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Jesus Outside the Lines
A way forward for those who are tired of taking sides
By Scott Sauls, Jane Vogel
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2015 Scott Sauls
All rights reserved.
RED STATE OR BLUE STATE?
I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them, 1. To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy: 2. To speak no evil of the person they voted against: and, 3. To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.
SOMETIMES A SERMON CAN BE A POLARIZING THING. Once I was preaching to a crowd of New Yorkers about how Christians should respond to the problem of poverty. I will never forget two e-mails that I received the following week, both in reference to the same sermon. The writer of the first e-mail, among other things, accused me of being a right-wing extremist. The writer of the second e-mail said that he was certain that I must be a left-wing Marxist.
Time for a career change? I hope not.
There are few subjects that cause people to become more heated and opinionated than the subject of politics. Yet in the public discourse, the most heated and opinionated people seem to get nowhere with their heated opinions. During the 2012 presidential election, a friend of mine posted the following on his Facebook page:
Dear person passionately pushing your political agenda on Facebook,
Congratulations! You have convinced me to change my vote. Thank you for helping me see the light.
When I received the two critical e-mails in response to my sermon about poverty, I shared them with Tim Keller, who at the time was my boss and mentor. Tim recommended that I seek to learn what I could from the experience, but not to worry too much about the negative feedback, because it could actually be a good sign. For us preachers, Tim said, the longer it takes people to figure out where we stand on politics, in all likelihood the more faithfully we are preaching Jesus.
As is the case with every paradox associated with Christianity, there is a both/and and a neither/nor component to Christianity as it relates to political loyalties. Unless a human system is fully centered on God (no human system is), Jesus will have things to affirm and things to critique about it. The political left and the political right are no exception.
That helps me. I hope it will help all of us, especially those who are tired of the rancor and caricature that so often accompany political discussions.
The Bible and Government
The first thing I want to say about government is that God is in favor of it. This should encourage anyone with a career in public service. Presidents, members of Congress, governors, mayors, aldermen and alderwomen, as well as police officers, military personnel, park and school district employees, and other public servants play an important role in God's plan to renew the world.
The Bible identifies three institutions that God has established to resist decay in society and promote its flourishing. These are the nuclear family, the church, and the government. The focus of this chapter is to consider specifically what the Bible says about government.
We know that Jesus paid taxes and encouraged his disciples to do the same. To those living in Rome, whose government was not always friendly to Christians, the apostle Paul encouraged submission to the governing authorities, who are "ministers of God" and to whom taxes, respect, and honor are owed. Peter likewise tells believers that part of their service to the common good is to fear God and honor the Roman emperor.
The Bible also highlights God-fearing men and women who served in public office. Debra served as judge over Israel, Joseph served as prime minister for the Egyptian pharaoh, Daniel served in the court of Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon, and Nehemiah was a trusted official for the Persian king Artaxerxes. Jesus gave high praise to a Roman soldier for his exemplary faith. These and other examples confirm that government, whether in theocratic ancient Israel or secular Egypt, Babylon, Persia, or Rome, has always been part of God's plan.
Whose Side Is Jesus On?
When it comes to politics, the Bible gives us no reason to believe that Jesus would side completely with one political viewpoint over another. Rather, when it comes to kings and kingdoms, Jesus sides with himself.
The following encounter between Joshua, an Israelite military commander headed into battle, and the angel of the Lord is instructive:
When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, "Are you for us, or for our adversaries?" And he said, "No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come." And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, "What does my lord say to his servant?" And the commander of the LORD'S army said to Joshua, "Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy." And Joshua did so.
Lord, are you for us or for our adversaries? "No, I'm not," he replies.
The question, then, is not whether Jesus is on our side but whether we are on his. This is the appropriate question not only for politics and government but also every other concern.
It may surprise us to know that there was political diversity among Jesus' disciples. Included in the Twelve are Simon, a Zealot, and Matthew, a tax collector. This is significant because Zealots worked against the government, while tax collectors worked for the government. Interestingly, Matthew the tax collector emphasizes this diversity more than any of the other Gospel writers. Despite their opposing viewpoints, Matthew and Simon were friends, and Matthew wanted us to know this.
Matthew's emphasis on a tax collector and a Zealot living in community suggests a hierarchy of loyalties, especially for Christians. Our loyalty to Jesus and his Kingdom must always exceed our loyalty to an earthly agenda, whether political or otherwise. We should feel "at home" with people who share our faith but not our politics even more than we do with people who share our politics but not our faith. If this is not our experience, then we very well may be rendering to Caesar what belongs to God.
