The Political Jesus
Ronald L. Dart
From time to time the countryís news magazines feel obliged to report on the health of the various Christian movements in the country. Itís always a borderline question whether itís funny or aggravating when they decide to do it. At the time of the last election Newsweek featured, on the cover, a cross wrapped tightly with a flag and the theme was "The Politics of Jesus." The lead article was "An Evangelical Identity Crisis: Sex or Social Justice? The War Between the Religious Right and Believers Who Want to Go Broader." Now I thought that was priceless. The article was written by Lisa Miller, along with some other staff reporters, but is it a "war between the Religious Right and Believers Who Want to Go Broader"? What on earth does that mean? War is an astounding metaphor for differences in opinion between Christians who agree on far more than they disagree. But the chosen examples in the article are kind of instructive.
James Dobsonís Ministry Is The Family
First is James Dobson, naturally. His radio program reaches 220 million people, they say, worldwide. And, speaking of Dobsonís Halloween program this year, Lisa Miller wrote this: "In the spirit of a day devoted to ghosts and goblins, Dobsonís radio show, which reaches 220 million people worldwide, evoked what he hoped would be dark and scary visions for his fellow evangelical Christians: a nation filled with married gay couples. With same-sex-marriage initiatives on ballots in eight states, Dobson told his flock in a taped broadcast, they could not afford to stay home on Election Day. If they did, we could begin to have same-sex marriages in places all over the country."
I read that and thought, "Well, I wonder where Lisaís coming from on this? She kind of thinks this is a little silly." I donít follow Dobsonís program so I canít evaluate whether he was trying to scare people or not, but I do know that partial sentences taken out of context can be made to say just about anything a person - a reporter - wants them to say.
What I feel quite sure is true, though, is that Dobson is four-square opposed to gay marriage. The heart and soul of his ministry, after all, is the family, and most evangelicals see gay marriage as a threat to the family.
Adam Hamiltonís Ministry
So, who sits on the other side of the fence from Dobson on this issue who also claims to be an evangelical? Heís a 42 year old evangelical pastor named Adam Hamilton.
He was, Miller said, preaching an entirely different message. He was helping his 14,000 members parse the parables in Matthew 13-the wheat and the weeds, the good fish and bad. He told the reporter-and this is what Lisa Miller says he said, "Our task is not to go around judging people. Jesus didn't do that." Well now, that sounds very Christian for him to say that. And, again, I must allow that it was taken out of context and the pastor very likely qualified that remark. So consider that I am questioning what Newsweek thought they heard him say. Itís all-powerfully hard, you know, to get around your prejudices and hear what people are really trying to tell you. And reporters, more often than not, donít seem to get it.
Jesus Didnít Judge People?
Now on one level, Adam Hamiltonís statement is true. It is not our task to "go around judging people." After all, Jesus said, "Judge not, that you be not judged" (Matthew 7:1). Itís an entirely reasonable call to make, even upon non-Christians. People render judgments all the time when they lack the data to make the judgments. But when Hamilton said, "Jesus didnít do that," now that statement needs some qualification.
Later in Jesusí ministry, after having had one confrontation with the Pharisees after another, and in the full knowledge that some of the Pharisees were plotting Jesusí eventual death, Jesus finally found it necessary to pass judgment on them. So to say Jesus didnít go around judging people is not accurate. You find a long section on it in Matthew, the 23rd chapter. Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, and He said this: "The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat: [What he meant by that is: they have some authority, some civil authority, in their society.] All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do. For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers." (Matthew 23:2-4).
Now this is precisely the kind of judgment we are called to make on Election Day. We have a Congress that will pass laws which adversely affect our lives, while they exempt themselves from having to obey those laws. Itís not a very difficult judgment to make and because "they" - that is Congress - are an exclusive club (and I suppose the Pharisees were too), they do protect one another. The FBI can get a warrant and search your home, your office, your car, and any other thing they want including your underwear. But when they get a warrant and search the offices of a congressman, with probable cause, looking for evidence of a crime, most of Congress on both sides of the aisle are in a fit or state of indignation and race to the defense of the beleaguered congressman.
