Last year I granted an interview to the Church of Ireland Gazette, a magazine that was trying to interpret US politics for its Irish readers. In view of the coming election, I have revisited that interview, editing the discussion for American readers.
The world seems to be becoming increasingly polarized and divided. We are living in a more uncertain world. Is there anything you think the Church needs to say or to be, in order to act with integrity in that increasingly polarized world?
Pope John Paul II wrote a book called Sign of Contradiction. I believe the Church should always be a sign of contradiction, regardless of the surrounding society.
One of the UK prime ministers, John Major, was trying to understand evangelicals, so he called in the head of the Evangelical Alliance. “I can’t figure out these evangelicals,” he said. “Are they liberal or conservative on political issues?”
The response: “They’re both.” Christians may well support certain policies that represent both sides of the political spectrum.
I once heard a sermon from Tim Keller in which he cited a list of what early Christians in the Roman Empire insisted on. Some examples:
Keller was making the point that people who are trying to follow Jesus can’t be compartmentalized into a binary political platform.
I hope the Church can help tear down the moats and the silos we have constructed around each other. In my lifetime, some Republicans opposed the Vietnam war and some Republicans supported it. There were Democrats who were anti-abortion and Democrats who were pro-abortion. Now, politics has become so polarized that it is almost impossible for a Democrat to be pro-life and almost impossible for Republicans to oppose the administration’s foreign policy. That is very unfortunate.
We are not called to report to a political party. We should look to Jesus for our guidelines on living. Of course, Christians will disagree on specifics, but the bottom line isn’t a party’s political platform. The bottom line is for us to carefully and prayerfully try to discern God’s will in each situation.
Christians accept a basic standard of morality, starting with the Ten Commandments. You can’t always legislate that kind of morality. For example, in the Ten Commandments there are commandments against coveting, adultery, and lying. A few countries have laws against adultery, but I don’t know any country that has a law against coveting or lying. We follow God’s moral law, not just the list of dos and don’ts that a political party holds up as important.
Living with silos: in the Church we have profound differences on big and small issues. How should we deal with situations, and with each other, when we profoundly differ on what we believe are absolutely core issues?
Jesus always honored the person behind the issues, even among those who must have been offensive to him in some ways. He associated with people viewed as moral outcasts. He engaged with occupying soldiers and also tax collectors who served the occupying government. Yet he always treated those people with dignity, respect, and compassion.
In our time, immigration presents a major challenge. It is certainly legitimate for Christians to disagree on how restrictive immigration should be. But it is illegitimate for us to demonize immigrants or to treat them as subhuman or to deprive them of basic human rights. We don’t have that option. When a politician wants to do that, Jesus-followers must oppose it.
I wrote a book titled What’s So Amazing About Grace. As I was writing, it struck me that it does not take much grace to be around someone who is just like you, who thinks like you, acts like you, votes like you. Grace is put to the test when you’re around somebody who is different from you, and who in fact may be offensive to you.
We don’t have the option of treating that contrary person as an outcast. In fact, Jesus had the opposite paradigm. He said, I came for the sick, not the well, and for sinners, not the righteous.
Sometimes the Church falls into the same trap as the Pharisees, where we start viewing ourselves as morally superior and we want people to be like us. Instead, we are called to reach out to others no matter where they are. Even if they are in bad straits because of their destructive choices, we still should respond with mercy, compassion, and healing—as Jesus did. He reached out to the poor, and stood for justice. So must we.
Are you hopeful for the future?
Not really. A lot of people in the US, especially evangelicals, are hanging on to a political agenda, even when people leading that political movement are not demonstrating the qualities of Jesus.
Historically, when the Church gets tempted by those who are in power, it bears the consequences for generations. A year ago I was in Spain, where in the last century the Church had allied itself with a strongman, Francisco Franco. Now, several generations later, many Spaniards will have nothing to do with the Church, because when they hear the word “Church” they immediately think repression and violence.
I’m afraid the same thing can happen in the US. We need Christians to act as the “sign of contradiction,” even if it costs us access to power. We were not put on earth to be part of the power structure. We were put on earth to demonstrate how God wants us to live. If people judge us, or we are persecuted for our stance—well, that too is the Jesus way. He was persecuted, indeed he was executed for not kowtowing to the religious or governmental authorities.
What does a sign of hope look like?
Wherever I travel—say, in Africa, South America, even Communist China—I see beautiful signs of God’s kingdom doing exactly what it should be doing: standing firm against the culture, which may be corrupt, self-serving, even oppressive.
The US seems to be going through a period much like western Europe went through: first, a cozy relationship between Church and state, and then the inevitable backlash in which people reject the Church because the state has proven to lack the integrity—the “sign of contradiction”— that should distinguish the Church.
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