Posts tagged ‘Liberal’

Against Our Better Judgment

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Credit: Dan Mason

Yesterday, in the Bible class I teach at the church where I serve, I made the point that we can be very bad at making appropriate judgments.  We can, at times, judge incorrectly, inconsistently, or even incoherently.  This is why Jesus warns us, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matthew 7:1), and the apostle Paul echoes, “Judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes” (1 Corinthians 4:5).

I also mentioned in my Bible class that hardly better examples of our struggle with making appropriate judgments can be found than in the realm of politics.  When an elected official is not a member of whatever party we prefer, we can sometimes treat them as if they can do no right, even if they have some noble achievements or proposals.  But if a person is a member of our preferred party, we can sometimes treat them as if they can do no wrong, even if they have acted wickedly and inexcusably.  We minimize what they have done simply by pointing to an opposing political ideology that, in our minds, is “even worse.”

In his daily news briefing, the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Albert Mohler, brought to my attention two op-ed pieces, both published a week ago Sunday across from each other in the opinion pages of The New York Times.  One was by the left-leaning Jennifer Weiner and titled “The Flagrant Sexual Hypocrisy of Conservative Men.”  The other was by the right-leaning Ross Douthat and titled “The Pigs of Liberalism.”  Here, conveniently divided by the fold in the newspaper, is our political divide laid bare, nestled neatly in newsprint.  Ms. Weiner decried the breathtaking schizophrenia of Representative Tim Murphy, a Republican from Pennsylvania, who, while taking a consistently pro-life stance as a politician and voting for pro-life legislation, quietly encouraged his mistress to get an abortion when she found out she was pregnant.  Mr. Douthat’s piece chronicled the all-around sliminess of Hollywood mogul and liberal icon Harvey Weinstein, who, in a bombshell piece of investigative reporting in The New York Times, was revealed to have harassed and, perhaps, even sexually assaulted dozens of women over the course of decades.

Though both Mr. Murphy and Mr. Weinstein’s actions, because of the egregiousness of their offenses, have been, thankfully, broadly and forcefully denounced regardless of their political commitments, oftentimes, excusing the inexcusable has become par for the course in many of our political debates, particularly, interestingly enough, when it comes to sexual misdeeds.  A desire to see a political ideology defeated can often eclipse a commitment to get some basic ethical principles right.

In one way, this is not surprising.  The Pew Research Center published a report earlier this month on the widening political divides in American life.  Most striking is this chart, which shows just how far apart Republicans and Democrats have drifted – or, as the case may be, run – away from each other ideologically since 1994.

Screen Shot 2017-10-10 at 5.34.29 PMWhen political ideologies become this disparate, it is not surprising that a desire to promote your preferred ideology generally can trump and excuse the public proponents of your ideological stripe when they do not practice your ideological commitments specifically.

So, what is the way through all of our excuses, minimizations, and rationalizations of people who tout a particular political ideology publicly while, at the same time, shirking it personally?  First, we must understand that such instances of hypocrisy are not, at their root, political.  They are spiritual.  A particular political ideology that we don’t like is not our ultimate problem.  Sin is our ultimate problem.  This is why both conservatives and liberals can fall prey to vile sinfulness, as the cases of Mr. Murphy and Mr. Weinstein illustrate.  The titles of the recent op-ed pieces in The New York Times could have just as easily, and perhaps more accurately, been titled “The Flagrant Sexual Hypocrisy of Sinful Men” and “The Pigs of Depravity.”  As long as we pretend that a particular political ideology is a categorical evil to be defeated, we will only fall prey to more evil.  Political ideologies certainly have problems, but they are not, in and of themselves, the ultimate problem.  We are.

Second, we must also be careful not to conclude that because someone espouses a certain ideology while not living up to it, their ideology is ipso facto wrong.  There are many factors that can make an ideology – or an aspect of an ideology – wrong, but a failure to live up to the ideology in question is not necessarily one of them.  A pro-life ideology is still morally right in principle even if Mr. Murphy was wrong in is his actions.  A strong ideology against sexual assault and harassment is still morally right in principle even if Mr. Weinstein was wrong in his failure to live up to this strong ideology.

Third, in a culture that regularly falls short of its values, we must not fall prey to the temptation to indiscriminately shift values to excuse behavior.  Instead, we must call those who espouse certain ideological values to actually live according to them.  In other words, we need to learn how to lovingly judge people’s actions according to rigorous ethical commitments and call people to repentance instead of downplaying and downgrading ethical commitments because we’re desperate to gain or to retain some kind of power.  After all, power without ethical commitments can never be exercised well, no matter which side of the political divide exercises it, because power that is not subject to a higher moral power can, if not held accountable, quickly degenerate into tyranny.

Jesus famously said, “Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly” (John 7:24).  It is time for us to look beyond the surface of our political divides and peer into the character of our culture.  What we find there will probably unsettle us, but it will also call us to some sober reflection and compel us to want something better for ourselves and for our society.  I pray we have the wherewithal for such reflection.

