Com­pas­sion­ate Life

Chris­tian­i­ty is com­mu­ni­ty. Jesus began his min­istry by announc­ing the foun­da­tion of a new soci­ety — the king­dom of God — and pro­ceed­ed to root that procla­ma­tion in his rela­tion­ships with a small group of dis­ci­ples. He sum­ma­rized the entire thrust of Scrip­ture in terms of love — not only our love for God but also the love we express for oth­ers (Matt 22:34 – 40) — going so far as to affirm that on these two com­mand­ments hang all the law and the prophets.” Per­haps the sin­gle most unique aspect of his teach­ing was the way he extend­ed the call to love far beyond the usu­al ties of kin­ship and friend­ship; dis­ci­ples of Christ are to love one anoth­er and their neigh­bors, but they are also to love their ene­mies and per­se­cu­tors (Matt 5:43 – 48). As Jesus demon­strat­ed in his rela­tion­ships with pros­ti­tutes, tax col­lec­tors, sin­ners, occu­py­ing Roman sol­diers, Gen­tiles, Phar­isees, and so many oth­ers, no one falls out­side the orbit of the uni­ver­sal love of God which the fol­low­ers of Jesus are called to embody.

In my years of pas­toral min­istry I would fre­quent­ly be con­front­ed by the asser­tion: I don’t need to go to church to be a Chris­t­ian.” Those words usu­al­ly came from one of two kinds of peo­ple: those who nev­er attend­ed church but want­ed to see them­selves as good Chris­t­ian folk nonethe­less, and those who were dis­il­lu­sioned or dis­af­fect­ed with church life and were intend­ing to leave. Giv­en that, for all its beau­ty and glo­ry, the church sad­ly has an uncan­ny knack for alien­at­ing, exclud­ing, and crush­ing peo­ple, and I could often sym­pa­thize with the sen­ti­ment. Still, I found the whole idea baf­fling. It was as though some­one were to say, I don’t need to be part of a team to play soc­cer.” True, you could kick a ball around a field for a while the way soc­cer play­ers do, but the game itself is intrin­si­cal­ly social. Soc­cer is a team sport. And in the same way, Chris­t­ian faith is a com­mu­nal endeav­or. I don’t have to like church to be a Chris­t­ian — I may wres­tle with it, strug­gle with it, at times be repulsed by it. But in the end, I have to be part of it.

Many of us might agree, even those who have found church life dif­fi­cult and hurt­ful. But the exam­ple and teach­ing of Jesus point us much fur­ther down the road than this. We are called, not only to involve our­selves deeply in the life of the Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ty, but more broad­ly to a com­pas­sion­ate and lov­ing engage­ment with oth­er peo­ple in the ever widen­ing con­cen­tric cir­cles of com­mu­ni­ty in which we live: neigh­bor­hoods, towns and cities, coun­ties and states, the nation, even the world as a whole. Th e Ren­o­varé com­mu­ni­ty, through the Com­mon Dis­ci­plines that flesh out our shared Covenant, is com­mit­ted to social jus­tice, or the com­pas­sion­ate life; we affirm that by God’s grace, we will endeav­or to serve oth­ers every­where we can and will work for jus­tice in all human rela­tion­ships and social struc­tures.” That’s a com­mit­ment root­ed and ground­ed in the char­ac­ter of Jesus him­self — and it’s Jesus who shows us so clear­ly what that means in the per­son­al, pub­lic, and polit­i­cal arenas.