People from varying political persuasions can experience unity under a single, first allegiance to Jesus the King, who on the cross removed and even "killed" the hostility between people on the far left, people on the far right, and people everywhere in between.6 Wherever the reign of Jesus is felt, differences are embraced and even celebrated as believers move toward one another in unity and peace.
Now let's consider two different ways to look at politics. First, we will consider the world's politics. Then we will look at the politics of God's Kingdom.
The World's Politics
In the eighteenth chapter of John's Gospel, we see a clash between two governors: Pontius Pilate, the governor of Rome, and Jesus Christ, the governor of the universe.
Jesus is brought to Pilate by an angry mob. The mob charges Jesus with being an enemy of the state and a threat to Caesar's preeminence. Pilate, wanting to hear the account directly from Jesus, asks him, "Are you the king of the Jews?" Jesus responds, "You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth." Not sensing Jesus to be a threat, Pilate says dismissively to the crowd, "I find no guilt in him." But then he makes a concession according to Jewish custom to release one man for them at the Passover. The crowd pressures Pilate to release Barabbas, a known murderer and insurrectionist, and to crucify Jesus in Barabbas's place. Wanting to please the crowds, Pilate accommodates. Jesus, the innocent man, gets the death penalty. Barabbas, the guilty man, goes free. Modern politics can also work this way.
The goal of politics is to get people to support a particular vision for the world and to conduct their lives according to that vision. In pursuit of this goal, politicians today often use the same strategies that Jesus' accusers and Pilate employed: misuse of power and manipulation of truth.
The Misuse of Power
The world's politics rely heavily on power. Pilate finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place: he believes that Jesus is innocent; he also knows that Barabbas is guilty. Yet the calculating governor is desperate to please the crowds. As he considers the accusations against Jesus, he goes back and forth between his private chamber and then back out to the crowds. Though he knows who is innocent and who is not, he can't decide whom to crucify and whom to set free.
What is happening here? We can assume that Pilate is taking the temperature of the crowd. He is assessing potential outcomes, discerning which course of action will be best for his own approval rating as well as the preservation of his own stature. His conscience makes him reluctant to crucify Jesus, yet he wants the favor of the crowd. But in worldly politics, when conscience and the crowd are at odds with one another, the crowd always wins. When the crowd always wins, bad people can go free and good people suffer.
I love the animated movie Shrek for many reasons. There is so much about the human experience that the film gets right. One such example is the pitiful little ruler of the land, Lord Farquaad.
Farquaad is a single man. The one thing he feels is missing from his kingdom is the lovely princess Fiona, who has long been locked up in a castle far away, guarded by a deadly, fire-breathing dragon. There have been many failed attempts to rescue Fiona; many would-be rescuers have lost their lives.
Farquaad gathers his bravest knights together for a competition. The knights are placed inside an arena to duel against each other until only one of them is left standing. The prevailing knight will have the "honor" of going out on Lord Farquaad's behalf to rescue Fiona. Farquaad, himself a coward, offers the following "inspirational" speech to the knights before they turn against each other in the arena:
Brave knights, you are the best and brightest in all the land. Today one of you shall prove himself. That champion shall have the honor—no, no—the privilege to go forth and rescue the lovely Princess Fiona from the fiery keep of the dragon. If for any reason the winner is unsuccessful, the first runner-up will take his place and so on and so forth. Some of you may die, but it's a sacrifice I am willing to make.
The world's politics. Your hopes, desires, ambitions, good name—and, if necessary, your l ife—are worth sacrificing in order to protect and advance my agenda. And I will use my power, the authority of my office, to ensure that this happens. Some of you may die. But it's a sacrifice I am willing to make. The ends justify the means.
Manipulation of the Truth
The world's politics are also laced with manipulation of the truth, also known as "spin." We see this in the exchange between Pilate and the accusing crowds. When Pilate asks Jesus if he is king of the Jews, Pilate is not interested in spiritual matters. He wants the answer to one question: Is this man a threat to my power? Is he an enemy of Caesar, and therefore also my enemy? What is the size of his following? What is his agenda? What kind of momentum is there behind his movement?
Pilate would not be asking any of these questions about Jesus had the crowds not spun Jesus' teaching on the Kingdom of God to mean that Jesus was an enemy of the state. In reality this is a silly and baseless accusation, because Christ's teaching directs his followers to honor those in authority in every way possible. This being true, to the degree that Christians follow the teachings of Jesus, they will actually be perceived as the most refreshing and cooperative citizens of any earthly kingdom.
