The Politics of the Cross: An Open Letter to My Friends and Family
The heat is on. Well, it was here last night anyway, when temperatures dipped briefly into the wintry range. And even though it warmed up again today, I was still feeling the heat in the form of an e-mail exchange between my radically moderate wife and her politically conservative brother wherein she described me as “left of center.” I was wounded and had to go out and mow the lawn to sort out my thoughts. There was a time when I would have worn that label proudly, but in these times it troubles me deeply.
Even though I grew up in a religious sect that ostensibly eschewed political participation by its members, my personal politics were decidedly “left of center.” Anti-war (Indochina), anti-racist, anti-capitalist, agrarian and communitarian would have fairly described my political views. Those views were espoused by the then neo-Marxist left throughout the west, and they were not particularly rooted in any coherent philosophy apart from left-wing politics. It was fair to say that they probably included anti-American views as well; though I never considered myself anti-American, I’m sure that I was.
In my thirties, after embracing evangelical Christianity, I found myself moving towards the right: as my income grew, I tended to believe that governmental regulation and tax policies were not fair to my middle-class status and even threatened its very existence. I was never a “ditto-head,” but the lure of free-market thinking pushed me away from many of the excesses of my radical youth.
But the world changed three years ago and made me see things differently. The prevailing views of the world, on the one-side, a pro-democratic, free-market globalism, and on the other, a statist and oppressive centralized government (whether Islamic theocracy or atheistic totalitarianism) are flawed and threaten the future of humanity and the earth on which we live. I have come to believe in a third way: the way of Jesus, which is beyond left or right. It is a way of viewing the world rooted not in a pledge of allegiance to a temporal human government, but in my baptismal promises and God’s pledge of redemption for me and all of creation.
I don’t think that any of the political parties currently vying for power in my country or any other believe in those promises and that pledge. They care only about solidifying their power and promoting their respective agendas. It may even be argued that the last practicing Christian to be elected U.S. President, Jimmy Carter, was such a “failure” by the world’s standards because he was constantly compromised in his Christian faith. To pledge allegiance to Kingdom of Christ with one finger on the nuclear trigger could only result in a schizophrenic approach to governing which is doomed from the start. Carter was reviled by the left and the right because he tried to rule from an imaginary center. The Powers and Principalities which are behind the governments of this world do not suffer such foolishness gladly. As St. Paul put it, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12)
Ever since the Church sold out to Constantine’s “powers of this dark world” in the fourth century and went from struggling with political empire to accommodating and defending it, Christians have, for the most part, abandoned the Cross and its reconciling message. Every once in a while a Christian leader emerges to call the Church back to bearing the Cross, and there are short-lived revivals of the message and methods of Jesus. But usually those leaders are branded as hopelessly naïve or heretical (or both) and the Church goes back to its comfortable relationship with political power. That’s why, when given the choice between Carter and Ronald Reagan, most Christians chose Reagan, a man who preached a secular, post-Christian civic religion, and who rarely showed any inclination towards actual, biblical faith.
Reagan changed the face of American politics by moving conservative views back into the mainstream, and the Church went merrily along, rarely questioning even the most egregious violations of his administration. When it was discovered that highly placed figures in his administration had sold weapons to avowed enemies of the U.S, it was a mere blip in his popularity. At his death the hagiography continued, and Reagan was eulogized as the great liberator of humanity, the man who single-handedly tore down the Berlin Wall and defeated the Communist enemy. All the work of the (mostly) non-violent revolutionaries of the Philippines, Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union was ignored, as if they had not risked their lives to overthrow the dictators that ruled them.
Reagan maintained his popularity in the Western imagination through a combination of his kindly demeanor and sunny disposition. His pretended concern over social issues like abortion appealed to Christians who saw the secularization of American society as a threat to their values. By regularly invoking God, he used the Church as surely as did Constantine in 312 AD: to solidify his political power without being changed by the gospel’s demands on the lives of those who claim to live by it. American politics took on a religious cast (though a decidedly post-Christian one) from which it has not recovered. Today, we are faced with the political choice between a presidential candidate who shamelessly invokes his baptism as a political platform and one who shamelessly rejects his to the same end.
While George Bush casts himself as a “conservative,” pinning that label on him removes all meaning that the term it has had for at least the last half century. Conservatives, since the 1950’s, believed in small government, ending “foreign entanglements” and balanced budgets. The “neo-cons” of the Bush administration have orchestrated the largest expansion of federal power since FDR (maybe ever), launched a global war with no clear goal of victory and destroyed any chance that my children and grandchildren will live out their lives unburdened by crushing debt. The Patriot Act and Medicare “reform” have gutted the Bill of Rights and bankrupted the treasury. The Bush Neo-Cons are really out of control Wilsonian Liberals, and have as much chance of success of “making the world safe for democracy” as Wilson did in 1917. John Kerry, on the other hand, will, if he is elected and keeps his promises, return the Democratic party to its “merchant of war roots” and the “liberals” of today will be the cheerleaders of the war machine of tomorrow. (Recall that it was the Republican Eisenhower who warned of the “military-industrial complex” and it was his Vice-President Richard Nixon who was defeated by John F. Kennedy for being “soft” on the enemies of the US—a vision of the future under a President Kerry.)
