Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Derek Webb and God's Politics -- Part 2

God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get ItAs I mentioned previously, Derek Webb's new album Mockingbird has an intentional focus on the outworking of the Christian faith, especially in social and political issues. To coincide with the album release, I read God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It by Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners, "a Christian ministry whose mission is to proclaim and practice the biblical call to integrate spiritual renewal and social justice." Derek notes that God's Politics played a significant role in shaping his recent work; however, he is quick to clarify that he appreciates Wallis for the challenges he raises, but definitely not for all of his conclusions and proposals. That, I think, is a decent evaluation of the book as a whole.

Wallis has a number of good things to say. He decries the tendency of "the Left" to marginalize or even exclude the role of religion in public affairs, and he frequently cites the Civil Rights Movement as a positive example of faith motivating social action. I think he is also correct in stating that "moral issues" should not be constrained to abortion and homosexuality only, as some conservatives tend to do (whether explicitly or by implication), because the Bible also speaks to issues of poverty, justice, race, etc. Christ is Lord over all, and I appreciate Wallis' challenge for Christians to evaluate how their faith impacts all spheres of life.

Wallis delivers no small amount of criticism against the Iraq War and the larger War on Terror, but I find his points to be a great deal more thoughtful than the usual barrage of "Bush lied" rhetoric. For instance, he does not stoop to justifying the actions of terrorists (i.e., "they are freedom fighters" or "the U.S. pushed them into this"), but rather, he openly acknowledges the presence of true evil in the world and in the actions of despots and terrorists. Even if I may not agree with some of his critiques, he makes some good points on the perils of preemptive war, especially in noting that horrors like civilian deaths and abuse of prisoners by "the good guys" tend to be an unavoidable product of war in general. Wallis does not try to argue that Bush intentionally deceived the public, but he does argue that the Iraq War has revealed that faulty intelligence can have dreadful consequences, especially if acted upon in a hasty manner. I think this is worth contemplating. Additionally, Wallis makes some excellent points about the ways in which the Bush administration has justified the War on Terror by taking biblical passages that refer to Jesus or the Church and then applying them to the United States (e.g., "The ideal of America is the hope of all mankind. That hope still lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness has not overcome it."). Regardless of their opinions on the war, Christians should bristle at such misuses of our Scriptures.

Despite some good points, however, the book left me mostly frustrated. Wallis' major premise is that "people of faith" should band together to address social issues in ways consistent with their religion, unconstrained by the self-serving agendas of political parties. In principle, I think this is a great message, but Wallis does not clearly identify parameters for what constitutes "religious beliefs." He writes from a Christian perspective, but often addresses his remarks to people of other faiths, such as Judaism and Islam. Granted, there are many causes behind which people of diverse faiths can rally, but Wallis does not adequately address instances where these beliefs diverge. For instance, he agrees that unchecked "spirituality" can lead to destructive consequences, such as brutal theocracies or religiously-motivated suicide bombings, but these fuzzy disclaimers just don't provide a useful boundary for discerning between acceptable and unacceptable religious practice. He repeatedly cites "the wisdom of the prophets" as a foundation for social action, but this concept is too broadly-defined to establish them as authoritative. Obviously, people with a high view of Scripture will view the prophetic books as having authority. However, throughout the book Wallis fails to make the much stronger case that could be made by appealing to the authority of the resurrected Christ (towards whom all the prophets look), instead of merely invoking nebulous concepts of "prophetic wisdom."

Wallis' handling of the Scriptures is woefully inadequate. The overarching problem is his atomization of the texts with little attention given to their larger story. In Wallis' treatment, the prophets resemble little more than social activists/political critics with a message from God. Granted, there is no denying that the prophets routinely condemned injustice and corruption. However, the prophets were not addressing abstract concepts; rather, they typically issued indictments against God's people for their covenant infidelity, while also proclaiming God's promise of redemption towards them. The "wisdom of the prophets" flows out of the larger story of God's dealings with His wayward people, which is a re-telling of the even larger story of the Creation, Fall and Redemption of the entire creation. There are any number of instances where Wallis misapplies such passages:

  • Micah 4:1-5 becomes a plan for increased global security ("Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore") by means of ensuring that all peoples have a personal investment in the global economy ("Every man will sit under his own vine and under his own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid"). There is no mention of the eschatological context of this passage, namely that God is the one making peace and providing security at the End of the Age. Instead, Wallis presents this passage as a prescription for how the nations can bring about peace themselves.

