Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Jim Wallis & the Pitfalls of "Biblical" Politics

In the recent press conference announcing Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (see video sidebar), Rev. Jim Wallis, for whom I have a great deal of respect, gave a six minute statement that I found quite troubling. He cited the following text from Leviticus, the Hebrew Bible's articulation of preistly guidelines traditionally attributed to Moses (but believed by many modern scholars to have been written in the centuries immediately following the fall of Israel to Assyrian forces in 722 BCE):

"The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God." (Leviticus 19:34; NRSV)

Wallis went on to allude to the words that the author of Matthew attributes to Jesus:

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was...a stranger and you welcomed me... 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." Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was...a stranger and you did not welcome me... Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me." And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. (Matthew 25:34-35, 40-43, 45-46; NRSV)

Here is my problem with this rhetoric. Wallis is a harsh critic of fellow evangelicals who trumpet biblical morality as justification to advance socially conservative policies (most notably, efforts to criminalize abortion and deny many legal protections to homosexuals). He also seems to have been fairly consistent in articulating a political philosophy that, while inspired by his specific religious tradition, is translated to universally accessible language and values when he engages public discussion of divisive issues. Here is a fairly typical Wallis soliloquy on the need for inclusiveness in political discourse:

It's important for religious people to say that religion does not have a monopoly on morality. There are people in this nation who aren't affiliated religiously but who care deeply about moral values and about the moral crisis of the country, and they need to be part of this conversation too. Martin Luther King Jr. had a way of [including everyone]-it wasn't just the Baptists who were marching in the streets; it was Catholics and Jews and people of no faith. I think we can speak a moral vocabulary that isn't exclusively religious and is inclusive of people who aren't sure about religion or just are not in fact affiliated. (Rescuing Religion From the Right, interview by Rebecca Phillips, http://www.beliefnet.com/story/159/story_15988_1.html)

For someone who has repeatedly criticized conservatives for misrepresenting the Bible's message and exhorted people of faith to collaborate with their secular peers, I think Wallis has shot himself in the foot here. If he is willing to hold up a single verse in Leviticus to allude to a divinely sanctioned immigration policy, he loses any credibility to reject the claims of conservative Christians who would cite Leviticus to advocate for criminalizing homosexuality. By the very act of selectively quoting scripture to promote his political ideology, Wallis falls headfirst into the centuries-old trap of using the Bible to justify whatever you would like.

I have no problem with any Christian attempting to persuade his or her fellow believers of a particular interpretation of the Bible's position on any issue, nor do I believe it is problematic for one's political beliefs to spring from his or her interpretation of the Bible. However, for a prominent minister to proof-text his political position with an isolated Bible citation divorced from context in a press conference designed to pressure lawmakers seems not only unwise, but also intellectually dishonest. In other words, it is all well and good for Rev. Wallis to encourage his fellow evangelicals to consider how a biblical theme of compassion might shape their value system as they advocate for immigration reform, but to demand that United States lawmakers act based on an obscure exhortation to Levite priests 2500 years ago is a preposterous stretch. Is it too much to ask religious leaders of all political and theological perspectives to honestly speak about the overarching themes they see in their sacred texts and traditions, rather than reducing important policy arguments to biblical sound bytes nearly as inane as the talking points we are subjected to in presidential debates? After all, to pretend that one verse can illuminate the lessons of a nuanced and often contradictory 66-volume text insults the public's intelligence whether it is coming out of the mouth of a liberal or a conservative.


bulletsquib said...

Sorry to take so long to make my first post on the site.

I completely agree that Wallis is being a bit hypocritical and is doing the same thing that he criticizes. That being said I think that he has painted himself into a box where he has to. Let me explain.

Wallis exists as a political figure because he is both Christian and a liberal. Without his ties to evangelical Christianity and the “Rev.” in front of his name, what is there to distinguish him? Are his ideas radically different from other liberals? He is not an economist or political scientist; his only claim to expertise or authority is as a Christian leader. Wallis is merely the liberal answer to the success of the religious right, much as Air America is the liberal answer to the success of the Rush Limbaughs and Sean Hannitys of the world. (I would use the word progressive rather than liberal, but Wallis seems a little too well connected to the Democrats to qualify – the top billings for his Pentecost 2007 are Clinton, Obama, and Edwards.) I agree with much of what he says, but Wallis is a reaction, and as such must play his role. He is not just a political commentator – he is a Christian political commentator and must maintain that identity in order to provide a counter balance to the Dobsons and Falwells that people will listen to.

As far as trying to pressure lawmakers with scripture, most claim some Christian religious faith (at least around elections) and so it doesn't seem too much of a stretch that he would quote scripture to convince them. He may say that an overarching theme of the bible is caring for the less fortunate, but it comes off better with a zinger of a bible verse, doesn't it?

All this has got me thinking about that fact that Wallis falls prey to another right wing trait, sloganeering. This led to thinking about a Sojourners drinking game – it works while reading the Sojourners newsletter, magazine, an interview, or watching Wallis on TV.

The name of the game is “Last Call (to renewal)”

Drinks: Grape juice for evangelicals, wine for Catholics, Absinthe for atheists, gasoline for nihilists.

1. Take a drink if you read/hear the word poverty.
2. Take a drink if you read a quote from a Democratic presidential candidate.
3. Take 2 drinks if you read the word renewal, revival, or any other “re” word.
4. Take 4 drinks if you are asked to donate.
5. Take 6 drinks if you read “Budgets are a Moral Issue”. (This rule could be deadly)
6. Finish your drink if something positive is about a Republican (it happens sometimes!)

