Thursday, January 31, 2008

Jesus’ Political Message Judged the Immorality of Poverty

One of the sad facts about American Christianity is that many Christians are ignorant of the political nature of Jesus’ message. Preferring to see Jesus in only spiritual terms, and his message as only about salvation and heaven, we often miss the significance of Jesus as a political figure. I don’t mean to suggest that we should see Jesus like we see politicians today. Rather, we should gain a better understanding of the historical reality that Jesus preached a political and prophetic message that constantly challenged the political leaders of his day.

In being a prophetic and political voice, Jesus was carrying forth the traditions of Israel’s prophets, who were called by God to confront the leaders of Israel with their injustices. These leaders, who were to be the shepherds and caretakers of God’s people, were charged by God to govern people with justice, to strengthen the weak, to feed the hungry, and to shelter the displaced and homeless. These leaders were charged by God to be generous in their leadership, and they were judged by God when they kept their positions through political compromises with the rich and powerful. When Israel’s leaders failed in their God ordained responsibilities, the prophets served as the voice of God’s judgment.

It is this same prophetic and political message that must continually challenge the politicians of our day. In many respects, our government leaders have failed in their faithful roles as shepherds of the people, for they have failed to feed the sheep, to strengthen the weak, and failed to heal the sick. Like the political leaders judged by Jesus, they have cared for themselves and their political agendas and friends.

In a year in which we have a serious choice to make concerning the political direction of our nation, we should be asking our leaders some very serious questions about their leadership. Why can’t the richest country in the world provide health care for all? Why can’t we provide sustainable jobs that pay salaries to help people provide for their families? Why are we giving more and more money to military spending and less to social programs? Why do our leaders side with corporations and abandon the people who elected them to office? Why don’t these leaders work for creative solutions to solve our more basic and needful problems?

Many of our politicians like to talk about moral values, especially around election time. Abortion, gay marriage, and other issues are usually those that are at the forefront of the debate. While these are moral issues, the greatest moral crisis facing our nation is not abortion, and it is certainly not gay marriage. The greatest moral issue that faces us today, and one about which Jesus spoke the most, is poverty. Consider the following statistics related to the issue of poverty.

One in every six children in America lives in poverty; that’s 13 million children. Thirty-six million people live below the poverty line. About 4 million families exist in a chronic state of hunger. Forty-five million Americans have no health insurance coverage; 8.4 million of these are children. These are tragic statistics, but they do not even scratch the surface for they do not reveal the desperate problem of inadequate housing and a substandard education.

The scandal in all of this is that our political leaders are not solving these real problems because they spend their time blaming each other instead of working together to provide real leadership and permanent solutions to the problem of poverty.

We have the power to change things, if we only will. Like Jesus, we need to have a sincere consciousness about the plight of people in our country, especially the poor. In developing such a consciousness, we must hold our leaders accountable until they make real progress in solving the poverty of this nation, and indeed, our world.

Poverty is not just a political issue. It is not just an economic issue. It is a moral and spiritual issue; the one about which Jesus and the prophets were most concerned. We have a moral and godly responsibility to care about this issue and especially the people caught in the seemingly inescapable web of poverty. To do so is to live the real political message of Jesus.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

A Candidate’s Religion Should be Personal, not Political

As I sat drinking my coffee one morning, I watched the early news broadcast on a cable news station where they were interviewing everyday folk in a local diner on the day of one of the recent presidential primaries. The interviewer was asking patrons of the restaurant about who they would choose as their candidate for President and why they were choosing that particular contender. Most were concerned about the economy, or about immigration, or about the war in Iraq. Yet the response of one woman caught my attention and almost caused me to spill my morning cup.

When asked for whom she would vote, this particular voter responded with the name of the candidate of her choice, and when asked why, she simply replied that he would be the right person to turn America back to religion. I thought I had actually misheard what she had said, but I was wrong. She had said what I thought she said and she was sincere. Yet, what concerned me most, and ought to concern all of us, is that this is a sentiment that seems to be growing among more conservative evangelical Christians.

I have been forthright in stating very clearly that religious people are free, and should remain free, to vote their religious consciences, as I assume this woman will do. And, there is certainly nothing wrong with voting for a person because that candidate is religious. The problem is when we confuse the personal faith of a public official, especially one who may hold the highest office in our democracy, with the idea that he or she should be the religious leader of our republic. In other words, while a President’s personal faith may be important to a block of voters, this does not mean that the President should be the one who leads America back to religion, as if religion has somehow vacated our country.

