Jesus never built a bridge with a Pharisee. He never reached out and tried to seek a compromise with the Roman leaders. He never watered down his message depending on his audience and he never once forsook a central belief for political expediency.
Progressive Christians would do well to learn this lesson. As the “religious left” finally finds itself not just with a soapbox to stand on but an actual audience in the form of the mainstream media—they seem to be struggling to get their message straight. A “rift” seems to be growing between more centrist progressive voices and the more liberal voices of the religious left. The media, which has done an excellent job of ignoring liberal voices of all kinds, religious or otherwise, for decades, is finally paying attention now that it smells like some infighting is brewing—they’re more than happy to stoke the flames:
Indeed, at a moment when the number of alternative faith-based voices to the religious right has exploded, the debate on the left between liberal and more centrist religious voices is raising questions about exactly what it means to be a religious progressive. Those in the more centrist beltway crowd, which prefers the “religious progressive” label, say it means providing an alternative faith voice to the religious right. They want to expand the religion-in-politics agenda to include protecting the environment and ending coercive interrogation techniques, issues that enjoy some bipartisan support. But the religious left prefers direct combat with the religious right, standing firm for liberal values—even on divisive issues like abortion and gay rights.
Jesus was never interested in finding “bipartisan support” for his efforts at helping the poor and the outcast. If there’s one thing I’ve always admired about conservatives, both religious and secular, is that they have their goals and their principles and they are not interested in “bipartisan support.” Instead, they are interested in getting their agenda implemented in the widest and most effect way possible. Liberals, since the 1960s, have lost that sense of simply knowing that their agenda is right, will benefit the greatest number of people, and must be implemented as quickly as possible—even if the partisans of the other side fight them tooth and nail.
In the book The Legend of Bagger Vance, Bagger, the prescient caddy to all-but-washed-up professional golfer Randolf Junah tells him:
”Love your opponents. When I say love, I don’t mean hand them the match. I mean contend with them to the death, the way a lion battles a bear, without mercy but with infinite respect. Never belittle an opponent in your mind, rather build him up, for on the plane of the Self there can be no distinction between your being and his. Be grateful for your opponents’ excellence. Applaud their brilliance. For the greatness of the hero is measured by that of his adversaries.”
For years, conservatives have been battling liberals without mercy—but with infinite respect. Conservatives understand that they need liberals as their foil—and perhaps most often their scapegoat—in order to get their agenda implemented. Liberals, on the other hand, often don’t have the stomach for such matters, preferring instead to win over their opponents to their side by compromising their beliefs for “common ground.”
Jesus, however, had no mercy when he contended with the principalities and powers. He understood that people’s lives were on the line and there was no time to join hands with the Pharisees or Rome and sing Kumbaya. Instead, Jesus spent his time upending temple tables and calling Pharisees a brood of vipers and hypocrites every chance he got. He contended with them to death.
The same is true today. There are people in our own midst, here in the United States, who starve to death every single day. More and more people slip into poverty as jobs dry up or the high cost of health insurance drives the sick into bankruptcy. There are women who desperately need but cannot afford abortions because of waiting periods or other barriers to the procedure. Many other women are forced to bring an unwanted pregnancy to term because there are no doctors nearby who perform the procedure. There are gay and lesbian people who continue to be openly discriminated against at the federal, state and local level. They continue to be the victims of hate crimes that go either unpunished or the attacker is given a light sentence. While the “religious left” dithers over strategy, policy, and, “common ground,” people are suffering and dying.
I told my congregation after the last election that despite a more liberal president and Congress not to expect too much out of Washington for the poor and needy. If the past eight years—heck, the past two decades—has taught us anything it’s that those at the top are concerned mainly with those at the top. There isn’t anyone in Washington who really cares about the poor because there are no poor people elected to office. The poor have no representation. None of them can afford to run, much less be elected, so their issues are never truly addressed.
So, the “religious left” has a choice to make. Do we seek consensus and bridge building while people starve and die, or do we set our agenda to relieve the suffering of the poor and the outcast—no matter who they are, black, white, immigrant, gay, or straight—and contend without mercy with those who would oppose us for their own gain? Or, do we, as the father of the social gospel Walter Rauschenbusch warned so long ago—in his book A Theology for the Social Gospel—give in to our human penchant for the limelight?
