Love Thine Political Enemies: Reflections on God’s Politics and the Teachings of Christ
In The New York Times,1 the Reverend Jerry Falwell was quoted as saying, “It is the responsibility of every political conservative, every evangelical Christian, every pro-life Catholic, every traditional Jew, every Reagan Democrat, and everyone in between to get serious about re-electing President Bush.” Through his work as founder and editor of Sojourners and Convener of Call to Renewal, Jim Wallis counters this argument urging progressives to work for justice and peace by embracing a politics rooted in the Bible.
Throughout his latest book, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, Wallis asks why the faith of Jesus came to be known as pro-rich, pro-war and pro-American, adding that poverty and the environment are also religious issues. Wallis’s concerns were echoed by The Washington Post’s post-2004 election analysis.2 “Battling the notion that ‘values voters’ swept President Bush to victory because of opposition to gay marriage and abortion, three liberal groups (Pax Christi, Res Publica, and the Center for American Progress) released a post-election poll in which 33 percent of voters said the nation’s most urgent moral problem was ‘greed and materialism’ and 31 percent said it was ‘poverty and economic justice.’ Sixteen percent cited abortion, and 12 percent named same-sex marriage.” Yet, as Wallis notes repeatedly, in the last election, neither candidate made poverty a core issue in his campaign platform.
Those looking for a hard-hitting critique of the Religious Right will not be disappointed. Instead of relying on secular soundbites from liberal stalwarts such as NOW, the ACLU, or the People for the American Way, Wallis uses Jesus and the Old Testament prophets to disprove the biblical injunctions that George W. Bush uses to justify his political decisions. As Wallis notes, Bush’s scriptural quotations are “all too often either taken out of context, or worse yet, employed in ways quite different from their original meaning.” For example, Wallis preaches that budgets are “moral documents,” adding that while it may be controversial, it is not inappropriate to call current federal budgets that neglect the poor and finance an unjust war “unbiblical.” While Wallis promoted Bush’s faith-based initiatives in his earlier book, Faith Works (Random House, 2000), he now concedes that this program, which showed great promise in its inception, is now in danger of becoming a hollow program without consistent domestic tax and spending policies that effectively reduce poverty.
Even though Wallis is a registered Democrat, he deviates from the party line by chiding liberals for embracing secularism, and abandoning their own progressive history. As Wallis reminds readers, people of faith have served as the driving forces behind every major social movement in U.S. history, such as abolition, women’s suffrage, and civil rights. According to Wallis, if Democrats wish to regain control of the White House and Congress, then they must learn how to talk about moral values in a way that remains true to the party’s principles. Wallis, an evangelical Christian, backs up his analysis with social action, citing repeated examples from his more than thirty years as a social activist that illustrate how Christians can work within the political sphere to address a host of issues, including poverty, the environment, criminal justice, and war.
Lest anyone fear Wallis is promoting a Religious Left that like the Religious Right seeks to obliterate the lines between church and state, Wallis writes, “But to influence a democratic society, you must win the public debate about why the politics you advocate are better for the common good.” That’s the democratic discipline religion has to be under when it brings its faith to the public square. So like the sixties-era civil rights leaders, Wallis is marching to the White House and Capitol Hill brandishing both his Bible and a copy of the Constitution.
Since the 2004 election, while considerable ink has been spilled by religious leaders such as Jim Wallis, Tony Compolo, and Rabbi Michael Lerner about the need to bring a discussion of moral values onto the political scene, we also need to heal the political divide that still separates a number of Christians, as a substantial number of American churches still remain Blue or Red houses of worship. Many parishes have become centers where like-minded individuals go to have their political convictions affirmed and their protest strategies refined rather than communities of faithful believers, who seek to live out the teachings of Christ by embracing the political stranger in their midst.
How can the Christian community hope to come to any common ground and engage in civil discourse, when their places of worship are not welcoming to those of different political persuasions? Unfortunately, rather than engage with believers from different political backgrounds, to see where they can find common ground to begin a civil discourse on complex moral issues, too often Christians confuse acceptance of others with approval of their position, refusing at times to extend love toward those whose political views do not meet with their tacit approval. But the more Christians can learn to mirror the love of Christ, who loved all humanity, even his enemies, then the more the church will truly reflect the body of Christ. Dr. Miroslav Volf, author of Exclusion and Embrace3 notes, “The ‘enemy’ ought to be loved, his or her enmity notwithstanding. There is a whole way of life and a whole theological program contained in that simple command.”4
What does it mean to extend hospitality to those whom we may dislike or even despise? While noting that the enemy is often defined by the political order, in Radical Hospitality: Benedict’s Way of Love authors Father Daniel Homan, O.S.B., and Lonni Collins Pratt challenge Christians to search for some degree of real acceptance that allows one to offer a genuine word of welcome to those who disagree with them. “By accepting someone, we do what seems to be a small ordinary thing. A simple act would seem to be small anyway, but little acts of giving, one upon another, pile up to create a huge force capable of repelling darkness and transforming the world.” As Henri Nouwen reflected, “Hospitality means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.” If we can embrace our political rivals by creating such a sacred space, then perhaps we will find out for ourselves that the radical hospitality of St. Benedict offers a much-needed power for both the church and the world.
What if instead of creating political havens for democratically political souls to gather, these churches would choose instead to receive the other based on the Greatest Commandment of all as expressed in Matt 22:37–39? Simply put, we Christians are commanded to “love God with all our heart and all our soul and love our neighbor as ourselves.” The challenge I present to U.S. churches is to seek to create the type of worshipping communities where Red and Blue Christians can come together not as political rivals seeking to do battle but in communion joined together through baptism as brothers and sisters in Christ.
1. July 16, 2004.
2. November 10, 2004.
3. Abingdon Press, 1996.
4. The Wittenburg Door, January/February 1999.
Becky Garrison (‘92M.Div./M.S.W.) is senior contributing editor for The Wittenburg Door and author of the forthcoming book Black and Blue Church: Eyewitness Accounts of How American Churches are Hijacking Jesus, Bagging the Beatitudes, and Worshipping the Almighty Dollar.