The Per­son­al Dimension

In the sev­enth chap­ter of his Gospel, Luke relates a fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ry about an unex­pect­ed inter­rup­tion at a din­ner par­ty. Simon the Phar­isee had invit­ed Jesus to dine with him, prob­a­bly togeth­er with a num­ber of oth­er guests. Th is was an oppor­tu­ni­ty for Simon to intro­duce the pop­u­lar but con­tro­ver­sial rab­bi to the friends and acquain­tances with­in his cir­cle, per­haps enhanc­ing his own rep­u­ta­tion in the process. But before long (as so often hap­pens when Jesus is around) the well-planned course of the evening began to go awry. A woman qui­et­ly tip­toed into the room car­ry­ing a valu­able jar of scent­ed oint­ment and placed her­self behind the reclin­ing fig­ure of Jesus, right at his feet. Luke tells us that she was a sin­ner,” with­out spec­i­fy­ing the nature of her sin — clear­ly, what­ev­er the nature of her offense, it was enough to make her noto­ri­ous with­in her local com­mu­ni­ty and there­fore an unwel­come guest in Simon’s home. The woman was weep­ing, her tears falling onto Jesus’ feet; she leaned over and wiped them away with her dis­grace­ful­ly loos­ened hair, before open­ing the jar and pour­ing out the per­fumed oil where her tears had fall­en. Simon was out­raged. If this man were a prophet,” he thought to him­self, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touch­ing him — that she is a sin­ner” (v. 39). It’s like­ly the oth­er guests respond­ed sim­i­lar­ly; the atmos­phere in the room must have chilled considerably.

But, as always, Jesus’ response was strik­ing. First he offers Simon a short para­ble about a man who for­gives two debtors the sub­stan­tial amounts they owe him— one equal to about two months’ salary, and the oth­er to almost two years of pay. Which of them will love him more?,” he asks Simon; the Phar­isee reluc­tant­ly acknowl­edges the point that those for­giv­en more will love more. Then Jesus points to the woman and asks a star­tling ques­tion: Do you see this woman?” (v. 44).

It’s worth paus­ing there before read­ing the rest of the nar­ra­tive. Do you see this woman?” The truth was, of course, that Simon had seen a great deal. He had seen the sin­ner at his door. He had seen, very clear­ly, the nature of her offense against pro­pri­ety, what­ev­er that had been. He had seen her intru­sion into his cir­cle, his world, his unsul­lied com­pa­ny; her dis­grace­ful behav­ior; her unbri­dled grief; her extrav­a­gant offer­ing of per­fume. And he had passed a fear­ful and fero­cious judg­ment on her in his own heart, based on all that he had seen. But the one thing he had failed to see was the woman her­self — this way­ward but beau­ti­ful daugh­ter of Eve, fall­en and cor­rupt­ed, but yet still bear­ing the image and like­ness of her Cre­ator. He had failed to see her pain, her sor­row, her frag­ile hope. He saw, so he thought, every­thing, but in the end proved blind to the only thing that mattered.

Jesus, on the oth­er hand, saw the woman. He addressed her direct­ly, ten­der­ly, speak­ing to her pain and her hope. We see this hap­pen­ing repeat­ed­ly through­out the Gospels. Th e scribes and Phar­isees drag before Jesus a woman caught in the act of adul­tery. They are blind to every­thing but the con­tro­ver­sial issue at stake — to stone her, or not to stone her? But Jesus maneu­vers them all away, and is the only per­son to address her direct­ly. Jesus alone sees the human per­son in her ( John 8:1 – 11). On anoth­er occa­sion, a par­a­lyzed man is low­ered through the roof. Th e crowd is abuzz with ques­tions — will Jesus heal, or not? Are his words blas­phe­mous, or not? But Jesus, unlike any­one else, speaks direct­ly to the man. Again, he is the only one to see the per­son before him, rather than the issues and ques­tions (Mark 2:112).

There is a cru­cial les­son here for us: by grace, we are trans­formed more into the like­ness of Christ and begin to be drawn to the com­pas­sion­ate life, to work for greater jus­tice, peace, and har­mo­ny as we serve those amongst whom we live. Con­stant­ly we need to ask our­selves, Do you see this woman?” Do you see this man?” We strug­gle against two com­pet­ing dan­gers. On the one hand, it is pos­si­ble to be so self-absorbed and self-cen­tered that we are blind to the needs, strug­gles, and pain of those around us; unfeel­ing and uncar­ing, we eas­i­ly excuse our­selves from being involved in the lives of oth­ers. But as we are trans­formed into greater Christ­like­ness, and the love of God becomes more man­i­fest in our lives, anoth­er temp­ta­tion rears its head — a more seduc­tive and sub­tle temp­ta­tion. We absorb our­selves in jus­tice,” in soci­ety,” in reforms.” We iden­ti­fy the issues and vig­or­ous­ly cam­paign. We speak out and make our voic­es heard. We become ener­getic activists for right­eous­ness! Yet still the truth is we have not learned to see (let alone love) the woman or the man — the indi­vid­ual human beings whose lives are so pro­found­ly affect­ed by the issues and caus­es over which we agitate.