Now, my question when this happened a few years ago, was this: Are we supposed to imagine that a congressman can hide a murder weapon in his office and the authorities cannot - not even with a warrant, not even having convinced a judge they have probable cause - they cannot look for that murder weapon in the congressmanís office? Good grief, a man could commit crimes, have his office bulging with evidence of the crimes, and they couldnít go look there. Now, do I have the right to make the judgment that this is wrong? Of course I do. I am a voter; these men work for me. They are public servants; they are not our kings and rulers.
But, Jesus didnít stop there when he talked about the Pharisees doing exactly this, making judgments that we have to observe, but they donít. He goes on to say, "But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, [Heís talking about symbols of their rank]. And love the uppermost rooms at feasts [again, symbols of rank], and the chief seats in the synagogues [symbols of rank], And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi. But be not you called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ" (Matthew 23:5-8).
You Can Call Your Dad Father
Now I have to digress to clarify a small point. It is okay, according to Jesus, to call your dad "father." The problem here is that the Jewish scribes had begun to place the rabbi and teacher on a par with Moses. What these men taught was considered to be, or even to transcend, Scripture. So they were creating law as they went along, in the role of rabbi, teacher and spiritual father. And it is in that cultural context that these statements were made.
Jesus Judged the Scribes and Pharisees
But Jesus didnít stop there either. He went on to say, really, right to these people who were there, "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!. . ." Now, how in the world can a knowledgeable pastor, a man who probably has a degree in theology, make such a statement - that Jesus didnít go around judging people? I would call this a judgment!
"Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you devour widows' houses, and for a pretense make long prayers: therefore you shall receive the greater damnation" (Matthew 23:14 ff). Whatís Jesus talking about? These men would actually take advantage of a poor widow in a business deal - a property sale or something they were doing - they would just eat up her inheritance. And at the same time they would go into the synagogue, sometimes in the public street, and make long sweeping prayers. Do you think Jesus was judging anybody yet? Is it judging to tell the truth? Is it judging to acknowledge illegal and immoral conduct and call it what it is? He wasnít through yet. He said, "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, you make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves." What? Isnít this judging that Heís doing here? "Woe unto you, you blind guides, which say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor! You fools and blind: for which is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifies the gold?"
If you were there to hear Jesus, I think He would have sounded pretty exasperated by this time. When you use the words "fools" and "blind," youíve got to be speaking pretty strongly to these people. Later he would say, "You blind guides, who strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you make clean the outside of the cup and the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess." You know what extortion is? Thatís when you know something about someone and you threaten to expose him unless he pays you money. These men were extortioners. Is it too much of a stretch for us to judge extortioners and condemn their behavior? We canít do that? Of course we can. Are we supposed to suspend judgment when the truth is staring us right in the face? Well, hardly. Jesus was still not finished talking to these men.
"Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity." Well, maybe now Jesus was finished? Oh no, not quite, He went on to say, "You serpents, you generation of vipers, how can you escape the damnation of hell?" Now I donít know how strong you think a person would have to get before you would conclude: "I think Heís really sitting in judgment of these people." Jesus called them snakes, vipers, and said they were not going to escape the damnation of hell.
Pastor Hamilton Encourages His Congregation To Vote
Now, where does that leave us with the pastorís remark: "Our task is not to go around judging people. Jesus didnít do that"? Well, Pastor Hamilton went on to address the question of the hour. "He encourages his congregation to vote, [he says], but when they do they're neither predictably Republican nor Democrat. [I agree with him on that.] On the issues, many are increasingly frustrated with the war in Iraq; they're conservative on abortion, but they express compassion for homosexuals. The religious right has [quoting Hamilton] ígone too far.í They've lost their focus on the spirit of Jesus and have separated the world into black and white, when the world is much more gray." And he concluded by saying, "I can't see Jesus standing with signs at an anti-gay rally. It's hard to picture that." Well, yes. It is hard to picture that, but itís a strawman argument and itís disappointing to hear the pastor of a congregation of 14,000 people say that. I would be profoundly shocked to see James Dobson standing with signs at an anti-gay rally either.
