Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Demands of Love

As the congressional elections approach in November it is not surprising that each political party plans to base part of its platform on religious convictions which, in America where Christianity is the predominant religion, invoke Jesus.

But Jesus has always been an uncooperative political prop. Liberals appeal to his humanitarian deeds; conservatives appeal to the personal moral demands articulated in the New Testament epistles. Both are right but wrong.

As Garry Wills notes in a recent essay (“The politics Jesus wouldn’t do: The Gospel truth is that Christ is on no one party’s side”; Houston Chronicle, 4/23), “If it is politics, it cannot be Christian.” Wills notes that Jesus told Pontius Pilate, “My reign is not of this world” (John 18:36). He reminds us that, “The Jesus of the Gospels is not a great ethical teacher like Socrates, our leading humanitarian. He is an apocalyptic figure who steps outside the boundaries of normal morality to signal that the Father’s judgment is breaking into history… The Gospels are scary, dark and demanding. It is not surprising that people want to tame them, dilute them, make them into generic encouragements to be loving and peaceful and fair. If that is all they are, then we may as well make Socrates our redeemer.”

What really struck me about Wills’ observations is his assertion that in trying to politically or institutionally package, if you will, Jesus’ agenda, we invariably neuter it. “The state cannot indulge in self-sacrifice. If it is to treat the poor well, it must do so on grounds of justice, appealing to arguments that will convince people who are not followers of Jesus or of any other religion. The norms of justice will fall short of the demands of love that Jesus imposes (italics mine)… To claim that the state’s burden of justice … is actually what Jesus wills (is to) substitute some lesser and false religion for what Jesus brought from the Father.”

I wrote last week about “churchianity” versus Christianity. The issue of politicizing Jesus is a facet of that larger question, to wit: if we think we are able to legislate Jesus’ agenda, then we will shift responsibility from our individual and communal response to God’s kingdom purpose to “society’s” or “the government’s” response, thus furthering what the 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kirkegaard derisively referred to as “Christendom,” a society in which there is a veneer of “Christian values” but not many people follow Jesus.

Thus, for instance, when the United States’ Blue Laws were rescinded in the 1950’s and 1960’s and theatres, retail stores, golf courses, restaurants, etc. were allowed to open on Sundays, it was a blow to “Christian values,” but it was a boon to Christ-followers, because now Christians actually were challenged to choose between assembling for worship or shopping for a couch, whereas before they had no choice.

All of this is simply to remind us that following Jesus is a response to the higher “demands of love” that his life and ministry, death and resurrection model for us and that our baptism commissions us to. Lest we “gain the whole world and forfeit our soul.” Jesus said that, not Congress.


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