Seth, I know you've got more rules to add, and I apologize if I have turned your blog into a coarse joke, but well... that's what I do.

T-Dog said...

Wallis is a public figure working in the political arena with issues concerned with public life and policy. Wallis is a person of faith who believes that while our faith is "personal" it is never "private". Wallis believes that how we see and unserstand God and spirituality effects the way we live our public lives. I believe this is true of everyone which is why it is a hell of a lot easier and more efficient to just live in a theoacrocy where everyone "believes" the same thing. However, that is not the answer I'm sure (it scares the hell out of me); so we are left with the puzzling dilenma of how to live with integrity and proper seperation in a democracy and in a world with so much religious diversity.

I think "bulletsquib" makes a good point that Wallis' STICK is that he is a Christian liberal or progressive (our language is so limited here anyway; what do these words mean?). That said, I agree with Sven that the proof texting is alarming. I don't have a problem with Wallis making an appeal from the scripture or the tradition of his faith as he is always representing that even in his public life. In fact by doing so I don't think he necessarily alienates or excludes people of different or no religious faith (unless they themselves are intolerant) but actually builds a bridge of understanding that shows that differing traditions and perspectives advocate for some of the same ideas about justice all be it coming from completely different origens. But, it is the use of the text in the manner that it is used that is troubling. It would be better to speak about a consistent biblical ethic that informs the Christian perspective on caring for the "alien" and spending more time on talking about "why" and "how" that should concern us in this context rather than a simplistic synchronization to the practices of an ancient middle eastern culture.

It's not so much "should" we use the bible but "how" we use the bible that is important. The bible can be an authoratative text for followers of Christ (and even others) and can be shown to have something in common with the sacred texts of other religions and the concious of human beings when it comes to issues of justice or other. What we need to pull up short of is using the bible as a public document outside of its faith context. Always, recognizing that it might contain universal truth but does not hold universal authority for all people. We also need to be prepared that when we use it to build bridges it can also be used to tear them down. In the hands of an intelligent person with an agenda or bias; the text can be used to justify many things, including some terrible things as history has shown us.

Anonymous said...

There are a whole bunch of quasi-religious American's who see eye to eye with Jim Wallis' overall views. But these two allies will always be a little out of sync w/ each other until Wallis learns to communicate out of the pulpit as well as he does in it. We're seeing the end results of years of secular society. Quasi-religious American's are not at all without strong moral convictions. They're just not comfortable with the way formal religion is presented. The point is that both can be morally conscious without converting to religion. But there's still the perception that religious people have a different kind of moral conscious. So, instead of working to break down some of those rigid roles, both sides remain divided and misunderstood.

Anonymous said...

You struck a chord with me, Sven, when you posted this on the Sojourner web site a few days ago. I tend to agree with your analysis. I actually believe there’s a lot to say beyond what took place at this specific conference. What follows is a cleaner version of what I posted yesterday. Btw, I plan on posting this on the Sojo blog but I see it’s currently not working. It begins with me addressing some of the fellow Sojourner bloggers and goes in to where I believe Progressive Christianity is stuck in a rut.

You are all trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Even the pro-Sojourner people are sounding fundamentalist. No amount of using biblical quotations as proof text will ever suit those who’ve been alienated from religious life. The extreme part of religion in this country has alienated would be believers so much that it doesn’t matter how Christianity is fancied anymore. Christians have to come to grips with the fact that a certain segment of Christianity has pushed people away. Even though Progressive Christians can do something about this, they’re definitely limited – make no mistake about that. The reason is that many simply will forever be sterilized to any semblance of Formal Christian expression and/or the continued conventional presentation of it. So, it doesn’t matter how liberal or progressive organizations like Sojourners come across, the lexicon of our secular population has supplanted church rhetoric (and I don’t mean at all to sound cynical about theology or religious doctrine).

Instead of assuming the role of “foster parent” perhaps Progressive Christianity should consider reconfiguring their approach. Put yourself in their shoes, Progressive Christians. Consider how strangely uncomfortable it is to be put into these categories. The best approach is to trust your faith and imagination and channel your loving energy more wisely instead of doubling up on religiousism in hopes of restoring the reputation of Christianity more quickly. We must be able to promote human values, such as compassion, forgiveness, and tolerance, without talking about religion. Notice I said, “We must BE ABLE TO…” In other words, moral ethics are not only based on religious faith. And I’m not saying there’s no place for aspects of Christianity anymore. Non-religious and/or non-believers don’t hate religious folks. They’re only averse to the conventional way that it’s presented. I’m simply saying that Progressive Christians need to have a thick skin because like it or not we are primarily a secular moral society and not a religious one. We live in a big nation with a variety of moral belief systems. I believe Rev. Wallis gets it but the more he brings everything back to a rigid biblical context the more the non-religious will tune out. Christianity is still very popular in America and it has the capacity to effectively guide our moral conscience. But it will just have to be presented in a different way. It’s absolutely vital for Progressive Christianity to embrace the burgeoning movement of American moral ethics in secular society. This is the only way to successfully promote human values to all sides and thus fulfill the Christian mission of peace and harmony for all.

Anonymous said...

What is the difference between fundamentalist/extreme Christianity vs. progressive Christianity? Does a progressive Chrisitian automatically assume the task of becoming an apologist for the "other type" of Christian? How do I find out which type I am?

Sven! said...

Quick note -- would people mind taking credit for their posts? I am really curious if the last 3 comments were all written by different people, or if a couple of them might have been posted by the same person.