Often, when I speak about Renovaré’s com­mit­ment to embrac­ing the com­pas­sion­ate life we see in Jesus, to being involved in seek­ing social jus­tice, some­one will ask (rather ner­vous­ly) how to get involved. Should we be march­ing in demon­stra­tions, lob­by­ing our politi­cians, chain­ing our­selves to rail­ings out­side the city hall? Do we need to write let­ters to the news­pa­per, write large checks for non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tions, or join pres­sure groups? In fact, of course, all these activ­i­ties have their place. But none are a good start­ing point. We need to get more per­son­al. We need to learn to see people.

I often sug­gest that the ques­tion­er might want to spend an evening down at the soup kitchen or home­less shel­ter. But not, I would quick­ly add, cook­ing the soup, or clean­ing the dish­es, or serv­ing the bread rolls. Nor sat in a back offi ce help­ing to file paper­work or count checks. Instead, head down to the shel­ter, grab a bowl of soup your­self, and sit with the folks who come through the door. Chat with them. Ask about their lives. Where are they from? Where are their fam­i­lies? What do they do, day by day? Who are their friends? What are their inter­ests, their sto­ries, their mem­o­ries? Begin to see them as peo­ple, not recip­i­ents or char­i­ty cas­es. There is no shel­ter in the land that wouldn’t wel­come you to come meet their com­mu­ni­ty on these terms. Or per­haps you might spend a day with a drop-in for sin­gle moth­ers. Or in a prison. Wher­ev­er you live, there are places where you can go meet the lost, the lone­ly, the trou­bled, the poor, the mar­gin­al­ized, the oppressed, and open your­self to their com­pa­ny and friendship.

A num­ber of years ago I spent a year work­ing in a church of the home­less in the south of Eng­land. I vivid­ly remem­ber arriv­ing at the church on my first day. The room was filled with the most ragged look­ing peo­ple I’d ever seen. Old Jock was slumped, drunk, in the cor­ner of the room, his tat­tered coat wrapped tight­ly around him. Michelle, with a shock of unruly pur­ple hair, leather jack­et, ram­pant pierc­ings, and tat­toos twist­ing wild­ly across her skin, laughed as she waved her cig­a­rette through the air. Tony sat mood­i­ly over his cof­fee, hours from his last fix, his eyes dart­ing round the room. Derek stood bolt upright, star­ing right at me, his gaze tee­ter­ing some­where around the edge of sanity.

I was ter­ri­fied. I felt so out of my depth; my com­fort zone was so dis­tant I would need air miles just to get in sight of it again. I edged my way into the room and gin­ger­ly sat in on a con­ver­sa­tion. The street lan­guage was unfa­mil­iar, and I had no idea what any­one was talk­ing about. It took every ounce of deter­mi­na­tion not to get up and leave right away — what did I think I was doing? But I screwed up my courage and deter­mined to stay. After all, didn’t some­one need to be Jesus for these peo­ple? If I stuck it out, at least I might get a chance to min­is­ter to them.

By the time I left a year lat­er, every­thing had changed. The drunks, addicts, ex-cons, pimps, and hook­ers had become not just peo­ple, but friends. I looked for­ward to turn­ing up. Annette’s jokes were a treat. Alan had been so help­ful when I’d gone through a bad patch halfway through the year. Maurice’s cook­ing was dread­ful, but his con­ver­sa­tion was so live­ly and entertaining.

And Jesus showed up — just where I’d least expect­ed him. I don’t know how much of Jesus they found in me — some­thing of him, I hope. But every time I sat over cof­fee with that com­mu­ni­ty, Jesus revealed him­self to me in them. After a few months I re-read the para­ble of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, and noticed some­thing obvi­ous that had nev­er struck me before. Those who reach out to the poor, the hun­gry, the naked, the pris­on­ers, find they are not con­grat­u­lat­ed for being Christ­like. Instead they are reward­ed by meet­ing Jesus in the very peo­ple they seek to serve. In the end, I went to that church not to be Jesus, but to meet Jesus. The expe­ri­ence changed my life.