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October 16, 2017 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Was Jesus a Liberal or a Conservative?

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People love to claim Jesus.  This is especially true in the realm of politics.  At the beginning of the year, the Pew Research Center published a report about the faith commitments of those serving in Congress.  As it turns out, Congress is a very religious place:

The U.S. Congress is about as Christian today as it was in the early 1960s…Among members of the new, 115th Congress, 91% describe themselves as Christians. This is nearly the same percentage as in the 87th Congress (1961 to 1962, the earliest years for which comparable data are available), when 95% of members were Christian.

Among the 293 Republicans elected to serve in the new, 115th Congress, all but two identify as Christians…Democrats in Congress also are overwhelmingly Christian (80%).

In a society where people who claim Christianity are on the decline, the fact that so many members of Congress would continue to identify as “Christian” is worthy of our attention.  But claiming Christ is not always synonymous with following Christ.  Indeed, both of our nation’s two major political parties have had moments where their actions did not comport particularly well with Christ’s commands.

Regardless of what politicians and parties may say about Jesus or how they may represent Jesus, in His own day, Jesus demonstrated a persistent refusal to be co-opted by any political power.

In Matthew 22, the Sadducees come to Jesus with a question about a woman who had been married seven times to seven brothers.  Their question has to do with whose wife she will be at the resurrection of the dead on the Last Day: “At the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her” (Matthew 22:28)?  Sadly, their question is dripping with insincerity because the Sadducees did not even believe in the resurrection of the dead on the Last Day (cf. Acts 23:8).  They were too enlightened to believe in something so outlandish.  Another theological distinction of the Sadducees is that they accepted only the first five Old Testament books of Moses as canonical rather than the 39 books that other Jewish religious groups accepted.  Though I have no historical proof of this, I am pretty sure the Sadducees had these five books printed in red and called themselves “Red-Letter Jews,” claiming that the rest of the Old Testament canon did not really matter – only what Moses had written.  In today’s terms, the Sadducees would be aligned with theological liberals.

As Matthew 22 continues, on the heels of the Sadducees come the Pharisees.  If the Sadducees were the theological liberals of their day, the Pharisees would have been the theological conservatives.  They also have a question for Jesus: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law” (Matthew 22:36)?  This was a hotly debated theological question in the first century with no uniform answer.  More progressive teachers like Rabbi Hillel summarized the law like this: “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor.  That is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary” (b. Shabbat 31a).  Other more conservative rabbis asserted that, because all Scripture is given by God, to try to distinguish between greater and lesser commandments in the Bible is foolish.  When the Pharisees present their question to Jesus about the law, they want to know whether He will answer liberally or conservatively.

Whether it is the Sadducees or Pharisees who approach Him, Jesus refuses to play according to their liberal and conservative assumptions.  Contra the liberal Sadducees, Jesus affirms the resurrection of the dead (Matthew 22:29-32).  And contra the conservative Pharisees, Jesus says there is indeed a greatest commandment, but it is much weightier than the one postulated by Rabbi Hillel.  One should not just avoid doing injury to someone else, one should actively love that other person in the same way he loves God Himself (Matthew 22:37-40).

Ultimately, the problem with both the Sadducees and Pharisees was this:  both groups were self-assured.  They were smug in their superiority and blinded by their own self-styled orthodoxies.   And because they were so sure of themselves, they never could quite be sure of Jesus.

Of course, there is a third group of people with whom Jesus interacts.  The Pharisees derisively refer to this group of people as “tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 9:11).  This group, however, out of all the groups of people with whom Jesus comes into contact, seems to get Him the best – not because the people in this group are so spiritually astute, but because they need an assurance they cannot find in themselves.  So they find it in Jesus.

Regardless of your political persuasion, Jesus asks us: “Are you so sure of yourself that you cannot find security in Me?  Are you so smug in your superiority that you cannot see the shamefulness of your own sin?”  In the Gospels, Jesus lays bare all those who trust in themselves, whether conservative or liberal.  He will not be co-opted.  But He can be trusted.  Where does your faith lie?  In you, or in Him?

January 16, 2017 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Christian Persecution Under the Stars and Stripes

Cross 9Are rabid secularists persecuting Christians in the United States?  This is the question Robert Boston of Salon takes up.  His answer is an unambiguous and unapologetic “no way.”  He opens his article in an almost combative tenor:

Certain words should not be tossed around lightly. Persecution is one of those words.

Religious right leaders and their followers often claim that they are being persecuted in the United States. They should watch their words carefully. Their claims are offensive; they don’t know the first thing about persecution.

