Mon Jul 18, 2005
Thinking of Jacques...
A Voice from the Christian Left
By Marilyn Chandler McEntyre
Among those who are mournful and angry about the outcome of this election, doubtful about the integrity of the process, and opposed to the neoconservative agenda are Christians who believe the name of Christ is being pressed into service to market a political agenda impossible to align with the ethics, mission, or character of Jesus. Here are some of the identifying features of that agenda: -- suppression of authentic diversity and debate in the name of “unity” -- fearmongering and secret surveillance in the name of “safety” -- wanton military aggression in the name of “liberation” -- triumphalist rewriting of recent history to justify unprecedented economic imperialism -- use of religious language to persuade a poorly informed public to accept political control by the few -- literalistic and selective use of biblical texts to legitimate that control -- sale of government to big business to consolidate that control -- sloganeering, anti-intellectualism, and oversimplification to forestall reflection, analysis, and debate -- expropriation of public media to insure the success of all the above
Alas, a good number among those cheering the Republican takeover are church-going people who sincerely believe that God has sent us a leader whose purposes are God’s own. Why do they think this? (I’ve asked.) Because he prays. Because he gathers with his cohort to study Scripture. Because he’s “unafraid” to invoke the name of God publicly. Because he opposes abortion. (This from single-issue voters who need look no further.) Because he supports “traditional family values.” Because he appears to believe that America is a Christian nation and as such, a chosen people whose objectives are God’s.
The very public nature of Bush’s religiosity ought to be at least a yellow flag for any believer who remembers Jesus’ admonishment to the Pharisees: "Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 6:1). Bush’s “God talked to me” approach to political decision-making needs at least to be submitted to the test Paul sets forth in enumerating the fruits of the Spirit: if an action is truly “Spirit-driven,” it will be marked by “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:23). Moreover we are explicitly reminded that "Not every one who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). So it appears “sincere belief” is subject to a “reality check.”
Sincerity itself is, of course, a manifestly useless and dangerous criterion of rightness. A list of those history has shown to be sincerely and disastrously wrong would require a volume at least the size of the Bible itself. Some of the most sincere people I know are also the most poorly informed. Indeed sincerity often seems to be a handy substitute for rigorous examination of and reflection on the facts at hand.
And I wonder how those on the “Christian Right” whose rallying cry of choice is “family values” read Jesus’ admonishment to the disciples, “If any one 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). Or his answer to the messenger who interrupted him to say his mother and brothers wanted his attention: “Who is my mother and who are my brothers? . . . whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt. 12:42). Obviously these startling “hard sayings” need to be read in context. No one claims Jesus was “anti-family,” but neither did he elevate a particular model of family life. Rather he seemed to indicate that there would be circumstances in which people would be called to leave their families, to reconfigure them, to challenge them, and in any case to understand that as members of the Body of Christ, we would have to subordinate our allegiance to all human institutions, including family. Focusing on the family can become idolatry.
Politically, “family values” serves the purposes of Bush’s deeper agenda, all too reminiscent of the National Socialist slogan, “Kinder, Küche, Kirche” (Children, Kitchen, Church) that focused the attention of a compliant population on the domestic sphere as the locus of their proper moral concern while political power was concentrated in the hands of a violent few.
The claim that the election was won by those who voted on the “moral issues” is particularly troubling to those of us who believe in the richness and complexity of the biblical story and of the way it invites us to moral reflection. For many on the “Christian Right,” the “non-negotiable” moral issues in the election were reduced to abortion, gay marriage, and stem cell research. Many thoughtful Christians recognize the moral complexity of these issues and the need for careful reflection on the contexts of biblical guidelines invoked in discussion of them. Oversimplification of these issues by members of the far Right (often in complete disregard of their socioeconomic and psychological contexts) has resulted in widespread lack of compassion for those most closely and personally affected. (see Matthew 7:3)
Abortion can hardly be opposed without comparable attention to systems that support people in a wide range of desperate situations for whom the decision is hardly abstract or ideological, but economic, relational, and radically personal. As to gay marriage, a colleague of mine put it best when she pointed out that Christians disposed to oppose it most vocally were generally those whom it was least likely to affect in any direct way. "Why don't we spend our time on the temptations--if that’s what they are--that we ourselves are most prone to rather than adjudicating the behavior of those whose needs and longings we can’t know or experience?” she asked. To which I can only add, Amen.
Stem cell research, like abortion, is not a simple issue, and we need to be vigilant indeed about the uses to which human lives and bodies are put in the name of science. As with abortion, it does raise significant moral and medical questions and we need ethicists who have done their biological homework to serve as guardians over the processes by which stem cells are collected and used. Nor do I think we should simply “leave it to the experts.” But those of us who aren’t experts have some homework of our own to do before presuming to pronounce with the utter certainty of vocal representatives of the “Christian Right” that efforts to determine the healing potential of stem cells are evil.
Most troubling of all, of course, is the fact that so many seem to restrict their concept of morality to personal actions. Where is the moral concern for the underfunding of services to the poorest among us, or stewardship of the natural world that has been put into our keeping? How can we overlook the moral obscenity that is war? Especially a war based on lies that has laid waste to the land and infrastructure of Iraq, killed well over 100,000 innocent civilians, and brutalized the psyches of our own troops as they brutalize their victims in the name of security.
As a Christian teaching at a Christian college, wife of a Christian pastor, I am appalled at the irresponsibility, ignorance, and self-righteous posture of those on the “Christian Right” who support these atrocities. I am deeply grateful for progressive Christians like the editors of Christian Century (christiancentury.org) and Sojourners (sojo.net), congregations that have rallied against war and weapons build-up, organizations like the Mennonite Central Committee (mcc.org), the American Friends’ Service Committee (afsc.org), Pax Christi (paxchristi.org) and Church Folks for a Better America (cfba.info) who offer an alternative political vision to people of faith.
Many on the “Christian Right” are fond of posing the question “WWJD?-- What would Jesus do?” I’d like to remind them what Jesus DID do: he cared for the poor. He did not condemn the woman caught in adultery. He prayed alone. He commanded us to love our enemies. He preached peace. He ate, drank, and lived with “tax collectors and sinners”—the lowlifes and outcasts of his day—while reserving his condemnation for the religious leaders who from a place of privilege imposed their legalism and literalism on the people they were responsible for leading. He told his disciples not to oppose the healing work of those outside the ranks of his followers. And again and again he reminded us to care for the poor. (That moral issue gets more air time than any other in the gospels: 1 verse in 9.) If Christians concerned about how to respond to the grave global issues facing us all were to reread the Gospels for guidance, I think we’d find some pretty clear indications there about what Jesus would do. And what he wouldn’t. (One of the few bumper stickers I’ve been tempted to affix to my still undecorated car in recent months reads “Who would Jesus bomb?”)
Whatever Jesus would do, given what he did do, and has promised he will do, I don’t think it looks much like what the insulated, self-congratulatory Fox News fans on the “Christian Right” are doing.
Marilyn McEntyre is a Professor of English at Westmont College, Santa Barbara, California.
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