christian, a conservative Christian, nor any other political brand of Christian. I have even moved away from the term progressive Christian. It is too closely associated with that linear political spectrum. No. I am called to be a prophetic Christian. The axis of my political engagement is scripture and the biblical theology of shalom: It sets the standards of my political engagement.
Shalom is what the reign of God smells like. It is what the Kingdom of God looks like. Grounded in the story of creation in Genesis 1-14 and woven through every book of the Bible, the concept of shalom teaches us that we were created in relationship with God, with our selves, with each other, with the rest of creation, and with the systems that govern us. What it means to be one who lives under the reign of God is to be connected with a forceful bond of love in all these relationships. Genesis 3 offers a picture of the consequences of humanity’s grab at its own peace, in its own way (not the Jesus way). When we say to God, “You don’t know what you’re talking about” or “Your word is good for church, but not for real life” or “You are not out for my good,” and we take matters into our own hands, then shalom is shattered. Every relationship in creation is broken.
Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection bring us the ministry of reconciliation. Reconciliation to God, to self, to each other, to the rest of creation, and to the systems that govern us is now possible because Jesus beat death—the one power we all must face. If Jesus beat death, then can he beat the division between races in the U.S.? Yes! If Jesus beat death, then can he beat the record levels of poverty that our nation is experiencing right now? Yes! If Jesus beat death, then can he beat our world’s propensity toward war and domination? Yes! If Jesus beat death, then can he beat our broken immigration system, which is dividing Christian families and holding 11 million immigrants hostage between the signs “No Trespass” and “Help Wanted" at the U.S. border? Yes!
When thinking politics, some Christians say, “Faith! Schmaith! My faith has nothing to do with my politics. The Bible is for church, family, friendships, and personal growth. To know what we’re doing in politics, we must go to the great political philosophers like Adam Smith and Edmond Burke or Thomas Payne and Thomas Jefferson. We must align with the party that most closely affiliates with the philosophers’ admonitions.”
If this is how we set the standards of our political engagement then its axis is not Christ, but culture and we should take the word “Christian” out of the moniker all together. We should call ourselves what we have actually become: political operatives masquerading under the cloak of Christianity. Or worse: pawns.
In its purest form, politics is simply how we organize our life together in society. The polis (the people) works together to determine policies for the common good. Those policies are turned into laws and structures that guide the daily course of life in society. In autocracies a single ruler is responsible for dictating the politics of the day. What the ruler says goes and the daily course of life is structured by the will of one human being. In plutocracies the wealthy and powerful rule (especially those with inherited wealth and power). But in a Democratic Republic like our own, the polis is ultimately responsible for the policies, laws, and structures that guide daily life. As we vote for candidates and ballot measures, we shape our society.
So, here’s the rub: Jesus said the greatest commandment was to “Love God and love your neighbor as you love yourself.” (Mark 12:30-31). In a Democratic Republic our politics have the power to love, hurt, or even oppress our neighbor.
Paul explains that God’s call to humanity is to be reconciled to God and to become ministers of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:17-20) In other words, allow God to do the work of reconciliation in all those relationships broken by our original sin in Genesis 3! Be reconciled to God, be reconciled to our selves, be reconciled within our families, be reconciled to our enemies, be reconciled across ethnic boundaries, be reconciled across economic boundaries, be reconciled across geographic and national boundaries, be reconciled to the rest of creation, and work to reconcile systems (politics, laws, and structures) to their polis. Then partner with God in bringing about the reconciliation of all these relationships in our world!
This is the call of the gospel! And the good news is that Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection makes it possible; not Adam Smith, not Thomas Paine, not William Buckley, not Ayn Rand or even Thomas Jefferson. Jesus and the Jesus “Way” (Acts 19:23) makes the high call of reconciliation possible.
Paul exhorts us: “Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)
The Evangelical church preaches the transformation of our own private morality. We believe God for the transformation of our families and churches. What could it look like if everyone who called themselves Jesus followers allowed their politics to be transformed by the words and ways of Jesus?
This is what it looked like for the first Evangelicals: William Wilberforce stood in the face of an economic system that secured the well-being of the British Empire and Wilberforce called his nation to be transformed—to renew their minds and imagine a world where the Slave Trade is no more.
Charles Finney, Pheobe Palmer, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Beecher Stowe called American Evangelicals to be transformed by the renewing of their minds and imagine a New World where the laws of our land were reconciled to the realities of the Kingdom of God and everyone is equal.
And Evangelicals in mid-19th century New York City looked around at the turn of the Industrial Revolution and saw that men, women, and children were being worked to the bone—crushed under the weight of unregulated industries, slave wages, and unsafe workplace environments. And the workforce could not organize. These Evangelical pastors recognized that this system was not serving the wellbeing of their congregants or the general polis. So, they organized the first labor unions.
And when the Democrats pressed to exclude the Chinese from being able to immigrate to America, Evangelical pastors stood up and called us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds! Scripture tells us we are all made in the image of God. Our policies, laws, and structures should reflect that truth!
Where does transformation begin today? Well, here is where it begins for me: I pray. Then I get the hard facts on the ground from multiple sources (think tanks and those affected directly by the problem). Then I ask Jesus to talk to me through scripture and listening prayer about the issues of our day.
Lately when Jesus whispers back this is often what I hear …
“Whatever you do in the polis to the least deserving of the hungry, the least deserving of the thirsty, the least deserving of the sick, the least deserving immigrant, the least deserving prisoner, and the least of the abject poor you did this to me.”
Lisa Sharon Harper is the director of mobilizing at Sojourners. She is also co-author ofLeft, Right and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politicsand author of Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican ... or Democrat
Democrat and Republican symbols. Christos Georghiou / Shutterstock.com