"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." Luke 10:27
In my last column, I suggested that the great challenge for the Chinese church today is developing the gift of discernment in the political arena.
Throughout most of its history, Chinese Christianity has separated itself from the public square. For good reason, too! As a minority people in nations often hostile to Christian faith or Chinese presence, it was safer to avoid politics and concentrate on building congregations. Furthermore, the political scene in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the Chinese Diaspora have been and remain controversial, thus it was often better to avoid politics than jeopardize local church unity.
Nevertheless, the 21st Century now beckons an emerging Chinese Church to assume greater social responsiveness because Asia - with all its strengths and flaws - is rising to global prominence. Yet, there is little guidance for Chinese Christians to engage the public order. The lack of discernment is not exclusively a Chinese Christian failure. It is also missing among most Christians in the West. In his recent study, Jesus and Politics:
Confronting the Powers (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics, 2005), Alan Storkey complains that:
“the political witness of Christians has lacked coherence. The Christian failures are mortifying. Christians have espoused empire, autocracy, and nationalism. They have been more governed by local political ideologies than the teaching of Christ. Often they have … let other loyalties of party or class dominate their reactions and understanding. ‘Christians’ have made compromises with militarism, the arms trade, aggression, and murder. They have promulgated hatred or self-interest. Western Christians have often retreated into ecclesiastical matters, withdrawing their faith from issues of justice and mercy, and changing Christ into merely a surname. They become caught in subcultures and make ineffectiveness an art. The extent of these failures leaves a muddy reflection of Christ’s way for politics.” (p. 284)
Speaking of American Christians, Storkey takes to task "liberals" for whom "most of the political thought is presented in secular terms, with many theorists ignoring or disavowing Christian contributions." But he reserves his sharpest criticism to "the new Christian Right" who bottles "a political faith in the carbon dioxide of American capitalism and nationalism." (p. 284)
Indeed, many "unthinkingly cozy up to nationalism, blessing American militarism, tax cuts that hurt the needy, and establishment lies." (p. 286)
Discerning God's will in the political arena is a problem shared by almost all Christians. I recommend Storkey's study for anyone who would like to dig deeper into Jesus' approach to politics, but in this column, I’d like to focus on the biblical principle of making People a Priority.
In all four Gospel accounts, Jesus confronts Pharisees and scribes for turning the Sabbath into an excuse to ignore human need (Matthew 12:1-14; Mark 2:23-28; Luke 6:1-11; John 5:1-16). Jesus healed and fed people on the Sabbath, thus teaching everyone that "The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27) and that "it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath" (Matthew 12:12). Underlying these acts is the principle that people are a priority. Our love of God is completed by our love for our neighbor!
As important as it is to follow right doctrine, as important as it is to walk closely with God, as important as it is to participate in church life, Jesus taught us that peoples' needs are equally, if not more, important.
Throughout history, when Christians abandon this principle, they become vulnerable to forces that hurt people and consequently hurt their testimony.
In the hands of believers who forget that people are the priority, orthodox doctrine becomes oppressive and exclusive rather than liberating and inviting. Many wind up supporting slavery, discriminating against racial minorities, and caring more about corporate earnings than the poor.
On the other hand, history is filled with a great cloud of witnesses who followed Jesus’ principle of making people a priority. Dominican friar, Bartolomé de las Casas (1484-1566), defended American Indians against the brutality of Spanish conquistadors and helped lay the foundations for our modern understanding of human rights. Jonathan Blanchard, the founder of Wheaton College, was a radical abolitionist committed to ending slavery in America. The evangelical revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries not only spawned the abolitionist movement but also influenced the early woman's rights movement. Many Protestants committed to the principle of making people a priority fueled the missionary and social gospel movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They advocated for laws to curb the excessive and exploitative power of big business and supported the right of labor unions to organize. They also fought against the exclusion of Chinese immigration and stood up for the rights of Asian Americans in the face of racially discriminatory laws. In the 1950s and 1960s mainline Protestants also supported the Civil Rights Movement and the liberalization of immigration laws.
These Christians were not perfect. In reality, following Jesus’ principle of making people a priority is usually not a simple choice. It has been and still is difficult to apply the principle to our political decisions. For example, would we be consistently "pro-life" if we voted for candidates who oppose abortion but give corporations more freedom to exploit labor and land resources? Would we truly be following Jesus if we voted for candidates who would bring creationism, prayer, and the Bible into our public schools but would cut education and social service budgets (essentially replacing Scientific Darwinism with Social Darwinism)?
My reading of Jesus' life and ministry suggests that addressing human material needs is a higher priority than injecting Christian morality and values into the political arena. This is not to say that we should not be concerned about the secularization of the public space or the privatization of religion. Rather, I believe that the truth of our Christian witness is better demonstrated by making peoples' needs the priority in our politics than by inscribing our belief system into legislation. Indeed, to approach politics the other way, as the Christian Right is doing, is creating a credibility problem for evangelicals. Who will believe that Jesus is a compassionate Savior for all people if his followers support policies that hurt so many people? Like the Pharisees and scribes of Jesus’ day, conservative Christians may succeed in bringing religious values into legislation, but may be sacrificing human need in the process.
Each generation of Christians will have to decide how to live out their faith. I hope that Chinese Christians, who have been on the receiving end of exploitation and injustice throughout the 20th century, will choose to truly follow Jesus' principle of making people a priority as we engage the public and political arenas.
Rev. Timothy Tseng, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of American Religious History and Director of the Asian American Center (asianamericancenter.org) at the American Baptist Seminary of the West in Berkeley, California.