The Common Good
April 2011

Taking the Bible Seriously

by Chuck Gutenson | April 2011

Too often we try to make scripture fit our own agenda, rather than the other way around.

One thing I find remarkable in the current theopolitical climate is how difficult it is to find treatments either by those on the political Left or the political Right that take seriously the founding text of the Christian faith -- the Bible. In some cases people avoid the biblical texts outright. How many times have you heard people talk about what sorts of political positions Jesus would have undoubtedly supported, but never bother to tell us what Jesus actually said?

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Or how many times have you heard someone make a claim about what scripture says about some political position and then cite a biblical passage in support of it? Consider the claim that "Jesus was not political," which is usually supported with a passage such as Luke 20:25 ("Jesus said to them, 'Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God's'"). In this case, once one examines the broader context of Luke 20, one can see that this passage does not actually support the claim.

I recently came across a statement by an organization opposed to legalized abortion. The organization claimed rather strongly that "'God is pro-life’ (Deuteronomy 30:19)." I dutifully opened my Bible to the referenced passage, only to find that the words "choose life" came at the end of Moses' address to the Israelites just before they were to enter the Promised Land. Moses had described to the people a set of instructions from God. He then said, in essence, that if the people obeyed these instructions, they would live well in the land; if they disobeyed them, it would mean death. The command to choose life was Moses' way of saying, “I have given you God’s instructions. God’s instructions lead to life. So choose life! Be obedient!"

My point is not whether one can build a biblical case for or against abortion. Rather, I point out that this passage was cited simply because the catch phrase "choose life" was present, not because it had anything to do with abortion. Those reframing the passage clearly intended to trade on the fact that the phrase deployed by their organization was a phrase one could find in scripture. One can find ever more egregious examples if one takes the time to look. However, when we as Christians abuse scripture and apply it so poorly, we give the impression to all that we are not so much interested in taking scripture seriously as we are interested in seeing how we can deploy it to score rhetorical points. In this case, a very small part of one verse was ripped from its surrounding context in order to appear to give divine sanction to a position the organization holds.

If we are to engage in serious dialogue about the relationship between Christian faith and our political commitments, we must invest more energy in bringing scripture to bear on them. We must attempt to understand what scripture is actually saying rather than carelessly bending it to fit our political agendas. That does not mean, of course, that there will not continue to be debate about what given texts mean. But we should, and must, engage in a more serious treatment of biblical narratives.

Some would respond to this challenge by arguing that scripture does not really say enough about politics for us to draw any particularly helpful conclusions about what sort of political life God intends. When this argument is put forward, it is often supplemented by an appeal to "statecraft" -- the craft of forming and managing nation-states, a craft that often requires us to appeal to extra-biblical rationale. This does not render issues of statecraft irrelevant, but it invites us to critique them from a biblical perspective.

We should not so quickly conclude that scripture cannot be mined for insights on theopolitical matters. The fact that it does not always say what we want it to say does not mean it has nothing to teach us. Any time we as Christians are tempted to move beyond scripture in drawing conclusions on these complicated matters, we should recall 1 Corinthians 1:18-25:

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”"Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength.

I cite this passage in full as a reminder that, for us as Christians, no part of our lives escapes God's power displayed on the cross. Regarding the fact that this display of power is "foolishness to Gentiles" (who ever heard of displaying power through suffering?) and a "stumbling-block to Jews" (how could this character be the long-awaited Messiah, who was, after all, supposed to be a political leader who ousted the Romans?), I dare say the cross too often is foolish in both of those ways to us as well. Our need to look for extra-biblical rationale for deploying power in more conventional ways is but a symptom of our lack of faith and imagination. After all, who really wants to look weak and foolish? We live in a day in which strength and power rule and in which any sign of weakness is seen as giving too much credibility to our opponents. Surely we can agree that things have deteriorated too far when the call for diplomacy is so often dismissed as appeasement.

One of the most significant issues facing both the political and the theological sides is the extent to which we have come to embrace power as the means to accomplish our ends. The gospel, however, describes us as a powerless people -- or perhaps better, a people who embrace the power of the cross.

The attraction of power is both subtle and enticing. In their book Blinded by Might, Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson explore the ease with which political power entices us to think we can bring the kingdom by wielding power. First, we think that if we stand firm for our principles, God will reward us with the political power to accomplish great things for the kingdom. Then we find that things are not so simple, that it will require compromise in order to accomplish those great things. So we make the compromises, rationalizing that they are, after all, insignificant compared to the good to be gained. Next, we find ourselves needing to defend the minor transgressions that seem so easily to follow those in positions of power. We again rationalize by arguing that the good to be gained offsets the unfortunate circumstances we find ourselves in. And so it continues, until we have so thoroughly compromised ourselves that we are actually only clinging to power for power’s sake. We try to cover over our perversity with a veneer of Christian rhetoric for a time, but it quickly runs thin. People come to see the corruption, and the good we had hoped to do ends up being destructive to the kingdom. It is with good reason that the old adage claims that power corrupts, and that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

All this raises  a very important question. Are we, as Christians, genuinely able to embrace the overarching narrative of scripture in such a way that it gains authority over us? If our best judgments incline us in one way but our best understanding of what God calls us to do leads us in another direction, which path will we follow? What if the life and teachings of Jesus really do turn our normal conceptions of power and strength upside down? Can we allow ourselves to be formed by the biblical narratives if they undermine common sense? If not, one has to wonder in what sense we would claim our positions to be Christian in the end. Perhaps the gospel really is far more radical than any of us is willing to admit. Where does the cross of Christ fit in our day-to-day practices in our communities? What does it mean to take up our crosses and follow Jesus, even in the political realm?

The power of self-sacrifice for the sake of others is at the core of the gospel and at the core of what it means to be followers of Jesus. Unfortunately, in our contemporary setting Christians on both the political Left and Right have been too willing to trade the power of the cross for a share in political power -- and the attendant access to the inner workings of government. While we must be concerned for public policies and institutions to be structured in ways that serve a kingdom agenda (which aims for the flourishing of all, Christian or not), too often we cross the line to embracing political power as a means of enforcing a kingdom morality. These are very different things.

Charles E. Gutenson, former chief operating officer at Sojourners and former associate professor of philosophical theology at Asbury Theological Seminary, is the author of Christians and the Common Good (Brazos Press, 2011), from which this article is adapted.

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