One doesn’t have to look far to find examples of real religious persecution in the world. In some countries, people can be imprisoned, beaten, or even killed because of what they believe. Certain religious groups are illegal and denied the right to meet. This is real persecution. By contrast, being offended because a clerk in a discount store said “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” pales. Only the most confused mind would equate the two.[1]

Boston goes on to rehearse a litany of privileges that religious institutions enjoy in our society along with some examples of what he considers to be true religious persecution:

Go to Saudi Arabia, where it’s illegal to even open a Christian church, and experience the fear of those Christian believers who dare to worship in private homes, aware that at any moment they may be imprisoned.

Visit North Korea, where all religions have been swept away and replaced with a bizarre form of worship of the state and its leader that purports to promote self-reliance but, in reality, merely serves as a vehicle for oppression.

Visit any region under the control of the Taliban, a movement so extreme that, in Afghanistan, they trashed that nation’s cultural heritage by blowing up two sixth-century statutes of Buddha because they were declared false idols by religious leaders who are intolerant of any other faith but Islam.

There is real religious persecution in the world.  Right-wing Christians in America aren’t experiencing it.

On the one hand, there are some things to affirm in Boston’s article.  First, I agree that it is awfully tough to make the leap from someone wishing a Christian “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas” to religious persecution.  That is not only a questionable example of persecution, but a silly one.  Second, I wholeheartedly and unequivocally affirm that compared to what Christians are experiencing in other countries, Christians who live “in the land of the free and the home of the brave” have it great.  There is no reason – ever – for Christians in this country to compare themselves to Christians who are, let’s say, awaiting execution in North Korea.[2]

But…

There’s always a “but,” isn’t there?

For all of Boston’s bravado about how Christians in the States are not persecuted, I’m not sure he really understands Christianity or persecution.

Boston rails against what he calls “right-wing Christians” and “religious conservatives.”  Just in case we’re unclear as to what he means, headlining his piece is a picture of Glenn Beck, Phil Robertson, and Michelle Bachmann.  His implicit message seems to be that those who claim that Christian persecution is taking place in the States are nothing more than puppets and parrots of conservative political groups.  But this is not fair to the breadth or the depth of Christianity.  Christian theology is much better defined in terms of “orthodoxy” and “heresy” rather than in terms of “liberalism” and “conservatism.”  After all, Christianity is much more concerned with the right teaching of divine truths than with a particular 21st century political ideology.  This is why there are Christians who are Republicans and Democrats.  No earthly political party can claim a monopoly on the Kingdom of God.

Second, though I understand Boston’s concern with Christians who brandish about the word “persecution” carelessly, I can’t help but suspect that he is guilty of precisely that which he rails against in his article.  I find it strange that while writing about Christian persecution, Boston never pauses to consider what Christ has to say on the subject!  So let’s do it ourselves.  Jesus says, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me” (Matthew 5:11).  Notice that Jesus here explains persecution in terms of words rather than actions.  Jesus says that people will both insult and tells lies about His followers.  There can be little doubt that this does indeed happen – even in the United States.  And this, Jesus says, is part of persecution.  Thus, Boston’s stipulations on what qualifies as Christian persecution are far too restrictive – at least according to Christ.

I am aware there is quite a gap between the definition of persecution theologically and the definition of persecution popularly.  It is dangerous to throw out a word like “persecution” without any sort of background on how this word is used biblically and theologically.  Hopefully, the dust up during the Romney campaign over whether or not Mormonism is a cult taught us that not all people define all words the same way.[3]  Thus, if we’re going to apply the word “persecution” to anything that happens to Christians in the States, we need to explain what we mean.

Whatever you may think does or does not qualify as persecution, what is most important is how Christians respond to those who are against them.  Boston says Christians have reacted to that which they perceive to be persecution with “so much carping.”  This, I agree, is tragic.  When Christians are persecuted, our response should not be one of carping, whining, or fretting.  After all, according to Jesus’ Beatitudes, when we are persecuted, we are not victimized, but “blessed.”  This is why, when the apostles experience physical persecution at the hands of the Sanhedrin, they leave “rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (Acts 5:41).

I like what Robert Morgan of the Huffington Post says about Christian persecution:

The Bible anticipated [persecution] years ago. The founder of Christianity, after all, was tortured to death and His original 12 followers were all persecuted; most were slain. Though His message was a Gospel of peace, His critics nailed Him to a cross but failed to keep Him in the tomb. They hated Him but could not contain Him. They sought to limit His influence, but they only broadened His impact.[4]

Ultimately, no matter how badly Christianity may be persecuted, threatened, belittled, cajoled, and legislatively restricted, it just won’t die.  Why?  Because its Founder lives.


[1] Robert Boston, “The ultimate guide to debunking right-wingers’ insane persecution fantasies,” Salon (3.16.2014).

[2] Cheryl Chumley, “Kim Jong-un calls for execution of 33 Christians,” Washington Times (3.6.2014).

[3] Richard Oppel & Erik Eckholm, “Prominent Pastor Calls Romney’s Church a Cult,” New York Times (10.7.2011).

[4] Robert Morgan, “The World’s War on Christianity,” Huffington Post (1.14.2014).

March 24, 2014 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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