The com­pas­sion­ate life is, first and fore­most, per­son­al. It must be root­ed in gen­uine, direct rela­tion­ships, not neb­u­lous issues. We can­not love caus­es. We can only love peo­ple — and this love is the root of all real, endur­ing jus­tice and peace. As we walk in the foot­steps of Jesus, we need to learn to see.

The Pub­lic Dimension

As we learn to see” peo­ple in our per­son­al lives, so in the pub­lic are­na — the world of the com­mu­ni­ties in which we par­tic­i­pate, our neigh­bor­hoods, soci­eties, com­mu­ni­ties, and church­es — we become able to show love and com­pas­sion more direct­ly. There are many ways of express­ing this love, but I often think that one of the most pow­er­ful com­mu­nal spir­i­tu­al prac­tices is that known in the Bene­dic­tine tra­di­tion as hospitality.

We some­times think of hos­pi­tal­i­ty in very sim­ple and func­tion­al terms: pro­vid­ing a meal for some­one, or open­ing our home to offer them a place to rest or sleep. But in the Chris­t­ian tra­di­tion the word has always had much broad­er con­no­ta­tions. There is a brief line in the Rule of St. Bene­dict which has deeply shaped the char­ac­ter not only of monas­ter­ies but also many oth­er church­es and Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ties for over a mil­len­ni­um and a half. In the 53rd chap­ter of the Rule, Bene­dict writes: All guests who present them­selves are to be wel­comed as Christ.” And Bene­dict imme­di­ate­ly roots this idea in the teach­ing of Jesus. He reminds us that in Matthew 25, dur­ing the para­ble of the sheep and the goats, the aston­ished dis­ci­ples ask Christ at the judg­ment: When was it that we saw you hun­gry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you some­thing to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and wel­comed you, or naked and gave you cloth­ing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and vis­it­ed you?” And Jesus replies, Tru­ly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are mem­bers of my fam­i­ly, you did it to me” (Matt 25:31 – 40).

Hos­pi­tal­i­ty, then, is extend­ing to the stranger — espe­cial­ly the hun­gry, thirsty, out­cast, needy, suf­fer­ing stranger — the same wel­come we would seek to extend to Christ him­self. For Bene­dic­tine monas­ter­ies, this meant mak­ing extra­or­di­nary pro­vi­sions for a stranger who arrived at the gates. On arriv­ing at the monastery, the vis­i­tor would be greet­ed with a bow, or even a com­plete pros­tra­tion on the ground; Christ was being wor­shiped in the per­son of the guest. Then there would be prayers togeth­er, after which the abbot him­self would be sum­moned to wash the hands and feet of the guest. Oth­er mem­bers of the com­mu­ni­ty might also wash the visitor’s feet, before a meal was pre­pared. It might be that the guest had arrived dur­ing a fast; no mat­ter. A sep­a­rate kitchen was main­tained for guests, and food would be pre­pared any­way. Guest quar­ters would be pre­pared with good bed­ding. Even monks keep­ing strict silence could speak to greet a guest, polite­ly explain their silence, and ask humbly for a blessing.

Many church­es have won­der­ful min­istries of hos­pi­tal­i­ty, extend­ing the most gra­cious wel­come to all who cross their thresh­old. It real­ly isn’t that dif­fi­cult for any church to estab­lish such a min­istry. It doesn’t require a huge bud­get invest­ment, or exten­sive train­ing; no-one needs to trav­el halfway across the coun­try for sem­i­nars and coach­ing. All it needs is a sim­ple change of per­spec­tive in enough of the church’s mem­bers, an under­stand­ing that vis­i­tors to the com­mu­ni­ty are not nui­sances to be endured (thank­ful­ly, that’s not the expe­ri­ence Hos­pi­tal­i­ty, then, is extend­ing to the stranger — espe­cial­ly the hun­gry, thirsty, out­cast, needy, suf­fer­ing stranger — the same wel­come we would seek to extend to Christ him­self. extend­ed in most church’s I vis­it, but I have seen that atti­tude mod­eled on more than one occa­sion!); nor are they poten­tial con­verts to be scalped” or pos­si­ble donors to be fawned upon. Like the Bene­dic­tine monks, encour­aged by the teach­ing of Jesus, we can sim­ply learn to see the guest as Christ among us. We don’t ask, What would Jesus do?,” but rather, What would I do for Christ?”

