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Confusing Politics and Religion - A Review of 'Reclaiming Hope' by Michael Wear

Everybody hates moderates.

Nowhere is this fact more apparent than in politics and religion.

When you stand in the middle of the road, you’re bound to get hit from both sides. And though I know this, I can’t help myself.

I’m a middle-of-the-road kinda guy. In fact, my middle-of-the-roadness is such a part of me, I have a good friend who regularly asks me to decide between two extremes and then smirks when I inevitably say, “The truth is probably somewhere in-between.”

So trust me on this. I’m speaking from experience.

Nobody likes a moderate.

If I’m Not a Democrat, I Must Be a Republican…Right?

Take last year for example. You may or may not have noticed that it was an election year. And as with most election years here in the good-ol-US-of-A, we had two options: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. And I didn’t like either option. I didn’t agree with either one’s positions 100% but that’s to be expected. More than that, I didn’t feel like either one had the character or temperament to be the most powerful person in the world.

But people had a hard time understanding my position.

“I don’t like Donald Trump,” I’d say to wide eyes and a gaping mouth. “You mean you’re going to vote for Hillary Clinton?!” they’d ask.

“No, I didn’t say that. I don’t like her either.” I’d respond – slightly perplexed. “I don’t like either one of them.”

For some reason, people saw my lack of support for Donald Trump as actual support for Hillary Clinton. But I opposed her just as much as him. From what I can tell, the problem is that we’ve become so polarized we can only see in two colors: black and white. My way or the highway. Republican and Democrat.

And so we package up a whole lot of beliefs into one word and try to sell it as if they’re all innately connected.

So to be a ‘Republican’ or ‘Conservative’ means that you’re ‘Christian’, ‘Pro-Life’, ‘Pro-Traditional Marriage’, ‘Pro-Capitalism’, ‘Pro-Gun’, etc.

And to be a ‘Democrat’ or ‘Liberal’ means that you’re ‘Secular’, ‘Pro-Choice’, ‘Pro-Gay Marriage’, ‘Pro-Socialism’, ‘Pro-Gun Control’, etc.

And that’s that.

But what if I don’t want to buy either box?

Breaking Out of the Box

What if there are certain policies that I agree with (or disagree with) on both sides? For example, I’m ardently pro-life. But for me, that works its way out into being against both abortion and the death penalty. Likewise, I lean toward a more libertarian-flavored conservatism which means I’m for religious freedom across the board: I think Christian bakers should be able to opt-out of making pastries that go against their consciences (as I would for Jewish ones who don’t want to decorate cakes for neo-nazis) but I also think Muslims and those of other faiths should be able to freely build places of worship and wear the kind of clothing that their consciences dictate.

We need to be careful, as Christians, about how much of our political ideology we attribute to scripture.

Perhaps I should explain what I mean here. I would definitely consider myself a free-market capitalist. But I’m not under the illusion that scripture mandates that position. It doesn’t. Likewise, there’s nothing innate about socialism that runs counter to the gospel. I don’t like socialism because I don’t believe it works. Not because it’s ‘ungodly.’

Likewise, scripture doesn’t mandate political positions on gun-control (or sword-control), the environment, tax policy, or dozens of other things. And yet I’ve heard Christians argue these things – and many others – as if there is a ‘biblical’ position. There isn’t. Sure, there are principles that we can apply to seek to find a position that honors God and respects creation. But scripture never says, “Thou shalt lower carbon emissions” or “Thou shalt have the right to bear arms.”

And when we do seek to apply the Scriptures to our politics, we need to be careful that we aren’t simply prooftexting – searching for the passage that backs up what we already believe and want scripture to say.

God is Not a Capitalist

Again, a couple of examples might be appropriate here. I’ve heard conservative Christians try to ground their arguments against welfare and for low rates of taxation on scripture. But that simply doesn’t work. When God established the nation of Israel, he did not establish it as a ‘conservative’, capitalist paradise. For example, he specifically told landowners that after harvesting their fields, they couldn’t go back and make sure they got it all. Instead, they were to leave it for the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows (Deuteronomy 24:19).