There are some very important reasons that such a distinction must be kept. First, America, as I have written in the past, was founded on the principle of the separation of Church and State. Learning from the long history of religious violence and oppression in Europe, the founders of this nation, while affirming the importance of religion, drew a clear line between the roles of the Church and the State. That line is always hard to keep clear, but it becomes very blurry when political candidates are valued foremost for their religious views.

Second, the Constitution gives many roles and authorities to the President of the United States, but nowhere in this founding document is the President given authority to serve as a religious leader of the nation. There are certainly times in the life and struggle of a nation where the President symbolically serves a quasi-pastoral function, giving comfort to those who have suffered. Moreover, the President, by virtue of the power of the office, must act justly and make just legislation, which can have religious correlations. But in no way does the President serve as the religious leader of America.

Third, and perhaps most important for the modern era of American life, the multicultural fabric of our society has also produced a multi-religious civilization in which all should have freedom of religion and equal rights under the law. While the personal religious choice of a President is his or hers to make, and he or she may find strength in that faith in carrying out the role of President, the President cannot become the promoter of religion, for inevitably this will lead to the endorsement of one religion over others. In a democracy of religious diversity, to promote one religious perspective over others would result in the suppression, and perhaps oppression, of other religious views.

The opinion this woman shared may be innocent and well-meaning. Yet her outlook has recently become a political reality when one presidential candidate made the bold statement that the Constitution should be amended to reflect the Bible. Such a statement presents real problems for a democratic nation where religious faith and government authority are to remain separate. This may be a statement that a pastor is free to make from a pulpit, but it is not a declaration a candidate for President should make.

In a democracy, where the power over government rests with the vote of each citizen, the fundamental belief is that people can make reasonable and moral choices. Thus, while history demonstrates that humans will always search for God through religion, moral choices are not solely dependent on religion or on a person who is a religious leader. The key to a just and moral society is finding the common moral ground on which just legislation is made to achieve the common good, religious or not.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Martin Luther King Jr. was Prophetic Voice for Peace

This past Tuesday, January 15, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have been 79 years of age if he had not been tragically gunned down on April 4, 1968. Dr. King’s legacy is large, and much of the progress we have made in race relations, although still inadequate, is due to his unwavering belief and commitment to justice, freedom, and equality for all.

Yet, while we look back on his life and work with great admiration, many people, and mostly young people, are unaware of his greatness as an orator. Dr. King was perhaps the greatest speech giver of the past century. The depth of his thought, the poetry of his words and phrases, and the cadence of his speech captivated and motivated audiences who listened to his powerful messages.

I have recently been re-reading through and listening to some of these speeches. Of course, we think primarily of his speech at the March on Washington in 1963, where he laid out his dream for an equal America. But perhaps as powerful, but much shorter, was the last speech he gave the night before his death in Memphis. The emotion he must have felt as he talked about seeing the Promised Land of equality, even though he would not get there. More than a public speaker, Dr. King was a Biblical Prophet, whose prophetic voice and message exposed the oppression of governmental policies and practices that failed to secure equality and justice for all.

Yet, while the above mentioned speeches may be commonly known by many people, most would be surprised to know that one of his most memorable speeches was given at historic Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his death. The speech was entitled, “Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam.”

I had read the text of this sermon many years ago, but I recently listened to a recording of Dr. King delivering this address. In that speech, Dr. King called for a break in the silence that loudly refused to challenge the American government’s policy in Vietnam through a voice of dissent. He also drew attention to the reality that the war had many more victims than the soldiers killed on both sides, as innocent citizens of Vietnam suffered because of American military strikes and innocent Americans suffered under the economic weight of waging a costly war. Moreover, he accused the U.S. government of maintaining an air of arrogance, believing that it had everything to teach the world and nothing to learn from it.

As I listened to some of the poetic statements come from the mouth of this 20th century Prophet, I could not help but hear him delivering this speech today, as if he were still alive. I was taken with how relevant this speech is to the current context of the War in Iraq, calling for an end to the silence, an end to American arrogance, and an end to the war.

