A few weeks ago Marco Rubio was confronted at a campaign gathering by an atheist. “What about me?” he asked. With all the sucking up that politicians are doing to garner the evangelical vote, what are atheists and agnostics to make of their place in a society under such a leader.
Rubio gave a strong answer, especially in the last 40 seconds of this clip:https://youtu.be/Qy2Fjk00tTA
There he says,
“I think you should hope my faith influences me. You know why? My faith teaches me that I have an obligation to care for the less fortunate. My faith teaches me that I have an obligation to love my neighbor. My faith teaches me that I have an obligation for those who are hungry to help feed them. For those who are naked to help clothe them. My faith teaches me that I need to minister to those in prison. My faith teaches me that if I want to serve Jesus I have to serve each other.”
Wow. Really. If I were going to lay out the ways in which I would hope that someone’s Christian faith influenced their politics that would basically be it: love your neighbor as yourself and do unto others as you would have them do unto you, with a little specific guidance from Matthew 25.
I was… disappointed.
There are a few ways in which such neighbor love, in my mind, would clearly lead to particular policy decisions. And all down the line Rubio was advocating something else.
My point here isn’t to argue that certain policies have to follow from the fact that we follow Jesus and recognize that we have an obligation to love our neighbors. I want, instead, to walk a little bit in the day-to-day reality of how contested are both Christian faith generally and the interpretation of the Bible more specifically.
Macroculture. Or, Can You Be an Abolitionist and Still be an Evangelical?
Can you be an abolitionist and still be a Bible-believing Christian? Is it possible to affirm the authority of the Bible and to think that it is a grievous sin for one human being to own another and receive all the profit of the other person’s labor?
We experience this conjunction of evangelical and anti-slavery so regularly that it would never cross most of our minds to ask whether or not they are compatible. In fact, I would argue that for modern evangelicalism anti-traffickers have become the new missionaries: these are the holiest of all Christians doing the work that the rest of us would do if we had the gifts and training and dedication. These are our heroes.
So it’s a given. Being against slavery is not only compatible with the Bible, it is one of Bible-following people’s greatest aspirations.
But things were not always so clear.
Once upon a time, the fact that Noah promised the subjugation of Ham/Canaan to Seth (read “Israel”) was viewed as a sign of divine sanction.
Once upon a time, the fact that the Law of Moses regulated the keeping of slaves, including the perpetual ownership of foreigners and their offspring, set God pretty firmly on the side of the slaveholders.
Once upon a time, Jesus’ healing of a Roman officer’s servant was seen as affirmation of the propriety of slave-master relationships.
Once upon a time, the Apostle of Freedom interpreted the place of a slave as one of rendering service to an earthly master as though the master were none other than the Lord himself.
Once upon a time, Paul’s return of a runaway slave was seen by many as a clear affirmation of the slaveholder’s rights.
Seriously, how could anyone read that Bible and think that God could be on the side of the liberationist and abolitionist?
There are two ways:
- We read other parts and recognize their greater centrality and that they are better expressions of the gospel message. Jesus was sent to proclaim liberty to the captives. Luke 4. We go with that.
- We read the Bible in a different time and place–one in which it is just “obvious” both that slavery is wrong and that God is on the side of freedom.
My point here is that culture matters when we read the Bible. Here I’m talking about “macroculture”: the big picture time and place we are living in, a time and place that would allow Republicans and Democrats, conservative evangelicals and liberal mainliners alike, to recognize the propriety of abolition.
Our time and place matters.
Microculture. Or, Can You Be a Democrat and a Christian?!
Seriously, that was my wondering once upon a time. Democrats were for the killing of unborn babies and also for the immoral lifestyles of the gays, so didn’t that pretty much settle things?
It’s comic, now, to be in more progressive Christian circles and have the mirror questions asked: can you be a part of the party that wants to take away healthcare, continue building the prison industrial complex, and refuse to house the needy immigrant and still claim to be Christian?!
People have always occupied different subcultures. At the same time that Southern slaveholders were making the kinds of arguments I laid out above, Northern abolitionists were raising different biblical cries.
Our microcultures, the places where we live and work and play on a day-to-day basis that differ from the places where other people in our cities and states and country live and work and play, these have a tremendous influence on what we see as well.
And here’s what’s happening, as we all know: the internet is making it increasingly possible to hang out in our own microcultures all day long. And it is making it possible to be in the same microculture with someone on the other side of the country. And it is making it possible to be in a different microculture from someone on our own block or even in our own house.
This is, perhaps, the greatest surprise of the “information age”: by and large we are becoming stranger to one another rather than more familiar with one another.
I think that this is why I found it so maddening, disheartening, and even heartbreaking to scroll through the Rubio site. Here was someone who had said something nearly identical to what I would say about the conjunction of faith and politics, and yet the small space between premise and conclusion proved to be a tremendous gap that he and I had filled in very different ways.
Patience for the Jedi?
A couple of times in this election cycle I have heard friends ask why the only candidate talking about caring for the poor and taking care of the sick is a secular Jew. They are mourning the gap between the shared convictions of Christians and the conclusions they think should be drawn.
If we are to patiently work or wait for a better shared expression of the faith, what would that even mean?
Overall, the experience of wading through an election cycle and of talking about flashpoint issues has made me do some soul-searching. I begin to experience the draw that some people find toward Catholicism or Orthodoxy. The problem with the Protestant experiment is that there will always be as many interpretations as there are interpreters.
And there will always be as many interpretive possibilities as there are cultures.
When we talk, we talk to our own. Or we talk past each other. Or we are working with such different starting points or assumptions that we never end up reading the Bible in quite the same way as the next person.
These are the moments in which my idealism starts to crumble. I really, really, really believe in church unity. But 500 years of Protestantism have shown us that the Bible is no basis for it. It can’t be.
Not unless we start thinking of ourselves more like it. Not unless we can see ourselves as a hodgepodge of people to whom and through whom God is speaking–even though sometimes one of us is saying something very different from someone else. Like a bunch of books by different authors bounded within the same cover. Joined, not by a common message, but by a the decision of the Editor to bind us all together in one.