Thursday, November 29, 2007

People of Faith Should Vote with a Well-Informed Religious Conscience

The Christmas Season has arrived again and the hustle and bustle of the holiday rush will occupy our time and thoughts over the coming weeks. Yet, another event is beginning to seek our attention that will captivate our minds for the next year; the 2008 Presidential Election.

We have not had so many choices of candidates from both parties in many elections, and thus we might find it hard to decide for whom we will cast our vote. Such anxiety over how we will vote is only intensified by the confusion we hear from candidates who are vague on where they stand on issues that are important to us. We are faced with a serious choice, but not an easy one.

Why am I writing about the future election on a blog that is about faith? This is a legitimate question, but one I can answer from the recent history of the influence of religion in the elections for the highest office in our nation. Indeed, many have rightly observed that during our most recent elections for President, religion has played a key, if not a deciding factor in campaigns.

This is not to imply that the religious influence in politics is always a negative, for although church and state must always remain separate, personal religious beliefs cannot be put aside when it comes to participating in the most important act a democracy performs- voting. To be sure, for someone to ask me to check my faith at the door of the voting booth is not only a violation of my political rights, it is also impossible for me to do.

But this raises a serious question that often clouds the debates about the relationship between religion and politics. Does one party have a legitimate claim to care more for religious values than the other? Or, to put it more bluntly, does God favor the views of one party, and thus does God have a vote in the political races that take place in our nation? To be honest, I fear that many think the answer to these questions is yes. In fact, in recent elections it appears that one party, the Republican Party, has arrogantly offered itself as the only party that cares for the values of religious people, namely those of the Christian faith. This is not to generalize all members and voters within the GOP, but the evidence from past, and now present, campaigns is there.

Yet, the blame for religious domination by one party should not be laid entirely at the doorstep of Republican headquarters, for in their neglect, and even fear, to talk about religion and values in the public sphere, or to fight to push neglected moral issues to the forefront of political debates, the Democratic Party has relinquished its place at the religion and values debate. Thus they have failed to bring honest, thoughtful, and possibly dissenting views on issues that are religiously important, but which can be equally supported from a Christian position.

The problem with this approach to politics is that one party hijacks Christianity as a political tool, while the other views religion as politically poisonous. This inevitably leads to one party using religion for political advantage, persuading religiously minded people that they are indeed God’s party. Those religiously minded people tend to accept such religious rhetoric as gospel without critically thinking about each issue from a thoughtful religious position. In other words, one party or candidate may say they stand for certain religious values, but such positions may not be supported by thoughtful and logical reflection on the scope of the Christian faith.

Let me be clear. Despite opposition from those who think religion has no place in politics, I am a firm believer that my faith should inform the way I vote. However, in a political environment where argument has replaced dialogue, and rhetoric has replaced substance, I am not entirely sure that many of us are thinking critically and constructively about political issues from a well-informed religious perspective. Committing this fallacy leads us to assume that some positions are more authentically Christian. Yet, these positions may not be true to the teachings of Jesus and the biblical tradition.

Over the coming weeks, as we head into an election year, I will be addressing some of these more important issues that face us. I will not intentionally endorse any particular candidate or party. Rather, my intent is to take an honest look at specific issues from a faith perspective in order to move us to think with open hearts and minds about how God may lead each of us to vote our own religious conscience.

(This article also appeared on at

Monday, November 5, 2007

God’s Kingdom is a Kingdom of Embrace

A remarkable story is situated in the book of Acts that reveals Peter’s mindset toward people he considered unclean. Peter is praying on a rooftop when he falls into a deep trance. He has a vision of a great sheet coming down from heaven on which he sees all kinds of animals. A voice then commands him to eat the animals, but Peter refuses because, for him and other Jews like him, the eating of these animals made one unclean before God. The voice, which we are to assume is God’s, however, reasserts the original command by clarifying that what God has made clean, is clean.

This story is not about animals, clean or unclean; it is about Peter’s prejudices and his exclusion of others from full participation in the community of God. Peter understood the well-established boundaries between purity and impurity, boundaries that faithful Jews of the first century dared not cross. Among those who could be viewed as unclean were the diseased, the lame, sinners of all sorts, and, in Peter’s case, the Gentiles.

Jesus also understood the boundaries between purity and impurity that existed in his day. In fact, one of the frequent accusations made against him is that he congregated with the wrong kind of people, even to the point of sharing intimate meals with them. However, regardless of whether they were sinners and tax collectors, women of questionable character, or those with unclean diseases, each societal outcast found acceptance in Jesus’ community. Why? Because Jesus also understood that in him God was establishing a kingdom in which the boundaries between those who were pure and those who were deemed impure were torn down, and he made conscious choices to cross those boundaries to share intimate space and table fellowship with them, embracing them in God’s love.

What does it mean to exclude others? Yale theologian Miroslav Volf sees the sin of exclusion inherent in four human actions. According to Volf, we exclude others from the embrace of God when we abandon them and their needs. We also exclude others when we seek to assimilate them to be like us. We practice exclusion of others when we dominate them and force our own views and way of life on them. And worse still, we exclude others when we seek to exterminate them. In light of Volf’s comprehensive description of the sin of exclusion, each one of us is in a position of guilt. How shall we remedy this situation?

When it comes to the issue of exclusion in our own world we hear two dominant voices pulling us to and fro. On one side we hear our secular culture call us to practice tolerance. The other voice comes from religious fundamentalists who preach to us that tolerance is a sin. So where does the answer to the sin of exclusion rest? Is it rejection of tolerance or acceptance of tolerance? Should we hide behind a false gospel that calls us to separate ourselves from those not like us, which only reinforces our stereotypes of others and increases our hatred? Or should we conform to the meaninglessness of tolerance, knowing that tolerance merely calls us to grit our teeth and bear with others not like us, but it keeps us at a distance from them? The biblical answer lies neither in the denunciation of tolerance nor the reluctant acceptance of tolerance. The answer lies in the person and practice of Jesus, who has come into the world not to cast us aside, and surely not to tolerate us, but rather to embrace us.

If we accept the historical reality that Jesus lived the way the Gospels say he lived, as an intimate to those considered impure to his society, then those of us who claim to follow Jesus can do nothing less than to model his way of life. But if we reject his example by choosing to exclude others, then we mock God’s embrace of us, and we come dangerously close to being outsiders to God’s kingdom.

Where are the boundaries of exclusion we have established between ourselves and those we consider unclean? Race, ethnicity, gender, religion, social standing, economic status, and sexual orientation are all areas of identity where in some form or fashion we practice exclusion. But if we are to participate in God’s kingdom coming into the world, then we must repent of our sin of exclusion, cross the boundaries we have set between ourselves and others, and embrace all persons, as God in Christ has embraced us.