But what is so prophetic about Dr. King’s speech about American arrogance and the war in Vietnam, is not only that it foreshadows America’s continued arrogance in how it still relates to the rest of the world, but that it echoes some of the same sentiments that Jesus spoke as he proclaimed a kingdom of alternative values in the face of Roman Imperial power and arrogance. As Jesus called for a reordering of values in his own context, so Dr. King called on America to embrace the values of peace, justice, and humility.

In that sermon at Riverside Church, Dr. King called for “A true revolution of values” that would “lay hands on the world order and say of war: "This way of settling differences is not just." He continued by proclaiming that, “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” “There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.”

As we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, may we not only remember his legacy of speaking prophetically the biblical message against prejudice, injustice, and war, but may we also find our prophetic voices that echo his message from a sermon he delivered against the war on February 25, 1967 that called America to execute “another kind of power”; “a moral power… harnessed to the service of peace.”

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Christians Should Respond to the Immigration Debate with the Compassion of Christ

The Christmas Season has once again come and gone. Presents have been opened and exchanged, decorations have been stored for another year, and resolutions have been made to start the New Year. The ever familiar Christmas story lives on in our hearts and minds, narrating for us the incarnation of God into the world in the person of Jesus. Yet, while we celebrate and retell the story with feelings of warmth and comfort, from its beginning to its end the story is a narrative about the rejection of Jesus as a stranger and alien in a foreign land.

Luke tells us that when Jesus was born Mary laid him in a feeding trough, because there was no room for him in the inn. Matthew narrates a story about a young family having to live a nomadic life because of the threat of governing authorities. Both birth narratives reflect what Jesus knew to be true about his own life, “The Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). Throughout his life, while Jesus gathered a small following, in most cases, he was rejected. The story of the incarnation, then, is a story about how the God of creation had entered into that creation as a rejected alien and stranger.

As the political season heats up, one of the most vital debates raging among the candidates for President is the issue of immigration. I am ill-equipped to answer questions about immigration from a legal stand point, and I see the strengths and weaknesses of various positions on the issue. But as Christians who follow a Savior who himself lived as an alien rejected by his own, I am troubled that many folks are not concerned about developing a compassionate response to the immigration issue.

Since the horror of 9/11, xenophobia has once again raised its ugly head in our country. This fear of foreigners has grown out of a return to a deep-seated and zealous patriotism that has gone too far in its understanding of America as the only culturally pure society. Yet, some blame must also be placed on our fear of not feeling secure and the perception that American culture is under threat. Such xenophobic tendencies may overtly or implicitly influence our feelings about immigrants and our political positions on the issue of immigration.

How might Scripture inform us as we struggle to formulate common sense and faithful Christian responses to the issue of immigration? First, we need to recall God’s commands to Israel regarding aliens in their midst. The Mosaic Law states that God is one “who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.” Moses goes on to command Israel to “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:17-19).

When we turn to the New Testament, we find that followers of Christ are called citizens of the Kingdom of God, and alien and strangers to the world. The Christian movement negated ethnic differences and crossed boundaries of ethnic separation to welcome all into the Kingdom of God. Jesus consistently reaches out to the outcasts of society, even the Gentiles, who were viewed as ethnically inferior by the religious leaders. Paul reaffirms the breaking down of ethnic divisions by stating that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, as both have been joined together into one new humanity (see Gal. 3:28; Eph. 2:14-22).

One thing we must keep in mind is that most immigrants we see and meet in our communities are not illegal immigrants. They are law abiding people who desire a better economic and political life for themselves and their families. We should remember that at some point in history our ancestors were immigrants to this country pursuing exactly what immigrants to the U.S. seek today. Moreover, we cannot simply blame immigrants for problems such as crime, loss of jobs, or other social problems. These problems would exist even if there were no immigrants.

As people of faith, we should be informed about this important issue and vote what we believe to be our religious conscience. But if we claim to follow Jesus, we need to make sure our views are more informed by the compassion of our faith than the fear our culture feeds us. Our positions on the issues surrounding immigration must not only model the teachings of Jesus on welcoming the strangers and outcasts, they should also be views that see the person of Jesus in every human being. If they do not, we may find ourselves asking Jesus, “when did we see you as a stranger?’ only to hear, “just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Matt. 25:31-46).

(This article also appeared on at and on Faith in Public Life at