Letís get real here. Homosexual behavior is described as sinful in the Old Testament (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13) and itís described as sinful in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Romans 1:26-27). So, while Jesus, as far as we know, never encountered a homosexual, weíve got to look at a different example to see how Jesus would have responded to a sinner.
How Would Jesus Respond To A Sinner?
It was on a day early in the morning - youíll find the story in John, the 8th chapter - Jesus came into the temple to teach as was his habit. He sat down and began to teach the people who gathered around him. Then the scribes and the Pharisees, who were becoming increasingly troubled by this man and the influence He was having on the people, brought to him a woman who had been caught in adultery. They set her in the middle of the people and said, "Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what do you say?" (John 8:4).
Now they were not entirely correct in this. Moses allowed for the stoning of one who committed adultery, but not without due process. I donít know how people overlook this. Itís in our own Constitution. We understand "No man shall be deprived of life or liberty without due process." Well, it was the same then. In the Old Testament, due process was required. Someone had to make the accusation, evidence had to be heard, the accuser and the witnesses had to cast the first stone. No one else was authorized to act. And if no one wanted to do it, it was not done.
Thereís a classic example in the New Testament with Mary, who was with child of the Holy Spirit. Joseph discovered this and his immediate thought was she had committed fornication, sheíd gotten pregnant, and he had an option. He could have had her stoned. He didnít. The Scriptures tell us that Joseph was a just man and he decided that he would be fair about this, he would put her away - divorce her - privately. But, then of course, he learned what the story was and didnít do so.
Getting back to the story of the woman who was brought to Jesus in the temple, the truth about Jesus in this case is, He was not a priest nor did he hold the civil office of judge. He really had no authority to order or revoke this womanís execution. Now they said this, weíre told, to test him so they could have something to accuse Jesus of. They thought they had him on the horns of a dilemma. Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with his finger as though he did not hear because, in fact, the case was not his to hear. When they pressed him on the issue, He raised himself up and said, "Well, he who is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her." (John 8:7).
Jesus made it clear that this is not his call. His statement is consonant and agrees with the law, and having made his statement, He stooped down and wrote on the ground some more. "And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest, even to the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the middle of the crowd." What a picture this makes. "When Jesus had raised himself up, and saw no one but the woman, He said unto her, ĎWoman, where are your accusers? Has no man condemned you?í She said, ĎNo man, Lord.í And Jesus said unto her,í Neither do I condemn you: go, and sin no more" (John 8:9-11).
Now, itís really important to notice that Jesus did not declare her innocent. He did not condone her sin, because He admonished her to go and sin no more.
So it makes good Christian sense to express compassion toward homosexuals, but there is no reason why that should lead a Christian to condone gay marriage any more than, in not stoning the woman, Jesus condoned adultery. Sin is sin. Jesus called it what it was and thereís not a thing in the world wrong with a Christian calling it what it is still, here, now, today. And because you say a person is a sinner does not mean youíre uncompassionate. Basically, it could be a call to repentance and the saving of a sinnerís life.
Pastor Hamilton Is Judging
When Pastor Hamilton says that the religious right has "gone too far," I think he has gone too far and is, himself, making a judgment. A judgment of those in his general movement that donít agree with him. He said, "Theyíve lost their focus on the spirit of Jesus and have separated the world into black and white, even when the world is much more gray. I canít see Jesus standing with signs at an anti-gay rally. Itís hard to picture that." I think the very idea of an anti-gay rally is offensive, but thatís not what Christians do when they oppose gay marriage. They are opposed, not to gays, but to the political agenda of the gays. And if gays enter the political arena, they are no more immune to criticism than evangelicals when they enter the political arena.