While I could simply drop out of making any political choices, faced with the moral perfidity of the current slate, I don’t believe that I can. We are struggling against “spiritual forces” and they are using religion as a weapon. The issue here is not partisan politics, and there are no easy political solutions. The governing party has increasingly struck a religious tone in an aggressive foreign policy that is much more nationalist than Christian, while the opposition party offers more confusion than clarity.
There are twin dangers in the current debate: the first danger is political idolatry. The second danger is the use of the politics of fear as a basis for foreign policy. Such political idolatry at the highest levels of American political power, combined with effective campaigns of fear that too easily co-opt anxious people—believers and unbelievers alike—could together lead our nation and our world to decades of pre-emptive, unilateral, and virtually endless war, despite the clear warnings of Christian ethics. A biblical theology is being replaced by a nationalist religion.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn once said: "The gospel teaches that the line separating good and evil runs not between nations, but inside every human heart." In a world wracked with violence and war, the words of Jesus, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God," are not only challenging, they are daunting. The hardest saying of Jesus and perhaps the most controversial in our post 9-11 world must be: "Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you." Let’s be honest: how many churches in the United States will support a preacher who prays for Osama Bin Laden?
The Gospel has its own politics and they are quite simple: Jesus Christ is Lord and all human rulers are pretenders to the throne. Christians must assert their faith in ways that confess Christ as Lord, and confront any and every political idolatry. I believe the theology of war, the mission of righteous empire, and the divine appointment of the American nation in a "war on terrorism" are modern political idolatries that Christians must resist, in the name of both faithful discipleship and responsible citizenship.
In any election we choose between very imperfect choices. Yet it is always important to prayerfully and theologically examine what is at stake. And then, as best we can, we seek to confess Christ—even in our political lives. In this election, there is a great deal at stake and Christians, divided by political loyalties, are all responsible for asking the question, "What does it mean to confess Christ in the election of 2004?"
What are the prime moral choices underlying the current campaign? Abortion? Gay rights? The poor? Pre-emptive war? Environmental devastation? Overthrowing tyrants? Neither of the candidates holds a consistent Christian position on these issues based on the ethics of Jesus.
George Bush, following the position of Reagan, says he opposes abortion, but other than the “partial-birth abortion” ban (which may affect 10,000 or fewer abortions annually), he has done little to end it, because there is little political will to do so. John Kerry, likewise, finds abortion personally morally repugnant, but is committed to defending it. Neither of them is willing to acknowledge that abortion is always a tragedy, but sometimes a moral necessity. Abortion has been the tragic moral choice for several members of my family, and even our family never speaks about it.
On the civil rights of homosexuals, both candidates claim that they are “against” marriage for gays and lesbians, but each try to play both sides of the fence. Bush, in the past few days, said he disagreed with his own platform on the issue, and absurdly, never had to answer to charges of “flip-flopping.” The media’s hypocrisy on Bush’s position is stunning: only Comedy Central’s John Stewart made an issue out of it, dryly commenting, “Too bad the President doesn’t have any influence on his own platform.”
The plight of the poor is a non-starter in this election, as each side argues over tax cuts for the middle class and the wealthy. Neither would dare say that our entire system is an affront to the Savior who was born among the poor and came to “declare good news” to them.
On the issue of war, neither side cares a whit for the traditional Christian teachings of either non-violent resistance or “Just War.” Pre-emptive war stands outside the moral arena of Christian ethics even if one takes the dubious Augustinian position of just war—something that was inconceivable during the first five centuries of Christianity. The doctrine of “regime change” for dictators is an ethical stance irreconcilable with Jesus who died at the hands of the most dictatorial regime known to humanity. One might be able to claim some moral clarity if this were the universal stance of the West, but we have chosen to prop up dozens of other regimes whose depravity is equal to Saddam Hussein’s. Of course, they are our “allies” in the war on terror so that makes their behavior less repugnant. We need Russia, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, so we look the other way when these “good” tyrants repress their people.
Environmental devastation and the global economy are inseparable issues and in spite of small bones thrown to the protectionist crowd, neither candidate will do anything to reverse globalist economic policies and the environmental wreck they are making of the “developing world.” The Book of Revelation’s promise to “bring to ruin those ruining the earth” is not exactly the type of policy that elicits Wall Street’s support.
Frankly, I am likely to cast my vote for George W. Bush since it is his policies that we must reckon with in the years ahead and he and the Neo-Cons should probably be forced to try to fix what they have broken. I fear that their premature defeat at the polls would only embolden the next round of religion-wrapped political adventurism. When the Israelites complained to Moses that they were tired of eating manna and wanted “meat,” the Exodus story tells us that Yahweh sent among them great flocks of quail—so many quail in fact, that they gorged themselves and thousands died in a bird-borne plague. Perhaps that is what we need—a good crop of the quail we long for—only to find it does not truly satisfy our hunger.
I don’t know if all this makes me “left of center,” but I rather doubt it. For me the center is where the patabulum meets the stauros and forms an old rugged cross. And I pray for all of us in this autumn of our deadly choice.