Pilate's agenda was of no concern to Jesus' accusers, because Jesus' growing influence threatened the status quo for them as well. In order to keep Jesus at bay, they created a false narrative about him and went public with it. Eventually it got him killed.
How about us? Are we also prone to exaggerate, spin, and tell half-truths to protect (or usurp) the status quo? How easy it can be to get pulled in to the politics of spin. Some of us have become so used to these tactics and so numb to them that we—yes, even we who claim to be people of truth—have become willing participants in the spin.
On this side of the aisle is our candidate, the answer to all of the world's problems. She can do no wrong. On that side of the aisle is their candidate, the reason for all of the world's problems. He can do no right.
Are such partisan caricatures and political absolutes a Christian practice, or are they decidedly un-Christian? What do you think?
Leaning toward a certain party is one thing (Matthew did it, Simon did it, and Jesus allowed it), but it is important to see that a partisan spirit can actually run against the Spirit of God. If there ever was a partisan crowd in the Bible, it was the crowd that pressured Pilate to crucify Jesus instead of Barabbas. Barabbas, a true criminal, went free while Jesus, an innocent man, was executed after having his impeccable character assassinated. This is the essence of partisanship. Partisans inflate the best features of their party while inflating the worst features, real or contrived, of the other party. They ignore the weaknesses of their own party while dismissing the other party's strengths.
I have good friends on both sides of the political aisle. I trust them. Many of them—on both sides—have a strong commitment to their faith. Because of this I grow perplexed when Christian men and women willingly participate in spin—ready, willing, and armed to follow the world in telling half-truths to promote their candidates, while telling more half-truths to demonize their opponents. Have we forgotten that a half-truth is the equivalent of a full lie? What's more, political spin is polarizing even within the community of faith.
A Generational Shift
As a pastor I have been struck by what appears to be a strong reaction among the millennial generation (young adults between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five) toward the faith of their baby boomer parents. Some surveys suggest that millennials are either leaving the church or adopting an altogether different expression of Christianity than the one in which they were raised. In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, reporter Brian Hiatt asked Marcus Mumford whether he still considers himself a Christian. Mumford, a pastor's son and a famous millennial (he is lead singer of the band Mumford & Sons), had this to say:
I don't really like [the word Christian]. It comes with so much baggage. So, no, I wouldn't call myself a Christian. I think the word just conjures up all these religious images that I don't really like. I have my personal views about the person of Jesus and who he was.... I've kind of separated myself from the culture of Christianity.
When those who feel a need to distance themselves from Christianity are asked why, Mumford and other millennials cite several reasons. At the top of the list is weariness over the association of right-wing politics with mainstream Christianity. The "culture of Christianity" that Mumford and others want no part of tends to trace directly back to this association. In the realm of politics, millennials have culture-war fatigue.
With this has come a pendulum swing. Wearied by their parents' right-l eaning politics, many millennials have shifted toward the political left. There are good things about this phenomenon. Younger, more progressive-minded believers are bringing a renewed zeal for biblical values such as service, care for the poor, inclusion of people on the margins, ethnic and cultural diversity, and other forms of social justice into their communities. What one wonders, however, is how a generational shift to the political left will play out in the long run. Do millennials risk repeating their parents' errors, the only difference being a co-opting of blue-state sensibilities into faith instead of red-state ones? Will their children sense an imbalance in them as well? Only time will tell.
The Politics of God's Kingdom
Please don't hear me saying that it is wrong for a Christian to support one political party over another. Christians have liberty in things that are nonessential, including politics; that's the point I am trying to make here. The political left and the political right both have good things to say, and both have their problems as well. It can be damaging to think otherwise.
For example, during the 1992 presidential elections a friend of mine told me about an awkward moment in his Bible study. One of the group members expressed excitement because that Sunday, she had seen a bumper sticker promoting the "other party" in the church's parking lot. She was excited because, to her, this was an indication that non-Christians had come to visit. Imagine the awkwardness when another member of the group chimed in, "Um ... that's my bumper sticker that you saw."
Can we talk? If a Zealot and a tax collector share a common faith that transcends opposing political loyalties, then left-leaning and right-leaning believers must do the same. It is wrong to question someone's faith because they don't vote like you do. Yes, wrong.
Excerpted from Jesus Outside the Lines by Scott Sauls, Jane Vogel. Copyright © 2015 Scott Sauls. Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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