Jesus gives us a mag­nif­i­cent exam­ple of the nature of hos­pi­tal­i­ty in Matthew’s gospel. As Jesus came down from the moun­tain, after deliv­er­ing the Ser­mon on the Mount, he was con­front­ed by a lep­er who begged him for heal­ing. And, of course, Jesus does heal him — the lep­rosy is entire­ly cured, and the man restored to a nor­mal life in his fam­i­ly and com­mu­ni­ty. A won­der­ful mir­a­cle! But there is one small detail in the sto­ry that always catch­es my eye. Before Jesus heals the lep­er, before he even speaks to him, he does some­thing quite extra­or­di­nary. He stretched out his hand,” Matthew tells us, and touched him” (Matt 8:3). Th is poor man had per­haps not been inten­tion­al­ly touched for years, oth­er than by fel­low suf­fer­ers. He was, quite lit­er­al­ly, an out­cast — shunned by soci­ety, feared and loathed by all. Jesus’ sim­ple act had incred­i­ble heal­ing pow­er. Before he tack­led the dis­ease, he wel­comed the man back into human society.

There’s a pow­er­ful exam­ple of hos­pi­tal­i­ty in this sto­ry. Few of us have the kind of heal­ing min­istry that can bring cleans­ing to lep­ers. But any of us could sim­ply reach out and touch the untouch­ables. And our church­es can become places known for this kind of heal­ing touch. I think of St. John’s Down­town, an aston­ish­ing Methodist church in Hous­ton, which every Sun­day draws togeth­er thou­sands of peo­ple, includ­ing hun­dreds of home­less and rough sleep­ers, drug addicts, alco­holics, and oth­er peo­ple who have found them­selves pushed out to the mar­gins of soci­ety. At St. John’s they expe­ri­ence the com­pas­sion­ate touch of Christ — all are wel­comed, all are drawn in and embraced. And that is Chris­t­ian hos­pi­tal­i­ty, the com­pas­sion­ate life dis­played in Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ty. It is an act of pro­found grace.

The Polit­i­cal Dimension

Last­ly, we need to con­sid­er how we show com­pas­sion in the polit­i­cal realm. Again, Jesus is our role mod­el. Jesus was a pro­found­ly polit­i­cal fig­ure. It’s some­times dif­fi­cult for us con­tem­po­rary West­ern read­ers to under­stand Jesus’ polit­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance, because the cul­tur­al con­text in which he moved was so pro­found­ly dif­fer­ent to ours. We don’t see Jesus cam­paign­ing for pub­lic office, lob­by­ing lead­ing offi­cials, demon­strat­ing in the streets, or speak­ing in town hall debates — all the hall­marks of the mod­ern polit­i­cal process — and so we can eas­i­ly draw the erro­neous con­clu­sion that Jesus was a dis­in­ter­est­ed observ­er, dis­tant from the polit­i­cal process. Noth­ing could be fur­ther from the truth.

Right from the begin­ning, Jesus’ mes­sage was pro­found­ly polit­i­cal — in the truest sense of the word. Webster’s Dic­tio­nary defines pol­i­tics as the total com­plex of rela­tions between peo­ple in soci­ety.” The teach­ing of Jesus fun­da­men­tal­ly rede­fined that rela­tion­al com­plex. The Gospels tell us that when Jesus start­ed preach­ing, his sim­ple mes­sage was: The time is ful­filled, and the king­dom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15). In a world of tyrants, despots, kings, and emper­ors, to her­ald the inau­gu­ra­tion of a new king­dom was rev­o­lu­tion­ary, a direct chal­lenge to exist­ing rulers and pow­ers. In one sim­ple procla­ma­tion Jesus rel­a­tivized the author­i­ty of the Hero­di­an kings, the Judean San­hedrin, the impe­r­i­al Gov­er­nor, and even Cae­sar in Rome.