“But it was their land!” the capitalist might argue, “They did the work of sowing and reaping! That grain belonged to them!”

Not according to God.

In fact, this is made even clearer through the Sabbath year and the year of Jubilee. Every seven years, the land was to have a Sabbath. The people weren’t allowed to work their land. No seeds were to be planted. And why, you ask? I’ll let God answer: “…so that the needy of your people may eat; and whatever they leave the beast of the field may eat” (Exodus 23:11). This is the ancient Israel equivalent of welfare for the poor and animals.

But it didn’t stop there. Every 50 years, all property that was sold reverted back to its original owner (Leviticus 25:13). And that wasn’t even the most extreme part. All debts were forgiven (Deuteronomy 15:1). That sounds like something straight out of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. But it isn’t. It’s scripture.

And if you think ancient Israel had a low tax rate at only 10%, that’s probably because you haven’t read the books of the law very closely. There were actually three tithes. Not one. So the taxation rate in ancient Israel was between 20% and 30%. I could keep going but I think that’s enough to make my point.

Don’t Confuse Your Views with God’s

Do I say all this because I believe we need to turn the US into a ‘Worker’s Paradise’? Not at all. I say it because we need to be very careful about the way we apply scripture to our political positions.

Conservatives rolled their eyes at liberals who argued for homosexual marriage based on Jesus’ command to “treat others the same way you want them to treat you.” And they should’ve. That completely tears that verse out of its context and simplifies the issue of homosexual marriage – a complex, societal issue – down to a bumper sticker. But, conservatives need to be careful about doing the same thing.

In other words, argue for capitalism (or anything else that isn’t mandated in scripture) based on its own merits. Not because it’s the ‘Biblical’ position.

So What is the Biblical Position?

So what’s the answer here? I mean, what is God’s answer for taxation? Or the refugee crisis? What about immigration? Or all of the other political issues we argue about?

Like most things, there isn’t a simple answer. Instead of looking for the verse that backs up our idea (Jesus said, “Those who live by the sword die by the sword”, so he must have been an ardent gun control enthusiast!), we ought to read scripture holistically. We need to regularly meet God in its pages and allow him to shape our thinking. Too many people spend the majority of their time allowing Rachel Maddow or Rush Limbaugh to shape their thinking and then come to the pages of scripture in order to find the support that will back them up.

That’s the completely wrong way to approach this thing as Christians!

We need to come under God’s revelation. We need to submit to him and listen for his voice. And often, his voice will challenge us. If God only tells me what I already believe, I’m probably not listening to God.

Instead, it’s more likely that I’m only listening to myself and the people who think just like me.

How Entrenched Are You?

People on both sides of the political divide bury themselves in their foxholes, unwilling to meet or even listen to anyone on the other side. They only listen to news that reinforce their ideas. Only read websites that say what they’ve already been thinking. And only associate with people who have the same opinions. Through this, they entrench themselves ever further into their own ideologies.

And people on both sides of the aisle do it to everyone’s detriment.

Let’s do a quick thought experiment to illustrate my point.

If you’re a ‘conservative’, how many ‘liberal’ friends do you have? If you’re a ‘liberal’, how many ‘conservative’ friends do you have?

When was the last time you had dinner with someone who had completely different views than you on politics?

If you’re like most people, you probably don’t have a lot of friends who disagree with you on the ‘big issues’ of life. And that makes sense to a degree. We tend to surround ourselves with people who are like us.

But there’s a danger to that as well – especially for Christians. And the danger is that we’ll reduce people on the ‘other side’ to mere ‘enemies’ to be defeated. But they aren’t. They are bearers of God’s image. And we have a bigger mission than making political touchdowns.

Racist ‘Rethuglicans’ and Immoral ‘Libtards’

Contrary to popular belief, most people who identify as ‘conservative’ are not racist, backward, homophobic fascists who want to see migrant workers and refugees die slow painful deaths. And neither are most ‘liberals’ lazy, sexually deviant, baby-killing communists who want to turn all of our children gay.