”A man’s sinfulness stands out in its true proportion, not when he is tripped up by ill-temper or side-steps into shame, but when he seeks to establish a private kingdom of self-service and is ready to thwart and defeat the progress of mankind toward peace, toward justice, or toward fraternal organization of economic life, because that would diminish his political privileges, his unearned income, and his power over the working classes.”
Those in the more centrist progressive camp seem quick to sell their liberal souls for a little piece of “common ground” and “political privilege” on issues like abortion—arguing for “abortion reduction” while often sacrificing unfettered abortion rights for women. Or, forsaking their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters altogether as Jim Wallis and other politically privileged “progressive” Christians are doing. What motivates the search for “common ground”? Are those on the religious left really seeking systemic equity or are they simply seeking to “establish a private kingdom of self-service”? It’s a question that needs to be seriously considered.
I understand the liberal need for bridge building—I do. I love Susan Thistlethwaite’s idea of the “true joy in finding the unexpected ally, the better position that benefits more people. Sure there are roadblocks, and temptations to confuse common ground with lowest common denominator. But true change is possible. And religious faith is all about possibility, unexpected joy and the movement of grace.” I believe true change is possible and enemies can become friends, but compromise is not the way to get there. Liberals want to believe that the other side will change if only we can make an effective, logical, and compassionate argument. But, we must understand that conservatives are not interested in compromising with progressives. They are only interested in capitulation. They are interested in hobbling us—or watering down our issues to the point where any policy that gets implemented will be toothless and often only truly benefit the policy makers instead of the poor.
I also understand her analogy that “the point of a football game is not to perfect the huddle, it’s to move the ball down the field,” but the current game being played in Washington in stacked against the needy and oppressed. The true challenge for the religious left is to change the game so that the rules favor “have-nots” and the suffering instead of further enriching the “haves” and the “want mores.”
True, the Obama administration has made some great strides already in righting public policy toward the least of these—but I don’t expect this administration to fully implement a religious left agenda anymore than they will implement a religious right agenda. Unless it’s in their best political interest they will continue to hand each side a bone or two and continue to do whatever is most politically expedient—all politicians do that whether they are liberal or conservative.
Our struggle as progressives is not for political privilege or the right to be on CNN instead of a more conservative voice. Our struggle is to end poverty, economic imbalances, and oppression of any kind. To be successful, we must reclaim our agenda and refuse compromise on it. We cannot bargain with the lives of the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the tortured, or the outcast. Their lives are not building material for bridges—their suffering is not fodder for political gamesmanship.
Jesus knew it was easy to talk about the poor—easy to want to help them, but hard to put that into practice. The rich young man who wanted to follow Jesus went away sad because Jesus required that he give up his worldly wealth—that he give up whatever political influence he had. The “religious left” is like this rich young man, finally wielding some worldly influence only to find that those in power are at odds with his agenda. The choice is clear: do we move “toward peace, toward justice, or toward fraternal organization of economic life,” or do we compromise and refuse to diminish our “political privileges, (our) unearned income, and (our) power over the working classes”?
Jesus’ refusal to compromise with the powers and principalities got him into hot water. Instead of watering down his concern for the poor and outcast or finding “common ground” with the powers that be, he was sent before a kangaroo court and killed for his trouble. So, too, liberals will find themselves pilloried on the steps of Congress, given a trial in the kangaroo court of the popular media and perhaps even nailed to a cross in the end—but by not compromising Jesus began a grassroots movement that hasn’t been stopped to this day.
I know critics on both the right and the left may find my suggestions naïve. “Oh, you don’t understand how to get things done in Washington. You have to build bridges, seek consensus, and compromise.” Hogwash. Jesus never compromised. Jesus never built a bridge with a Pharisee, and neither should we. If the “religious left” is to be effective, we must be firm in our agenda to uplift the poor and the outcast. We must contend with our opponents without mercy, but with infinite respect. We cannot lose sight of our goal or give in to temptations of political popularity. People’s lives are at stake.