And these rulers clear­ly under­stood and felt the chal­lenge. The Hero­di­an dynasty, Jew­ish rulers who exer­cised author­i­ty at var­i­ous times in parts of Judea, Galilee, and beyond, repeat­ed­ly tried to crush Jesus and those who fol­lowed him. Herod the Great slaugh­tered the chil­dren of Beth­le­hem when he became aware of Jesus’ birth. His son, Herod Antipas, behead­ed John the Bap­tist and con­spired in the cru­ci­fix­ion of Jesus. Herod Agrip­pa, grand­son of Herod the Great, had James the apos­tle mur­dered, and sought to do away with Peter too (Acts 12:1 – 4). Th e cen­tral accu­sa­tion brought against Jesus dur­ing his tri­al by the San­hedrin was that he claimed to be the Christ (Mark 14:61 – 62); that is, the Mes­si­ah, the promised ruler of Israel. Th is accu­sa­tion was inter­pret­ed before Pilate as a claim to be king; in John’s account of the tri­al, Pilate feels the force of this claim so strong­ly it becomes the decid­ing fac­tor in his judg­ment ( John 19:12 – 16). The writ­ten charge under which Jesus hung on the cross — engraved in three lan­guages, so it could be under­stood by all — was this: Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” The San­hedrin was so incensed by Pilate’s word­ing of the claim it pro­voked a furi­ous argu­ment ( John 19:19 – 22). Th ere can be no doubt that Jesus was under­stood as a chal­lenge to the polit­i­cal order.

Chris­tians can­not expect to fol­low the cru­ci­fied King with­out becom­ing involved in this total com­plex of rela­tions between peo­ple in soci­ety.” Chris­tian­i­ty is inher­ent­ly polit­i­cal. But it’s ter­ri­bly easy for us to mis­un­der­stand what that might mean, and look­ing to the exam­ple of Jesus can be pro­found­ly help­ful as we enter into the deep waters of the polit­i­cal world.

Jesus was polit­i­cal, but not par­ti­san. It is, frankly, impos­si­ble to pin Jesus down as a poster boy either for the polit­i­cal left or right, or even for the mod­er­ate cen­ter ground. Christ defies easy cat­e­go­riza­tion with con­tem­po­rary polit­i­cal labels. Where would Jesus have stood on the issues of deficit reduc­tion, tax­a­tion, eco­nom­ic stim­u­lus pack­ages, and health care? What might he have taught about the appro­pri­ate scale of gov­ern­ment involve­ment in soci­ety, or domes­tic and for­eign pol­i­cy? What were his posi­tions on crime, edu­ca­tion, afford­able hous­ing, wel­fare, or the dozens of oth­er issues that dom­i­nate our polit­i­cal land­scape? The answer is sim­ple: we don’t know. The Gospels give us no grounds what­so­ev­er for putting views on these issues into Jesus’ mouth, and any effort to do so is almost always an attempt to mold Jesus into our own image. Author­i­ta­tive claims to know the mind of Christ” on the wide range of ques­tions fac­ing 21st cen­tu­ry West­ern democ­ra­cies are found­ed on lit­tle more than thin air, wish­es, and occa­sion­al­ly deceit.

Because of this, Chris­tians have a great deal of free­dom in the polit­i­cal are­na. It is entire­ly con­sis­tent with the Chris­t­ian faith and with Gospel teach­ing for Chris­tians to speak, act, cam­paign, and work as pas­sion­ate Repub­li­cans, Jesus was polit­i­cal, but not par­ti­san. It is, frankly, impos­si­ble to pin Jesus down as a poster boy either for the polit­i­cal left or right, or even for the mod­er­ate cen­ter ground. or Democ­rats, or Greens, or Inde­pen­dents, or from pret­ty much any oth­er com­mit­ment on the polit­i­cal spec­trum. In debate with one anoth­er we should deter­mine that, although we have come to dif­fer­ent con­clu­sions about the way the Gospel informs con­tem­po­rary polit­i­cal issues, we will refuse to ques­tion the integri­ty of one another’s faith and com­mit­ment to Christ. I may hold my polit­i­cal views from pro­found­ly Chris­t­ian con­vic­tions. You may utter­ly dis­agree with my ideas, and still be work­ing from an equal­ly deep and thought-through Chris­t­ian com­mit­ment. It is so impor­tant that we main­tain the Chris­t­ian free­dom to respect­ful­ly and cour­te­ous­ly dis­agree with one another.

