poverty 26360227 xl 2015

Another Round in the Battle of Values

Another American presidential campaign is about to take shape. Politicians are announcing their candidacies. The rhetoric is starting to ramp up. The posturing has begun. 

I used to get excited about such things. Now I just brace for a long season of negativity, criticism, and hate. And I pray for the healing of millions of distorted, wounded hearts.

One of the reasons I dread the political drama is because it forces most people into black-and-white, cut-and-dried categories. We polarize our society and then vilify everyone at the other pole.

When I talk about political or social issues in casual conversation — which I rarely do, by the way — I often get categorized in surprising ways. People make assumptions about my beliefs based on a single comment, or even on just a willingness to take the other side for the sake of balance, all because of a single idea that didn’t fit someone’s grid.

Politics vs. beliefs

Since this blog is about Christian history and its relevance for today, I’ll offer a historical example.

In the ancient world, grain shortages could amount to a life-threatening crisis. Generally this was not a problem in Rome; the capital took care of itself (usually with Egyptian grain). But it was a different story in Roman provinces. 

So when a man named Agabus stood up in Antioch and prophesied a widespread famine during the reign of Claudius (Acts 11:28), it was a big deal. 

In most cities and provinces, a wealthy citizen would step forward to be the benefactor in such times, not only feeding the people but also securing prestige, loyalty, and a whole lot of obligations through his generosity. Sometimes a particular office (curator annonae) would be established to oversee local distribution. The entire process was centered on the wealthy and powerful to solve the problem.

So how did the church respond to the prophecy of Agabus? They found a better alternative. They decided that each person — not just the wealthy and powerful, and not under any compulsion — would send assistance to Judea, each according to his own ability (Acts 11:29). They volunteered to take on the responsibility of benefactor. They each became a mini curator annonae.

Try putting that forward as a policy item today and see what happens.

In American politics, our debates about poverty relief tend to put the responsibility either on government (which has rightly been criticized for being shamefully inefficient) or on private groups and individuals (who then shamefully tend to ignore the problem). Meanwhile, some people actually need help. We are not nearly as inspired as the early church was in finding better alternatives.

But if someone with a biblical value system were to step in and say, “It’s my responsibility, first and foremost, but it’s yours and everyone else’s too,” he or she would likely get stuck with an unflattering political label. Especially if any specific policy suggestions were packaged with the ideal.

So Christians try to wedge biblical values into a system of two parties (more outside the U.S.), neither of which fully embodies biblical values.

The result is a “Christian society” that is often more Republican or Democrat than Christian.

What would that look like?

I would love to see the church return to Christian values that are actually Christian — that reflect a spirit of innovation and biblical responses to society’s needs.

That could take a lot of different shapes, but at the very least it would mean this:

If you truly hold to biblical values, you will not conform to the political system, even though you participate in it. You will understand the difference between being involved and being assimilated.

You will be able to see some policies and principles in each party that you agree with and others that you disagree with, and you will be able to say so without feeling as if you’re betraying a particular party or compromising your beliefs. You will refuse to be pigeonholed into complete identification with either party, and you will not feel compelled to agree with everything one party says or disagree with everything another party says.

As a practical matter, you will probably find that one party is more aligned with your beliefs than the other, and you should support it. But you will not be blind to your own party’s flaws and inconsistencies. And you will have more grace toward those you disagree with, who, in most cases, came about their ideals sincerely, at least at first.

You will pray for your leaders, regardless of what you think of them.

You won’t fall into a “ours can do no wrong!” or a “theirs can do no right!” way of thinking. And you won’t care if people criticize you because you don’t fit their stereotypes. You’ll be free.

Actually, if people have a hard time figuring out where you are politically, take that as a good sign. It means your Christianity cannot be forced to fit the American (or British or Filipino or wherever you live) political system.

It means you follow Jesus more than you follow human personalities. It means you’ve been reading the gospels more than the columnists. And it means you’re a citizen of a much greater kingdom than our political systems offer.