Are there some folks on both sides that fit the stereotype? Sure, there always are. But that isn’t the majority.

Most people want the same things out of life: to be happy, to feel loved, and to accomplish something meaningful.

The problems arise when our desires – and the way we hope to accomplish those desires – butt up against one another.

A Conflict of Visions

So we need to remember that it’s often a conflict of visions – not a matter of good versus evil (check out Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions for more on this idea). Before you jump down my throat, I’m not saying that there aren’t issues that boil down to good versus evil. As a Christian, I can’t tolerate abortion. It’s an unequivocal evil. But I also understand that most pro-choice people are not blood-thirsty, emotionless murderers who don’t care about babies.

The problem runs deeper than we care to recognize. And because the problem is deeper, so is the solution. And that means there are no easy fixes. If I’m going to convince a pro-choice person that abortion is a moral evil, I’m not going to do it by calling them a ‘babykiller’ or ‘libtard.’ It’s only going to happen by understanding their presuppositions and working to show how those ideas are wrong.

Disagreeing Like Jesus

This is how Jesus dealt with people all of the time.

There was one time when the Pharisees asked him if it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath. For the Pharisees, this was a huge issue. But Jesus didn’t just call them ‘Unfairisees’ and walk away. He asked them, “What man is there among you who has a sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will he not take hold of it and lift it out?” (Matthew 12:11).

In other words, he subtly called them to probe their own presuppositions.

Would I rescue my injured or endangered animal on the Sabbath?

And if I would, how could I deny a fellow man deliverance because of what day it is?

Am I placing the value of an animal over that of a fellow man? Is that right?

This is how Jesus interacted with people who didn’t share his ideology. He didn’t turn them into straw-men. Or call them names (usually). Neither did he write them off and only spend time with people who thought just like him.

Instead, he met them where they were. He listened to their questions and concerns. And he shared the truth with them in a way that would lay their own false beliefs bare.

And this is the way Jesus is calling us to interact with people whose thinking has been twisted out of shape.

It isn’t easy to do. But it’s the Christian thing to do.

Approaching Politics and Religion Biblically

Wow…I intended this to be the introduction to my review of ‘Reclaiming Hope’ by Michael Wear but I’m over 2,000 words in and I’ve just mentioned the book. So instead, I’ll try to tie these thoughts together and post my review of the book separately.

How can we approach politics in a more biblical way? Especially if the answers to many of our political questions are not clearly mandated in scripture?

1. Root Yourself in the Gospel

Don’t just read the Bible. Enter into it. Allow it to shape you – your attitudes, your concerns, your beliefs, and your actions.

Read books and passages you normally wouldn’t read. Read it in a translation that you aren’t used to so you don’t rush over familiar verses. Listen to a Bible on tape while your eyes are closed and let your imagination carry you back in time.

Question your traditional understandings, constantly bringing them back to the whole of scripture and asking if they’re truly faithful.

Memorize verses, passages, and entire chapters. Let Scripture soak your thinking.

Study parts of Scripture you’ve ignored in the past. Leviticus or Deuteronomy anyone?

Become a man or woman of one book. And don’t just read it, let it consume you.

2. Meet Christians Who Think Differently

I’ve never understood people who reject, out of hand, relationships (or even conversations) with Christians who don’t think like them. Look, if you’re right then you have nothing to worry about. Truth can stand up to a little contrary wind. And if you aren’t completely right, shouldn’t you want to know where your position has weaknesses?

I love talking with Christians who don’t agree with me on every little point. Not so I can buy everything they’re selling. But because I have just enough humility to recognize that I’ve been wrong in the past (often) and I’m more than likely wrong about some things right now. And if that’s the case, then maybe – just maybe – I’ll meet someone who can shed light on an area of weakness I didn’t even realize I had.

My faith has been shaped by men and women as diverse as Thomas a Kempis (Catholic), Sandra Richter (Methodist, I think), N.T. Wright (Anglican), Alexander Campbell (one of the founders of the Stone-Campbell movement), Andrew Murray (Dutch Reformed), my aunt (a Church of God minister), and dozens of others. I haven’t swallowed any of their theology wholesale. But their influence is undeniable and they’ve all helped to refine me in different ways.