  • Similarly, Isaiah 65:20-25 is touted as a prophetic vision of "a good society" filled with economic security, good wages, housing, health and security. Because budgets are "moral documents," he says, this prophetic platform is a guideline to evaluate how well governments are addressing poverty. However, Wallis fails to acknowledge that Isaiah's description of this society immediately follows God's promise that "Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth" (v.17)! This passage describes the state of affairs brought about by the final act of divine redemption (explicitly benefiting God's people, nonetheless) -- not a society brought about by well-intentioned governmental policies.

  • Similar examples abound.

    Wallis also displays significant inconsistencies in his arguments:

  • His appeals to "a consistent ethic of human life" are too simplistic. Thankfully, he opposes abortion, while rightfully arguing that Christians need to address a host of socio-economic factors that influence the abortion rate. He cites a good deal of Scripture in support of a pro-life position. However, he cites no Scripture to support his opposition to capital punishment. Granted, he makes many good points about the inequalities and injustices that exist in administrations of the death penalty. Serious believers should be concerned and vocal in ensuring that justice is done, both in punishing the guilty and in protecting the innocent. However, serious Christians must also grapple with the fact that capital punishment is explicitly ordained by God's Word. Unfortunately, Wallis makes no attempt to address God's own "inconsistent" ethics of human life.

  • Wallis also seems to contradict his previous claims about the role of faith in public life when he indicates that churches can address gay marriage in one way (such as refusing to permit such unions) while allowing the State to make other provisions. The obvious question that arises here is, why is it desirable for people of faith to use "the wisdom of the prophets" to influence the State's policies in some instances (e.g., national defense, poverty) but not on this particular one? Additionally, Wallis claims that gay marriage is still an issue up for debate within churches, whereas Scripture itself does not offer much flexibility.

    This is not to say that all of Wallis' arguments from Scripture fall short. He provides plenty of biblical examples where the faithful are admonished to care for the poor. Now, I do believe he overplays his hand here, for many of the "oppression" texts he cites deal not with generic economic disparity but rather with the brutal treatment of God's Old and New Testament people at the hands of tyrannical rulers; be that as it may, Wallis is still correct that the Scriptures advocate compassion for the poor. He makes some good points about Jesus' ministry to the socially downtrodden, especially when he argues that Jesus' statement that "the poor you always have with you" should be understood as a charge for believers to address poverty around them (rather than an excuse to simply avoid a problem because it will always be around). Even if Wallis' case is not as strong as he claims, he does demonstrate that God instructs His people to show compassion to the poor. This fact is worthy of contemplation.

    Wallis' passion for the plight of the poor is admirable, especially as he discusses how the poor become victims of political parties, who use often use poverty as a tool for partisan battles without really confronting the problems. Unfortunately, his political analysis reveals one of the fundamental problems with his views on politics and faith: the implication throughout the book is that people of faith need to support governmental solutions to social issues. Although Wallis commends the work of non-governmental organizations in pursuit of compassion for the poor and justice in society, he claims that this simply isn't enough and that the government needs to step at some point in to enact change. This statement is dangerous because it contains much truth. The purpose of the State is to punish injustice, and the Civil Rights Movement (or in a previous century, Wilberforce's crusade against British slavery) again provides an example of how moral outrage can inform and influence the power of the State for good. Unfortunately, attempts by the government to engineer solutions to social problems often create dependency on the State. Wallis does not address this dark side, and I think this omission greatly undercuts his stance. His position suggests that Christians are morally bound to support large government solutions to issues of poverty and injustice. Such a position is naive and simplistic, mainly because it ignores the contributions of those religious groups and organizations who strive to demonstrate compassion and promote justice without depending on the State to complete their mission. Again, Wallis lauds and encourages the work of private charitable organizations, but his political rhetoric does not seem to consider the fact that the State can easily become an idol competing with Christ for Lordship.

    On the whole, Wallis highlights many issues about which Christians should care deeply. And I think he is correct in trying to encourage fellow Christians to give more thought towards matters of justice and poverty, and more importantly, to put their faith into practice. However, I believe both Wallis' mishandling of Scripture and his over-reliance on governmental solutions hinder him from making a consistent and convincing case for why the Church should devote herself to addressing social issues. In my last installment, I will circle back to Derek Webb's thoughts, which hopefully present a much more solid foundation for Christian activism.

    Keep Reading:
    Part 3
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