Sad­ly, much of the con­tem­po­rary Church has allowed itself to become polar­ized along par­ti­san lines. Lib­er­als, hor­ri­fied by the mil­i­tarism and ram­pant cap­i­tal­is­tic greed they per­ceive on the right, trum­pet such val­ues as equal­i­ty and inclu­sion as though they were, in them­selves, the whole sub­stance of the Gospel. I vis­it­ed one such church that had reor­ga­nized all its min­istries around the Unit­ed Nations Mil­len­ni­um Devel­op­ment Goals — which, wor­thy as they are, don’t fea­ture promi­nent­ly in any ver­sion of the Bible I own. Con­ser­v­a­tives, on the oth­er hand, spurn­ing the moral rel­a­tivism and fis­cal irre­spon­si­bil­i­ty they believe char­ac­ter­izes the left, throw the Church’s moral weight behind such alleged­ly Gospel-cen­tered issues as gun own­er­ship, tax reduc­tions, and immi­gra­tion con­trol. I recent­ly saw a sign out­side a con­ser­v­a­tive church in Vir­ginia that took my breath away with this sweep­ing claim: God is Angry: Homo­sex­u­als, Abor­tion, Democrats.”

I know some folks, read­ing these lines, will want to explode in protest. But these issues are impor­tant!” And, of course, they are; vital­ly so. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, though, the Church is los­ing the abil­i­ty to speak as an inde­pen­dent voice on almost all of them. Our polar­iza­tion is polit­i­cal­ly neu­ter­ing us; so many church­es are now lit­tle more than reli­gious mouth­pieces for the big polit­i­cal par­ties. Jesus did not come to bring vic­to­ry for left or right; he came to announce the com­ing rule of God, a new soci­ety that up-ends all exist­ing loy­al­ties and assump­tions. Chris­tians, fol­low­ing in his foot­steps, are not called to fight for the suprema­cy of either side of the polit­i­cal spec­trum; we, too, are sum­moned to pro­claim the king­dom of God, which is embod­ied in nei­ther left nor right, but only in the per­son of Jesus himself.

Should Chris­tians be involved in pol­i­tics? By all means! Should we be ready to express our strong and deeply held views on the press­ing issues of our day? With­out any doubt, we should. Chris­tians will right­ly be found writ­ing and speak­ing on polit­i­cal issues, join­ing polit­i­cal par­ties and pres­sure groups, demon­strat­ing and march­ing, engaged in debate and dia­logue, and — where appro­pri­ate — stand­ing for elec­tion at every lev­el of gov­ern­ment. But we always remind our­selves (and espe­cial­ly when the bat­tles are most fierce) that our high­est loy­al­ty is nev­er to one par­ty or anoth­er, nor even, dare we say, to our state and nation. We car­ry the col­ors of the king­dom, and have fixed our loy­al­ty on God, who tran­scends and chal­lenges all par­ties and all peo­ples. This is the great Third Way” of Chris­t­ian pol­i­tics, and we must nev­er lose sight of it.

The Way of Compassion

The Hebrew word shalom is usu­al­ly trans­lat­ed peace” in our Bibles, but it actu­al­ly car­ries a much rich­er and wider range of mean­ing. It implies a whole­ness and integri­ty in human life and rela­tion­ships. When we learn to see” the peo­ple around us, instead of sim­ply bump­ing from one to anoth­er as we pur­sue our own self-cen­tered agen­das, we expe­ri­ence shalom. When our com­mu­ni­ties and church­es become places of wel­come and hos­pi­tal­i­ty, in which all peo­ple expe­ri­ence the lov­ing wel­come of God him­self, we find shalom. And when we work togeth­er to find ways of express­ing jus­tice, peace, and com­pas­sion in the wider world, as we engage ful­ly in the polit­i­cal life of our soci­ety, we dis­cov­er the real­i­ty of shalom in pub­lic life. This is the com­pas­sion­ate life to which Jesus calls and invites us.

Shalom!

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Originally published December 2010