Articulating a Christian Left: A Review of Getting on Message: Challenging the Christian Right from the Heart of the Gospel

By Harlon Dalton

Getting on Message: Challenging the Christian Right from the Heart of the Gospel, by Peter Laarman, Editor (Beacon Press, 2006), reviewed by Harlon Dalton ‘73 J.D.

This collection of essays, edited by Peter Laarman, brings together writers, scholars, pastors, and activists who share a belief that “enlightened public policy … hinge[s] on getting one’s theology right” (p. ix). The message they seek to convey is, as James M. Lawson, Jr. puts it, that although we “are quite willing to proclaim Jesus as Lord and Savior,” we often fail to “claim the spirit, the mind, the heart and the soul of Jesus as the content of how [we] are to live.” (pp. 31).

Given the times, the so-called War on Terror and the war in Iraq hover overhead. In “Easter faith and Empire,” Ched myers laments: “I write on the second anniversary of the declared ‘end’ to the latest Iraq war” (p. 52). “We are … well down the road of imperial unilateralism, and are seeing clearly that this means a world held hostage to wars and rumors of war” (p. 51). In “Higher Ground,” Lawson concludes: “[W]e who are followers of Jesus must love the enemy, for that enemy is the recipient of God’s grace – of God’s rain – just as we are.”

Several themes reverberate throughout the book, themes of fear, hope, estrangement hospitality, separation, connection, borders, home place. Even in essays that address domestic matters – capital punishment, mass incarceration, entrenched poverty, economic maldistribution – these themes recur. One of my favorite essays is Heidi Neumark’s “Strangers No more.” In it she skillfully interweaves biblical stories (moses and the Israelites; the Road to Emmaus; and Peter’s call to minister to the Gentiles) with the stories of two parishioners. Javier is an undocumented mexican man who, following his brother’s untimely death, felt duty bound to take the body back to mexico for burial despite risking detention, deportation, or worse. Brian is a pale blond relatively affluent gay man who has decided to fly home to Iowa to come out as a gay man to his religiously conservative parents. Neumark draws lessons aplenty, not least that two such seemingly disparate people can find common ground and discover that they fundamentally belong to one another in a church that is truly committed to radical hospitality.

Despite the provocative subtitle, very few of the essays in Getting On Message take dead aim at conservative Christianity. In the main, this collection is less about “challenging the Christian Right” than it is about articulating a Christian Left. But even this characterization is misleading. The labels “progressive” and “conservative,” “left” and right” are misplaced when we turn to God talk. They impress secular categories onto religious life, and invite us to view theology through the lens of everyday politics. If I had my druthers (and were unimpeded by marketing concerns) I would change the subtitle to “Reclaiming Prophetic Christianity from the Heart of the Gospel.”

At every turn, this volume presents a vision of Christ as prophet. Ched myers is but one of several writers who take us for a slow stroll along the road to Emmaus. There, Jesus lends a pastoral ear as Cleopas and the other disciple anxiously describe “the things that have taken place” in Jerusalem. “Then beginning with moses and all the prophets, [Jesus] interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Lk 24:18, 27). myers reminds us that “these prophets are the ones who throughout … history engaged the way things were with the vision of what could and should be. They question authority, make trouble, refuse to settle, interrupt business as usual, speak truth to power, give voice to the voiceless.”

Several essays invite us to carry on Christ’s prophetic work in today’s world. They inspire us by lifting up women and men whose faith leads them to live visionary Gospel lives. A particularly fine example is Rick Ufford-Chase’s “Who Is my Neighbor?” At one level it is a finely-grained description of the effects of globalization on Agua Prieta, a Mexican town just south of the U.S. border. But it is also an account of the prophetic witness of the women of Sagrada Familia Parish, who respond to an influx of Central American refugees by providing food and shelter, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned, educating workers about their rights, and engaging in direct action against scurrilous textile factories. “At Sagrada familia … the women of the comunidades discussed the arrival of the refugees in light of stories like the Good Samaritan … [and] the Judgment of the Nations in Matthew 25 in which Jesus makes it clear that caring for the poorest of the poor is the same as caring for Christ himself.”

To its credit, Getting On Message gets off message on occasion. Two of the most thoughtful essays in the collection caution against pursuing a progressive vision uncritically. In “Woman, Childbearing and Justice,” Chloe Breyer seeks “to establish beyond any doubt a woman’s capacity for moral discernment.” To that end, she develops a set of moral criteria that women should consider when contemplating an abortion. “I wish to present a constructive way for religious leaders to engage women who are confronting the question of what to do in the face of an unwanted pregnancy,” she says, while at the same time challenging “some ‘pro-choice’ supporters who have, unwittingly or not, allowed the language of choice to be too closely associated with … mere personal preference and … a materialistic and self-serving popular culture.”

The other somewhat contrarian essay is entitled “The iPod, the Cell Phone, and the Church.” In it, Vincent Miller traces the impact of the iPod on consumer culture, noting that it “enables the disembedding of songs from their contexts,” and “has also fed the decline of shared listening. Whatever one thinks about the banality of Top 40 music, it provided shared cultural touch points, a communally remembered soundtrack of memory” (p. 176). Similarly, an inclination to “sample” from a variety of religious traditions and to develop the equivalent of individualized “playlists” has resulted in the exaltation of do-it-yourself “spirituality” over culturally-embedded religious practices. “Consumer culture trains us to engage elements of religious traditions as disconnected fragments,” Miller says, “shorn of the inter-connections with other symbols and doctrines that together weave a worldview. Commodified pieces of religious traditions are less likely to be complex, to make demands upon us that challenge us to live differently” (p. 178). All of this leads him to challenge progressives to “reevaluate their suspicions of institutions and frustrations with the shortcomings of tradition.” After all, “in an ever-changing, fluid, globalizing world, [religious institutions and traditions] provide essential places to stand and from which to act” (pp. 188-189).

Harlon Dalton is Professor of Law at Yale Law School. His subject areas are civil procedure, law and theology, critical race theory, and law and psychology.