Sunday, October 18, 2015

Politically Biblical, Biblically Political

My well-worn Bible
During campaign season, many candidates and political parties embody the worst of the hypocrites and pharisees of the New Testament, trumpeting their religious beliefs to the heavens, announcing their prayerful attitudes, claiming positions on behalf of God as if they were prophets and messiahs, when all the while they are driven by their ambition. God's positions are infinitely more complex than they acknowledge. When will we humans understand that we are not God's mouthpieces, we are not capable of full understanding in this life, that now we see through a mirror darkly?

On the other hand, the Bible does get political. The classic, New Testament case is "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and render unto God what is God's." That one's about taxes, but it also seems to be speaking about the intersection of faith and civic responsibility. Both must be honored. Civic responsibility for us today includes being informed voters of conscience.

 I'm particularly hesitant about referencing the Old Testament, since a central message of the New Testament is that the old covenant is replaced by the new covenant. However, the Old Testament, because it focuses so much on the law, has an inherent tendency to intersect with politics, which is about the lawmakers. Many people are fond of pointing quite selectively to the Old Testament to support some of their right-wing beliefs.  So I thought it might be worth looking at a handful of current issues through that lens.

Thinking about the question of minimum wage, and also, perhaps, of undocumented workers? Here's what Deuteronomy 24:14-15 has to say: "Do not take advantage of a hired man who is poor and needy, whether he is a brother Israelite or an alien living in one of your towns. Pay him his wages each day before sunset, because he is poor and counting on it." These days, paychecks tend to go out every two to four weeks, not every day at sunset. That's the letter of the law. But the spirit of this law is clear. Pay laborers what they deserve, no matter who they are. They are counting on it.

What about the issue of immigration? Here's what Leviticus 19:33-34 has to say: "When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt." Now, we weren't all aliens in Egypt, but trace your ancestry back far enough and somewhere along the way, your family were the aliens in a new community - a new land, a new tribe, a new state, a new neighborhood, a new country. Remember that. Show empathy first.

Those who want to cite the Old Testament with priority should be aware of its entirety. 

However, those who claim to be Christians need to prioritize the New Testament. And in the New Testament, Jesus makes it clear again and again what His priorities are. When they ask Him, "What is the greatest commandment in the law?" He replies, without parable or hesitation or obfuscation of any kind, "Love the Lord your God with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." (Matthew 22:36-40) I don't think you can get much clearer than that as a litmus test for any political choice you make.These two come first. Everything else hinges on them.

If you must mix politics and faith, which a voter of faith is no doubt compelled to do in making their choices, then for a Christian, these are the verses that matter and these are the questions to ask. Does my position come from a love of God? Does my position come from a love of neighbor? Does my position come from a love of self (because that second commandment only works if you love yourself; hate yourself and you hate your neighbor)? And, by the way, it doesn't say "Love thy neighbor if they share your political views." So, we left-wing folks have to factor love into the mix when we hate the words and vitriol that our neighbor spouts. That means we choose not to respond with vitriol. Our political discourse must also come from love. That's a tough one.

The other tough part, I think, the part where things get muddy and tangled and divisive, and always have, all the way back to ancient times, is that first commandment. What does it mean to love God with all your soul and mind? What does that look like in the world of politics? Those folks who start digging into the Old Testament do so perhaps because they believe that is how you love God. but if all those other commandments were made at the service of these two, then loving God transcends the notion of following a set of rules and regulations.

Jesus has something to say about this, too, in Matthew. "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces." And later, "You give a tenth of your spices ... but you have neglected the more important matters of the law - justice, mercy and faithfulness.

Even as I'm writing this, I'm aware of the danger of quoting chapter and verse. The Bible is a complicated, multi-layered text. If you really try, you can use it to say almost anything, selectively. Search your hearts. This much is clear: Place love first. Mercy, justice, faithfulness, and all the rest of your actions must stem from the root of love. Even in politics.