Friday, May 30, 2008

Religion, Politics and Civility

I’ve never read one of Sigmund Brouwer’s books, although I may have to read his latest one, which is entitled Broken Angel. Here’s the beginning of the synopsis that appears on his website:

In this addictively readable futuristic Christian dystopia, Brouwer takes readers inside a state run by literalistic, controlling fundamentalists. There, reading is a serious crime; citizens are drugged into submission; and those who break rules are either sent to slave labor factories or stoned to death. Occasionally, a few brave souls try to escape to “Outside.”

It sounds like a Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World and 1984 cocktail with intolerant fundamentalism as the straw that stirs the drink. What’s not to like?

While I’ve not read any of Brouwer’s books, last week I did come upon an op-ed piece by him. I was sitting at the kitchen table in the Jordan farmhouse in Fosterville, Tennessee sipping my coffee and reading the Nashville Tennessean when this title caught my eye: “Jesus himself was aware of the pitfalls of mixing religion and politics.” OK, so it’s a pretty dull title that is clearly the work of an editor and not the writer, but it still caught my eye.

In the column, Brouwer reflects upon the situation in America during this presidential election season in which religion and religious leaders have played such a large role. He notes the difficulties that arise when some evangelicals think that all evangelicals must think alike if they are to have any real political influence. He makes his strongest point, though, when he notes that Jesus himself did not try to bring about change through political means and particularly through the exercise of power.

Living where cross-shaped shadows of history's most infamous torture instrument were a constant reminder of Roman rule, Jesus well knew that on the kingdom of earth, power is gained by the sword. He knew, too, the pitfalls of grasping that sword, used so literally in his name during the Crusades, and metaphorically in recent presidential elections through the leverage of votes.

In contrast to the Christian right, Jesus did not expect a secular world to live by biblical standards. Jesus never imposed his faith, only invited people to follow. He transformed society by transforming individuals, not legislation. The irony is that the institution Jesus did criticize and hold to biblical standards was the religious establishment that eventually slaughtered him — for asserting that it had failed God miserably in pursuit of politics and power.

While Brouwer goes on to say that Christians can and should be involved in the political process, he asserts that “marching beneath a Christian banner begins to set up an exclusionary group — ‘either you're Christian and you're on our side, or you oppose us, thus you can't be a Christian’ — with results readily seen in the polarization of American politics.”

Brouwer makes some important points. We do err when we “expect a secular world to live by biblical standards.” It won’t and it can’t. The real problem is seen in the unwillingness—which does not spring from inability—of Christians to live by biblical standards. The great challenge for Christians is to live by those standards ourselves and to do so in a way that exhibits integrity—that is, our actions are motivated by hearts that have been changed by the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Moreover, it is the Church itself that is and should be the most challenged by the words of the Bible and particularly the words of Jesus. We will do our best work in transforming society by living transformed lives in the midst of society, which is different than setting ourselves up as the evaluators and judges of all that is right and wrong.

Speaking of the situation with religion and politics in America today, Brouwer said, “In this landscape, faith is replaced by politics. Conservatives are Christians. Liberals are the Antichrist.” No doubt from the perspective of some Liberals, the reverse would be true.

Another column on the same editorial page, this one by conservative commentator Cal Thomas, decried the same situation, although in a more personal and particular way. Thomas, reflecting on the illness of liberal lion Sen. Ted Kennedy, talked about how he treasured his 25-year relationship with the senator, a relationship that developed despite their very different political convictions. Thomas wrote about the time when he was working for Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and Sen. Kennedy accepted a more or less accidental invitation to speak at Liberty Baptist College (now Liberty University). Kennedy, Thomas said, spoke eloquently on the place of faith in politics in the American pluralistic society whose Constitution prohibits the official establishment of religion while guaranteeing the free exercise of religion.

But it was Thomas’ opening paragraph that really hit home:

These days, people on "one side" of the political spectrum are not supposed to cooperate, much less have a personal relationship with anyone on the "other side." Siding with "the enemy" can get you branded a compromiser, a sellout or fool. While it is true that on too many occasions, conservatives have had their ideological pockets picked by liberals whose favor they curried, that is no excuse for hating people because of their political beliefs.

To which I say, “Amen.” Too often, positions become more important than people. We Christians certainly ought to remember that our one law is to show the love of God to all people. That surely means to respect them and even to cherish them, regardless of their agreements or disagreements with us in matters of politics, religion, or policy.

These two op-eds point us toward civility and reasonableness. We could use more of both.

1 comment:

Thom said...

Great synthesis of the Op-Eds. We truly do live in a deplorable political climate. It's our own fault in many ways---especially for people like me who used to be Religious Right banner wavers and now cower at the phrase.

If you haven't read Jesus for President yet I recommend it.