Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Putting Culture Before Convictions

Conflict and paradox, two words which sum up the life and thinking of the majority of people in the world, I was going to say "the modern world" but I guess it has ever been thus. Nowhere are these two experiences more evident in the Church than when it comes to politics, where preachers regularly abuse their pulpit in order to support, however tacit and indirect, a given political standpoint, which is essentially Christianised and then presented as the only way to think for the genuine "Bible believing Christian".

Most often this politicised Christianity is a right-wing phenomena, again it is tempting to say "far-right" phenomena, but that would be unfair given that the centre point of politics in America is so clearly in a different place. One of the most shocking things about living here is discovering that although in Europe Mrs Velkyal and I are pretty centrist and middle of the road in our politics, over here we are perceived by many as out and out Socialists, bordering on Communists. This may be a slight exaggeration, but to be labelled a Marxist in early 21st Century America requires only that you stand slightly to the left of Genghis Khan.

I would however venture, returning to my theme, that right wing politics and the teachings presented in the Gospels are uneasy and even un-natural bedfellows.

Let's think for a moment about the death penalty, a cruel and unusual form of punishment which is the ultimate sanction in all but 13 of the 50 states of the Union, including the Commonwealth of Virginia. The current frontrunner in the race to be the Republican candidate is Rick Perry, an enthusiastic supporter of execution, having notched up 234 deaths in 11 years as governor of Texas. At the same time, Perry, as is common with most people hoping to get the Republican nomination, is unabashedly Christian. How is it possible to square away believing that the death penalty is just with belief in a man who told those wanting to stone a woman caught in adultery that "he who is without sin, cast the first stone"?

I often have the feeling that the right's appeal to religion as a basis of legitimacy is to entirely misunderstand, or worse wilfully neglect, the teachings found in the Gospels. I find it interesting that you rarely hear those on the right, or the left for that matter, discussing their belief in the Jesus as presented by the Evangelists, preferring the more nebulous belief in "God". This lack of definition allows their followers to project their own concept of God onto the politician and to assume that they think just like them. Those that believe in the death penalty usually quote the Old Testament concept of an "eye for an eye", preferring to ignore that the Gospel writer has Jesus overturn it with a message of mercy. This is not to suggest that crime should go unpunished, but rather that mercy should be the guiding principle of a Christian legal system.

Perhaps it really is too much to ask that those on the religious right seek to interpret their politics through the prism of the teachings found in the Gospels, rather than the other way round.


BigBro said...

A very well constructed argument in a very topical debate, and one to which I can add very lttle and dispute even less.

Jesus also taught "For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you". The death penalty, whilst often a populist policy, removes the element of hindsight in human (not humane) judgment. There are many examples in the UK, and no doubt the USA, of miscarriages of justice that only become apparent through scientific advances, or new testimony, that change the verdict of the imprisoned from guilty to not guilty.

Aside from the death penalty issue, hindsight or history is an important factor in any judgement. I recall vividly that in the late 70s and early 80s two Nobel Peace Prize winners, Nelson Mandela and Yasser Arafat, were widely described as terrorists by the right of centre politico and their media cohorts. Indeed, even now, a former Commander of the IRA is running for President of Ireland. These examples highlight that history is the key witness in any human judgement, and that as such the accused needs history to have the opportunity to take the stand.

PhotogMark said...

One of my favorite counterpoints to the party line that you're describing is voiced by a young man named Shane Claiborne. He follows in a long line of Christians who DON'T believe that "power structures" are Jesus primary method of bringing about positive change, and he is very faithful to put his life where his mouth is. Check him out - Joanna and I are big fans.