Coming in to the Middle of a Conversation, I Decide to Toss in My 2¢ Anyway

28 September 2007

My friend Jason has emailed me this snippet in a greater debate about the relationship between Christians’ faith and their political opinions/activity. To some extent, it is not the debate that interests me, but the email that Hanna Rosin ends the exchange with. I’d like to look at some of the assertion Anonymous Patrick Henry Grad (hereafter APHG) makes.

There are people out there who believe that the convictions that stem out of their faith have direct consequences in their jobs, votes, positions, and principles.

This comment is something of a red herring: no one disputes this, except for the policy wonks, and, unfortunately, when it comes right down to it, most politicians and consultants are just that, policy wonks. Policy wonks enjoy the fight, the negotiations, the strategy the campaigns (advertising, electoral, legislative, whatever) and are people of principle second. Most Americans believe that politicians are people of conviction; some are, but they are rarely successful. The most successful politicians are those whose convictions (faith-based or otherwise) do not interfere with their ultimate political decision-making.

APHG is describing an average person, a person whose convictions (again, faith-based or otherwise) “have direct consequences in their jobs, votes, positions, and principles,” but he’s not describing the politicos, the politicians, the consultants, and their political supporters, who, from what I understand, is who Patrick Henry wants to turn out.

As long as your faith is an ambiguous thing that’s determined by your culture and personality and the parts of the Bible that you like best—that’s fine with most liberals. But the moment your faith becomes grounded in a God that has revealed his opinions and principles in a document (the Bible) that people rally around, study, learn, and believe despite their personalities and personal convictions (which is the sort of “elite” evangelicals you hung around with at PHC)—you’re dealing with a united force with a relatively united voice.

Ugh. Where to start with this one? When you support capitalism and its trappings whole-heartedly while claiming to be a Christian, mostly on social and so-called “moral” issues, is that not what is happening: holding on to a “faith [that] is an ambiguous thing . . . determined by your culture and personality and the parts of the Bible that you like best”? And if “God . . . has revealed his opinions and principles in a document” he’s done a poor job: this is the very document that teaches both the Pauline justification through faith and James’ “faith without works is dead.”

This is the book where Jesus both teaches that a man who looks at a woman lustfully should pull out his own eye, going into the Kingdom one-eyed, rather than going to gehenna, and also eats with the great sinners of his day: tax collectors, prostitutes, and even healing a Roman centurion’s slave. The Bible as “a document” is pretty contradictory, contradictory enough to be unreliable. The Bible is a book of faith, not a record of anything but a composite understanding of the development of Judeo-Christian beliefs. It also happens to be a record of God’s saving acts on behalf of humankind, but it’s impossible to separate from that understanding.

It may seem that I’m hiding behind some phenomenological convenience, but I think it’s true. This is a conviction of mine, after all, that has direct consequences in my positions and principles (Look! A principles liberal!)

And while I agree that Jesus preached a radical repentance, a “radical change of people’s loyalties, and demanded all-or-nothing of their opinions and alliangences [sic],” it simply isn’t that simple. Jesus often preached about loving, even if He didn’t seem that loving himself. Consider the parable of the Good Samaritan.

The Good Samaritan usually is interpreted as exhorting people to act like the Samaritan, and it is. But one point is to show who was the neighbor to the man left to die: the priest, the Levite, or the Samaritan. It is the Samaritan —a person whom the man left on the roadside should hate, the person who it would be a scandal to love— who is the neighbor. And being neighbors is a reciprocal relationship. If we are called to see those who need love and mercy as our neighbors, this parable shows we are called to see the most unacceptable and undesirable as our neighbors if they need love and mercy.

Finally, APHG cites the famous “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life: no one comes to the Father except through Me” to refute the (allegedly) liberal article of faith that says Jesus preached “You can live how you want, and I’ll live how I want.” Both Jesus and I can profess a particular belief —in the wrongness of religious exploitation for monetary gain or an allowing ourselves inordinate physical desires and satisfactions— and still love the person who engages in these activities.

Consider the family member who makes racial comments, or supports Planned Parenthood, or supports the war in Iraq. Now extend the same feelings —complicated, sometimes contradictory feelings— to people you may not be as positively disposed to. We are called, by this Jesus, to love everyone, even if they don’t agree with us, even if they engage in things we don’t believe are right, that we are not so perfect and holy that we could or should avoid loving contact with these people, that we do not lose what holiness we possess through such contact.

Ultimately, I am frustrated whenever someone cites “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” to show how uncompromising Jesus was. It conveniently illustrates this, but only out of context. In context, I’m not entirely sure what it means, but if it was meant to be an exclusivist claim, why mention the many mansions? It seems that “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” quote and its context is about reassuring those who doubt (that is, Christians who sometimes have difficulty being certain of their beliefs). What do you think? John 14:1-14 follows; the whole chapter is here.

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4And you know the way to the place where I am going.’

5Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’

6Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’

8Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’

9Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? 10Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.’


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