It’s Hip to Be a Purple Christian? Reflections on “Left Right & Christ”

NOTE: This book review is part of a Patheos Book Club Symposium.  For more articles and resources about the book, click here.

I recently read a book that I highly recommend to any Christian interested in American politics and faith.  If you read my articles on a regular basis, you know that this is a subject that comes up from time to time.  I am not a republican or a democrat – my voter registration states “independent.”  This is because my allegiance is to King Jesus and no platform fully fits his kingdom agenda.  In this way, I consider myself a “purple” Christian – because my views, with God’s grace, are informed by how I understand the agenda of king Jesus.

Yet, I would be lying if I didn’t put my cards on the table: my politics tend to lean to the left (with some important exceptions).  So, naturally, my resonances lie with Lisa Sharon Harper (“democrat”) rather than D.C. Innes (republican) in their book Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics.  With that admitted, Innes clearly loves Jesus and articulates his convictions well.

The book rightly begins with the two foundational issues of politics in America: 1) the role of government and 2) the role of business.  What a person chooses to believe about these two arms of empire (and yes, I’m convinced that both ought to be named as “empire”) determines the political trajectory of various issues (debated in the second part of the book).  I want to give an overview of the first (role of government) to demonstrate one of many areas that this book provides insight and contrast.  For more on the role of business, well, I invite you to read the book on your own!

The Role of Government

Lisa Sharon Harper believes that we need to allow the Scriptures to inform our understanding of “liberty” and “justice” when reflecting on government.  Liberty involves the reality that humans were created in God’s image and this means that we reflect to the world God’s stewarding care.  The abuse of this liberty, a liberty that focuses on individual wants over the needs of “we” will lead to a post-fall approach to political life.  Therefore, liberty (human freedom of the will) must always be coupled with justice.  This sort of justice reflects God’s desire for all of creation to be in a state of shalom – right relationships.  She states:

Justice is the image of God flourishing  on earth…  Justice is right relationship between men and women, humanity and the rest of creation, all of creation and life, and humanity and the systems that govern us (50).

After laying that theological foundation she argues that the Ten Commandments serve as God’s example of inviting humanity to live in a governing structure “…to cultivate the image of God on earth by protecting the capacity of all to exercise dominion, and to protect liberty and establish justice with equity” (54).  Unlike the Law of God for the Hebrews, America is not a theocracy and therefore it’s important that the US Constitution be open to correction and amendment.  This is for the good of the people who make up the government.  This multifaceted people are invited to create policy that uphold liberty and justice (in the biblical sense).  For the image of God to flourish, just policies for all people must be implemented.

D.C Innes comes from a different perspective.  He believes that 1 Peter 2.13-15 gives us the pattern of “a biblically informed view of government” (58).  The call of government is to then, “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.”  So, the role of government can be narrowed down to: 1) punish evil and 2) praise good.

First, to punish evil, means that the “retributive justice” function has been given to government by God.  This is to keep society safe from harm.  Second, to praise good, means that the government is a source of recognition for citizen that promote the common good.  But this praise of good must not be confused:

Government is not charged with doing the good itself.  Rather, government is to encourage private citizens, communities, and citizen groups to address the many needs that arise among us, from beautification projects to helping the poor, the sick, and the homeless (61).

With this in mind, government has no business doing the sort of good that individual citizens ought to be doing.  He adds: “If it were government’s responsibility, even in part, to do the good deeds of society, people would gradually surrender more and more private responsibility to it” (63).

Reflections

As I read I couldn’t help but see some gaps in the biblical approach of D.C. Innes (republican).  His exegesis of various texts on government and the creation stories seemed rooted in modern Americanism rather than the context of ancient history.  The communal dimensions of these foundational texts as well as the themes of empire were almost completely ignored.  Also, the texts he failed to appeal to in order to build a convincing conservative view speak loudly.  Luckily, Lisa Sharon Harper demonstrated keen attention to important biblical texts that inform the New Testament perspective on government and business.

For instance, she masterfully demonstrated that God’s government restricted business in dramatic ways, so much so that all workers were given one year off of work ever 7 years.  And after 7 cycles of this pattern: the Year of Jubilee!  Debts forgiven, land returned, and the celebration of justice.  Jesus declares that Jubilee is part of his mission.  Innes ignores this important part of the discussion.  The republican use of the Bible to justify their political perspective continues to be unconvincing.

Finally, in the chapter about abortion, each side gave fairly thorough and yet typical arguments.  The right – we need to enact policy to overturn Roe v. Wade.  The left – poverty reduction leads to less abortions, since overturning Roe v. Wade would give control to the states, which would not reduce abortions too much.  I agree with Harper on this, but feel like we “progressives” need a stronger platform than only poverty reduction.  What else can we do?  There’s got to be more options.

Final Thought: This is a great resource to promote productive dialogue across the Christian political spectrum and I highly recommend it for churches.

  • http://www.mycallingiq.com Natasha Crozier

    Thanks for your reflections Kurt – stopped by through a retweet of your blog post by Englewood Review of Books. As a Canadian permanent resident in the States, the politics here continue to frustrate and confuse me. I’ve put my foot in my mouth quite a few times as I’ve realized that Republican = Christian is often taken for granted. Like you, I tend to lean left. I like your idea of “purple” – Os Guinness talks about this in The Call, “Christian engagement in politics should always be marked by tension between allegiance to Christ and identification with any party, movement, platform or agenda.” Looks like I’ll have to check out the rest of this book as well.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

      @883dc71186119881bde4faf340ce9d0f:disqus … so glad that you stumbled across my site! I hope you will come back again.  If we are not yet connected via social media feel free to add me on Twitter, Facebook, etc… if you’d like.  I think we are pretty like minded on this issue of Christians in politics…

  • http://nailtothedoor.blogspot.com Dan Martin

    Interesting thoughts, Kurt.  To Innes (as you characterize…I haven’t read the book) I would issue the challenge to when government as he envisions it will start punishing the evil done by business in the defrauding and impoverishing of humans.  That’s where the O.T. Jubilee concept becomes relevant…God clearly defines as “evil” such things as charging *any* interest to the poor, for example (as you will recall, I explored this concept on my Would Jesus Occupy Wall Street? post.

    On the other hand, I’m troubled by the implication I hear in your summary of Harper’s position that somehow government can be instrumental in the creation of a state of shalom among people.  I rather suspect the best we can hope for from government is to keep out of the way of shalom, and to intervene when shalom is being broken.  As Greg Boyd points out, I don’t think government can actually do much to constructively establish God’s form of justice.

    I do tend toward the “left” wing of American government, and my rationale is that in the final analysis I see more evidence in Scripture that financial oppression pisses God off, than I do for sex and the other “right” issues.  But I commend your pointing out that God’s standards challenge *both* red and blue.

  • Anonymous

    After gaining the knowledge I have over the past few years, and then after reading  your post, I’ve decided that I too am a purple-voting Christian. I always went R and then I was influenced about “issues” voting and “non-partisian” views; so I went strictly with issues.  I realize now that it was the lazy approach. I should have really simply looked at all of the candidates to see what lined up with what I felt was “good” governing as much as possible. 

     I think that it requires a lot of time to do that, and I find that good, accurate information on candidates is often difficult to find and sort through.  That’s probably why the labels were so hardline at one time in history. It  made voting easier.  Now, it’s trickier because candidates who are either R or D don’t stick strictly to the views that used to represent that party.  It gets to be about whoever looks and sounds good on t.v.  People probably just hope they’ll do a good job or really help our situations as Americans. 


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