I can’t imagine where I’d be if I had only read and listened to other Christians who thought just like me. But I know that my faith would be far less rich.

3. Listen Before You Speak

Most of us have a tendency to listen in order to argue rather than to listen in order to understand. The minute someone say, “I’m a conservative,” or “I’m a liberal,” we peg them with dozens of beliefs and motivations that they may or may not have. Then, when they start to speak, we assume we already know everything we need to. So rather than listening to them, we immediately start formulating our reply.

Stop that!

Make an effort to really listen to their position. There are nuances in most arguments that you may want to ignore or brush aside.

Don’t!

Most people believe things for certain reasons. Do whatever you can to understand the reasons and not just the things. If someone is for gun control because a loved one was murdered. All of your ‘logical arguments’ and ‘statistics’ won’t matter to them. The same could be said for someone who is against gun control because they know someone who stopped an intruder from taking their life.

Our experiences shape our beliefs – get to know a person’s experiences so you can better understand their beliefs.

4. Get a Heart for the Lost

For too many people, politics is their religion.

But we weren’t created to debate politics. Our purpose in life is not to convince everyone that their political opinions are wrong and ours are right.

We were created as God’s imagers – his representatives – on earth. It’s his politics – the politics of the Kingdom – that we should be focusing on. We were saved so we could become ambassadors for Christ – not a nation or a particular political party.

As Jesus might’ve say, “What will it profit a man if his country follows all the right policies and he forfeits his soul?”…Or fails to represent Christ to the souls of others.

This also means that when we meet a political ‘opponent’, we ought to treat him like Jesus told us to treat our enemies:

“I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. Whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also; and whoever takes away your coat, do not withhold your shirt from him either. Give to everyone who asks of you, and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back. Treat others the same way you want them to treat you” (Luke 6:27-31).

Before you post that snide meme, make that sarcastic comment, or use that immature pejorative ask yourself:

  1. Does it pass the Luke 6:27-31 test?
  2. Does it pass the Ephesians 4:29 test?
  3. Am I, in this comment, recognizing this person’s inherent worth as a creature made in the image of God?

And if it doesn’t pass the tests, remain silent and pray that God would give you his heart for that person.

5. Embody the Fruit of the Spirit

In his letter to the Galatian congregation, Paul writes, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” These are the qualities we should embody. They’re the things that God wants us to grow in more and more.

We may never love perfectly or experience perfect joy or patience on this side of eternity. But we shouldn’t be satisfied with less than perfection. We should always strive to let God rule us in such a way that his Spirit is embodied in us.

This might be a good passage to memorize and repeat to yourself again and again – especially when you’re dealing with people who disagree with you.

6. Always Remember that You Have a More Important Identity than ‘American’, ‘Conservative’, or ‘Liberal’

If you’re a Christian, your first identity is not as an American. It isn’t as a Democrat or a Republican. And neither is it as a conservative or a liberal.

In fact, I’d argue that we shouldn’t even put those things in second or third place. Our only identity is as a Christian. Those other things are merely peripheral things that we might use to describe certain positions we hold, etc.

Think about what Jesus told the disciples, “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26). In other words, our allegiance and devotion should be so focused on Christ, that our relationships with others – even those closest to us – should utterly pale in comparison. And if our allegiance to Christ trumps our relationship to family so clearly, what does that say about our relationships with the other things in our lives?

As I said before, our primary responsibility is not to make political touchdowns. We haven’t been called to convert people to a particular ideology. We’ve been called to “go…and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that [Jesus] commanded” (Matthew 28:19-20).

That is our task. Everything else we do is in relation to that one goal.

If we can remember that fact and then live it out, we will succeed at the thing that matters most in our life.

And thank God we don’t have to do it alone. We have one another – God’s Church – and even more, we have a promise from Jesus himself:

“And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

Now let’s get to work.

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