When I talk about justice, they call me a leftie
Sunday, 5 March 2017
| Nils von Kalm
At the height of the Cold War, the Brazilian Roman Catholic Archbishop, Dom Helder Camara, said:
When I feed the poor they call me a saint;
when I ask why the poor have no food they call me a communist.
Camara was lamenting the fact that Christians were not known for asking uncomfortable questions that threaten the status quo. We are not bad at feeding the poor, but when it comes to asking the hard questions that challenge our lifestyles, the language all of a sudden becomes political.
Today we find the same language amongst Christians when we talk about dealing with poverty or injustice. The difference is that these days the word ‘communist’ is replaced by ‘leftie’, ‘liberal’, ‘progressive’ or some other similar label.
It astounds me how we get so tied up with describing where we are on the political spectrum and, in the process, forget why we put ourselves, or others put us, on that spectrum in the first place.
Since Donald Trump’s entrance into the political arena, I have seen Christians become too mixed up in the pure politics of his message and behaviour. People of my persuasion are called ‘lefties’ or ‘bleeding heart liberals’ when we denounce Trump's ban on refugees from some Muslim countries, his bragging about sexual assault on women, or his racism, encouragement of violence and bald-faced lies. Similarly, Christians who support Trump are labelled as being on the right, or conservative, or even bigoted.
The American Christian author, Keith Giles, says that we put these labels on each other because we are primarily political in our thinking. And therein lies the problem. Where is our faith as followers of Jesus when we label each other like this?
I am a Christian who is convinced that biblical justice is central to the Gospel. So when I say that we cannot possibly support someone with the characteristics that Trump displays, I do so because those characteristics so clearly do not align with the Jesus I read about in the gospels. My resistance to Trump does not come out of a supposed left-leaning political persuasion.
I’m tired of Christians being tied to a particular political agenda to the point where those labels are more important than following Jesus. Why else would four out of five white evangelicals vote for Trump when personal moral virtue has previously been central to their choice of candidate? If you're an evangelical in America you better vote Republican or you're not a real born-again Christian. When was the last time a Democrat was anointed as ‘God’s man for the White House?’
It's similar here in Australia (although not quite as ingrained into our culture). I remember being at a wedding on the day of the 2007 Federal Election. As the minister was welcoming everyone, he thanked people for coming to a wedding on Election Day and promptly said he hoped the Liberals would win. I was shocked.
I don’t care anymore for labels like left or right among Christians. I am highly politically minded, but I hope that I am more Jesus-minded. I wish Christians would stop with political labels and justifications when we take a stand on something. I wish we would instead discuss and debate whether or not our stand is in line with Jesus.
When you read the Bible and see that care for the outcast, the widow and the stranger are central, that speaking truth to power is an obligation and that loving your enemies is paramount, you are not being a ‘leftie’, you are being a follower of Jesus. And when you talk about the importance of the physical resurrection of Jesus as a historical fact, you are not being ‘conservative’, you are being true to historical probability and biblical theology.
When we make political decisions based on following Jesus, we will find ourselves sometimes leaning to the political left and sometimes to the right. On the other hand, when we make decisions because we see ourselves as on the ‘left’ or ‘right’, we fall into the trap that most evangelical Christianity in the US has fallen into: aligning our faith with a particular political party to the point that we see that party’s position as always correct. What then follows are situations like what we saw recently in a Pew Research study that said that 76 per cent of white evangelicals supported President Trump’s refugee ban.
As Christians, we are called to an alternative kingdom, not to the kingdoms of the world. Keith Giles lays this out brilliantly in his new book, Jesus Untangled. He makes the point that,
today, American Christians still divide over who will rule over them. They still demand a king like all the other nations have. Their politics and their faith are so tightly entangled that they cannot imagine one existing apart from the other.
Politics will never build the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. Only God will accomplish that. We play our part, but we only contribute to it; we don't actually build the kingdom.
This is not to say that we should not be involved in politics. But if we think politics can build the kingdom of God, we are following the wrong saviour. We can (and should) try to build a world of peace and justice and righteousness, but that won't change the human heart. Only the Holy Spirit transforming our inner selves can do that. The kingdom of God is not a type of socialist utopia; it is the transformation of everything in existence to the will of Jesus.
Ultimately, this is all about where our allegiance lies. We cannot be for a particular political party or person and try to follow Jesus at the same time. At some point the two will clash. In the spirit of the early Christians, this is about living a life that declares that Jesus is Lord and Donald Trump is not.
We see this perhaps most clearly when Jesus is before Pilate in John 18 and 19. Their confrontation is a cosmic clash of two kingdoms. It is an explosive political exchange between Jesus, whose kingdom is not of this world, and Pilate, who represents the kingdom of Caesar (a kingdom whose Emperor was also called ‘son of god’). Caesar becomes king by inflicting suffering, while Jesus becomes king by absorbing suffering, principally on the cross. The two are diametrically opposed.
In Jesus’ world order the last are first, and the first, last. It is an order in which the Mexican, the asylum seeker, the transgender person and the union member take priority. It is an order which is incompatible with the ways of the world. It is not an order of power, but an order where the weak of the world are made strong and where the wisdom of the world is exposed as foolishness.
When the kingdoms of the world propose and enact policies that are in direct conflict with the way of Jesus, it is clear which way we are to go, no matter which political party we follow. We are always to follow the way of love of our neighbour. Rabbi Shimon Cowen wrote in 2012 that
Love of one's neighbour is essential to a true political vocation - recognition of diversity, freedom and creativity, but always within the bounds of universal ethics and with respect for the Divine image of the human being. As I have argued, within the compass of universal ethics there can be diversity - say, Liberal and Labor - but we must know what the boundaries are, where the compass points lie, what lines we cannot cross, and which basic shared values we are bound to affirm.
I remember John Smith saying back in the 1980s, in relation to the statement by Dom Helder Camara, that he yearned for the time when, asked why the poor have no food, they call us Christians instead of sticking a political label on us.
I long for the day when we Christians have stopped making our stands because we are seen, either by ourselves or by others, as ‘lefties’ or ‘conservatives’. Let us live out the courage of our conviction that Jesus is Lord; let us challenge the status quo because Jesus is Lord; let us make our stands for justice and righteousness because Jesus is Lord - and not because we are on a particular part of a spectrum that is really about politics and not about where our true allegiance is to lie if we are followers of the Lord of the universe.
Nils von Kalm is a freelance writer. He works in church and community engagement with Anglican Overseas Aid in Melbourne, and previously spent 14 years with World Vision. He can be found on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/nils.vonkalm and at http://soulthoughts.com.