Be careful when you feel confident in your knowledge of God: '...But Jesus answered and said to them, "You are mistaken, not understanding the Scriptures, or the power of God..." (Matthew 22:29)'

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Sunday, January 17, 2016

Was Jesus a Republican or a Democrat?

Today many churches are taking very political stands. This is perhaps not new, but the churches in America seem to be dividing along the dual party system of its followers. The more Liberal churches push for social justice, racial equality and civil rights, divestiture of investment from Israel, a minimum wage, gay rights, and Palestinian statehood. The more Conservative churches favor an end to abortion, prayer in schools, the death penalty, and free market Capitalism.

In the past, most of the churches I was involved in didn't talk too much about politics. There were Democrats and Republicans in the pews and matters of importance were mainly how to lead a spiritual life in the mold of Jesus. What did the scriptures say? How can we apply them today?

Lately, however, I have heard more and more preachers speaking politically. This is especially true in the more Liberal churches. Perhaps Conservative preachers have always railed away in the pulpits about Conservative causes, but I have normally attended mixed congregational churches- churches in which one's politics wasn't worn on one's sleeve.

These churches seem to be few and far between now. The Presbyterian Church (USA) is debating whether to take on the Belhar Confession as one of our statements of faith. The Belhar Confession was written in the 80s in South Africa and was meant to address that specific context. Today, applying the Belhar Confession to 2016 America seems to put American churches who adopt it squarely in the Democratic party platform. Some excerpts:

We believe
- that unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ; that through the working of God's Spirit it is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought: one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain 
- that this unity must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted
 Therefore, we reject any doctrine
  • which absolutizes either natural diversity or the sinful separation of people in such a way that this absolutization hinders or breaks the visible and active unity of the church, or even leads to the establishment of a separate church formation;
  • which professes that this spiritual unity is truly being maintained in the bond of peace while believers of the same confession are in effect alienated from one another for the sake of diversity and in despair of reconciliation;
  • which denies that a refusal earnestly to pursue this visible unity as a priceless gift is sin
We believe
  • that God has revealed himself as the one who wishes to bring about justice and true peace among people;
  • that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged;
  • that God calls the church to follow him in this, for God brings justice to the oppressed and gives bread to the hungry;
  • that God frees the prisoner and restores sight to the blind;
  • that God supports the downtrodden, protects the stranger, helps orphans and widows and blocks the path of the ungodly;
  • that for God pure and undefiled religion is to visit the orphans and the widows in their suffering;
  • that the church must therefore stand by people in any form of suffering and need, which implies, among other things, that the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream;
  • that the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged; that in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.
Therefore, we reject any ideology
  • which would legitimate forms of injustice and any doctrine which is unwilling to resist such an ideology in the name of the gospel.
We believe that, in obedience to Jesus Christ, its only head, the church is called to confess and to do all these things, even though the authorities and human laws might forbid them and punishment and suffering be the consequence.

Now, some of these lines make perfect sense if they are read in light of the context in which they were written: taking a moral stand against South African apartheid and making the case that the South African Church should not split into two or disallow Blacks to join churches.

For today's American church, however, these lines take on some very different implications. For one, some church leaders have insisted this affirmation of one's faith would naturally support many political causes: gay marriage, a minimum wage, divestiture of Israeli investments, support to Palestine, the social justice agenda, and many more positions normally associated with the Democratic party.

Perhaps more troubling, the confession makes unity a goal above all other goals and categorizes a lack of supporting unity as a sin. When viewed in the sense of Black and White churches in South Africa that makes sense. When viewed in contemporary American terms, it seems to imply that anyone who would advocate breaking away from, in my case the Presbyterian Church USA, would be sinning. This is especially relevant to the case of gay marriage, since many churches are today breaking away from the main denomination in various forms in opposition to the General Assembly's support for gay rights.

What would Jesus think of all of this? If He came around today, walking among us, preaching and healing- what would he say?

I would have to conclude, based on my study of the Bible, that Jesus would not come here to overturn the current political, economic, or social systems. I think he would condemn all groups as being self-righteous and falling short of the Glory of God. I further assert that Jesus would be more concerned about how our lot in our Earthly lives were getting in the way of our spiritual life and the Afterlife. He would tell Republicans that they have become corrupted, miserly, and obtuse. He would tell the Democrats that they have become self-righteous, disingenuous, and corrupted. He would hang out with the vilified social outcasts of "both" sides: convicts and bankers; oil barons and Sean Penn; Monika Lewinsky and Darren Wilson; Ann Coulter and Al Sharpton. He wouldn't support any of these people, and each one He met would come away fundamentally changed.

I think the church is a victim of its institutionalization. It exists as an entity to support humans, and thus is corrupted. It corrupts even more by becoming supporters of political positions. For political positions are Earthly concerns. They are inherently unfair and at least amoral, if not immoral. They are meant to address practical considerations of Earthly life. They are not of concern to the likes of Jesus.

We, as Christians who strive for a better life for the next generation must confront some very troubling truths. Jesus could have fed everyone who was hungry in the world when He walked among us. He could have healed all the sick. A waive of his hand could have toppled the Roman Empire and ushered in a government that brought peace and justice to all. But, he did none of those things. And many were upset by this: they saw him as an Earthly savior.

Jesus, however, was interested in much grander things than in fixing our Earthly experiences. He was interested in our souls. For us to advocate certain political agendas or platforms from our churches would be to miss His entire point.

In Mark, Jesus makes the clearest delineation between what is in the realm of man: government, and what is in the realm of God: man's souls.
Mark 12:13-17
And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk. And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone's opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar's.” Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.” And they marveled at him.
In Matthew, we find that one cannot serve both God and money. Politics, of course, is the business of dividing money between different groups.
Matthew 6:24
“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money."
In Proverbs, we are cautioned to rely on our own understanding. Politics and using the Bible to support certain political agendas is, if nothing else, relying on our own understanding of things.
Proverbs 3:5
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.
In John, Jesus states very clearly that his interest is not of the Earth and that if it was, he could easily call down his servants to fix whatever he wanted to.
John 18:36  Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”
 In Mark, Jesus describes how different Godly things are, they are actually the opposite of what we value on Earth:
Mark 10:42-45 
And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
In Matthew, Jesus again points out he is not on the Earth to solve Earthly problems.
Matthew 26:52-54
Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?”
And in Matthew he, possibly for the umpteenth time, tells the Pharisees- who were the spiritual leaders of the day- that they are hypocrites:
Matthew 15:7-9
You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”
 In light of that, how could any religious leaders today be so sure that their understanding of the Bible and Jesus is any better? Surely they shouldn't be so full of hubris...

Lastly, in Matthew 4, verses 1-25, we read about the temptation of Christ. Satan offers Jesus everything: food, rescuing by angels, and all the kingdoms of the world. Jesus answers him with scripture. He doesn't succumb to the temptations of the world- He is after something far greater.

This isn't to say that we shouldn't feed the poor or help the needy. It doesn't mean that we shouldn't vote Democrat (or Republican). But what it strongly suggests is that Jesus was not concerned with our Earthly systems of government, our destined-to-fail attempts to divide up the spoils and rule over ourselves. He wasn't concerned with His church taking sides for certain political platforms. He was only concerned with saving our souls and those individual Earthly choices we make that could get in the way of our souls being united with Him in Heaven.