News & Politics

What Jesus Wouldn't Do

Excerpt: Much of the religious right's agenda is in direct contradiction to Christ's own teachings – and most devout Christians know it.
Editor's Note: The following is an edited excerpt from Jim Wallis' new book, God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It (Harper San Francisco).

The politics of Jesus is a problem for the religious right.

In Matthew’s 25th chapter, Jesus speaks of the hungry, the homeless, the stranger, prisoners, and the sick and promises he will challenge all his followers on the judgment day with these words, “As you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.” James Forbes, the pastor of Riverside Church in New York City, concludes from that text that, “Nobody gets to heaven without a letter of reference from the poor!” How many of America’s most famous television preachers could produce the letter?

The hardest saying of Jesus and perhaps the most controversial in our post–Sept. 11 world must be: “Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you.” Let’s be honest: How many churches in the United States have heard sermons preached from either of these Jesus texts in the years since America was viciously attacked on that world-changing September morning in 2001? Shouldn’t we at least have a debate about what the words of Jesus mean in the new world of terrorist threats and pre-emptive wars?

Christ commands us to not only see the splinter in our adversary’s eye but also the beams in our own, which often obstruct our own vision. To name the face of evil in the brutality of terrorist attacks is good theology, but to say they are evil and we are good is bad theology that can lead to dangerous foreign policy. Christ instructs us to love our enemies, which does not mean a submission to their hostile agendas or domination, but does mean treating them as human beings also created in the image of God and respecting their human rights as adversaries and even as prisoners. The words of Jesus are either authoritative for Christians, or they are not. And they are not set aside by the very real threats of terrorism. The threat of terrorism does not overturn Christian ethics.

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 seems much more nationalist than Christian, while the opposition party has offered more confusion than clarity. In any election we choose between very imperfect choices. Yet it is always important to examine what is at stake prayerfully and theologically.

This examination among evangelicals became clear in the 2004 Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility, an unprecedented call to social action from the National Association of Evangelicals. In contrast to the Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson era, evangelicals are now showing moral leadership in the fight against global poverty, HIV/AIDS, human trafficking, and sustainability of God’s earth.

These changes represent both a reaction against overt partisanship and a desire to apply Christian ethics to a broader set of issues. Many people of faith have grown weary of the religious right’s attempts to narrow the moral litmus test to abortion and gay marriage. For example, when likely voters were asked in a 2004 poll whether they would rather hear a candidate’s position on poverty or on gay marriage, 75 percent chose poverty. Only 17 percent chose gay marriage. Any serious reading of the Bible points toward poverty as a religious issue, and candidates should always be asked by Christian voters how they will treat “the least of these.” Stewardship of God’s earth is clearly a question of Christian ethics. Truth telling is also a religious issue that should be applied to a candidate’s rationales for war, tax cuts, or any other policy, as is humility in avoiding the language of “righteous empire,” which too easily confuses the roles of God, church, and nation.

War, of course, is also a deeply theological matter. The near unanimous opinion of religious leaders worldwide that the Iraq war failed to fit “just war” criteria is an issue for many Christians, especially as the warnings from religious leaders have proved prophetically and tragically accurate. The “plagues of war,” as the pope has referred to the continuing problems in Iraq, are in part a consequence of a “Christian president” simply not listening to the counsel of religious leaders who tried to speak to the White House. What has happened to the “consistent ethic of life,” suggested by Catholic social teaching, which speaks against abortion, capital punishment, poverty, war, and a range of human rights abuses too often selectively respected by pro-life advocates?

The religious right’s grip on public debates about values has been driven in part by a media that continues to give airtime to the loudest religious voices, rather than the most representative, leaving millions of Christians and other people of faith without a say in the values debate. But this is starting to change as progressive and prophetic faith voices are speaking out with a confidence and moral urgency not seen for 25 years. Mobilized by human suffering in many places, groups motivated by religious social conscience (including many evangelicals not defined by the religious right) have hit a new stride in efforts to combat poverty, destructive wars, human rights violations, pandemics like HIV/AIDS, and genocide in places like Sudan.

In politics, the best interest of the country is served when the prophetic voice of religion is heard—challenging both right and left from consistent moral ground. The evangelical Christians of the 19th century combined revivalism with social reform and helped lead movements for abolition and women’s suffrage—not to mention the faith-based movement that directly preceded the rise of the religious right, namely the American civil rights movement led by the black churches.

The truth is that most of the important movements for social change in America have been fueled by religion—progressive religion. The stark moral challenges of our time have once again begun to awaken this prophetic tradition. As the religious Right loses influence, nothing could be better for the health of both church and society than a return of the moral center that anchors our nation in a common humanity. If you listen, these voices can be heard rising again.
Jim Wallis is the editor of Sojourners magazine.
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