Darth Vader Image From The Religious Right
Lisa Miller says that millions of American evangelicals are eager to shed the Darth Vader image theyíve inherited from the religious right. What does she mean "Darth Vader image?" Thatís an evil image. The fact that some evangelicals are stern, that they try to be righteous, try to preach righteousness, try to preach moral conduct in our society - does that mean theyíre like Darth Vader? She quoted Cal Thomas hitting a common refrain, "What are Christians known for? Weíre against abortion, weíre against same-sex marriage, but what are we for?" Now, I respect Cal Thomas, but give me a break. Christians are well known for our beliefs. People know what Christians are for. One thing we are for, is a moral society.
Social Justice and Morality
Social justice - well, now, thatís a good thing. People talk a lot about social justice, but social justice will not hold without social morality. There has been an assault on moral society in recent years not seen since the Roman Empire. Christians are said to be against immoral conduct. So be it. When the assault on morality is an assault on the family, the church, and everything Christian - what are you going to do? Stand there and let them beat up on you, and not say anything? Itís not a fair game when one can be beaten to a pulp and not be allowed to hit back.
What may be overlooked by Christians in the modern world is the office of the prophet. Now, by that I donít mean seers, crystal ball gazers, or prognosticators of the future. I donít mean some guy that shows up in your church saying heís got a word of prophecy thatís just been handed down from the Lord. That was not, for the most part, what prophets were in the Bible. The office of a prophet was to call people back to Godís law, to call them away from sin, and to call upon them to repent. The future element of prophecy has to do with two things: 1) the road you are traveling is going to lead you to calamity and destruction; 2) after the calamity and after the destruction, God will come and save us from ourselves. In the meantime, it is the job of the prophet to point out sin, call it what it is, and call on people to repent. That doesnít make you "Darth Vader."
That message, though, does not make a lot of friends in the establishment. It got Jesus crucified. It got early Christians killed right and left. Why do you think they were persecuted? Why do you think they were condemned and killed? Because they werenít saying anything? Or was it because they were posing a threat to the existing establishment? What are we Christians supposed to do? Cower in the corner and maintain our image of Christianity? An image that has been imposed upon us by people who donít even know what Christianity is? Are we supposed to go to the wall, to make an all-out effort, if necessary, like the Christians of old did?
Wrestle with Christianity
Itís really fascinating to watch the news media wrestle with Christianity. They expect us to fit the image they have of what Jesus was like, and they are shocked - shocked - when we stand up and start talking like prophets. Which, whether you like him or not, is precisely what James Dobson is doing, and what Pastor Hamilton is not doing. But thereís a fundamental difference between these two men. Hamilton is the pastor of a mega-church. Dobson is a radio minister, which means he has a great deal more freedom to call things as he sees them. I donít think many people really realize this, but a pastor of a church is just not free to do whatever he wants. There are boards in those churches. There are deacons in those churches. There is an influence that flows down through the people in those churches. Dobson, on the other hand, really doesnít answer to anybody. He has an oversight board, I am sure, that sees to business and how the money is spent, but he doesnít have anyone telling him what he canít say.
He claims the same right the Apostle Paul did when he said, "For though I be free from all men, I have made myself a servant unto all, that I might gain more" (1 Corinthians 9:19). No pastor of a church can make that claim in quite the same way Paul did, much less the pastor of a mega-church of 14,000 people. Neither the pastor nor the parishioners of a huge church such as that are completely free. I would not care to be a member of a mega-church. I attend, what I would call, a mini-church. I know everybody there; everybody knows me. The mini-church retains so much more freedom than a mega-church and freedom is important for me.
This ministry and the Born To Win radio program are nondenominational. Thus we maintain the freedom to speak to all men without organizational constraints, without having to worry about giving offense to the nabobs of a given denomination. I think Dobson understands this all too well. And while speaking the truth may seem, at times, to be less than compassionate, it is still the responsibility of some Christians in all generations. If it involves judging people, so be it. We may not have all that much time to get our job done, so we had best be about it.
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This article was transcribed with minor editing from a Born to Win Radio Program
given by Ronald L. Dart titled: The Political Jesus
Ronald L. Dart was an evangelist and is heard daily and weekly
on his Born to Win radio program.
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