Are Christians Reconcilers?

John Danforth
October 23, 2006

This article was originally submitted to Pacific School of Religion as part of Progressive Christian Witness, a 2006 initiative of PSR designed to bring voices of progressive Christianity to churches nationwide. 

Christianity is supposed to be a ministry of reconciliation. Instead it has become a divisive force in American public life. One reason is the conviction that one's own political agenda is God's agenda. Following this line of thinking, some Christians hold that voting for a candidate who favors legalized abortion or gay marriage would not be voting Christian. The certainty with which these people identify their political agenda with Christianity is not supported by the Gospels.

Jesus said almost nothing about government. The sole example of his directly addressing the connection between believers and government is his response to the Pharisees' question about paying taxes to Caesar. Jesus' response, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's," does not mean that the realms of God and government are so distinct that there is no connection between the two. In fact, Jesus' answer was that support for the government by paying taxes was the responsibility of faithful people.

Where Jesus broke with the Old Testament tradition was not in his opposition to government, but in his refusal to specify how government should act. He did not follow the prophetic example of confronting kings and telling them what to do. And aside from telling people to pay taxes, he did not leave instructions on how citizens should relate to government, much less how to vote.

Jesus' lack of specificity with regard to politics does not mean that the New Testament leaves us without any guidance as to public issues. The commandment that we love our neighbors as ourselves and the compassion of Jesus for the poor speak to the entirety of life, including our politics. So the New Testament informs the way Christians approach politics, but that is not the same as creating an agenda. What we lack is a set of rules that tells us with specificity what political positions we should take and what candidates we should support. Jesus lets us figure that out for ourselves.

Whether religion is a divisive or a reconciling force depends on our certainty or our humility as we practice our faith in our politics. If we believe that we know God's truth and that we can embody that truth in a political agenda, we divide the realm of politics into those who are on God's side, which is our side, and those with whom we disagree, who oppose the side of God. This is neither good religion nor good politics. It is not consistent with following a Lord who reached out to a variety of people--prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers. Reconciliation depends on acknowledging that God's truth is greater than our own, that we cannot reduce it to any political platform we create, no matter how committed we are to that platform, and that God's truth is large enough to accommodate the opinions of all kinds of people, even those with whom we strongly disagree.

The indispensable requirement of a ministry of reconciliation is humility. It is the recognition that our attempts to be God's people in our politics are, at best, good faith efforts, subject to all the misjudgments and mixed motives that characterize human behavior. We are seekers of the truth, but we do not embody the truth. And in humility, we should recognize that the same can be said about our most ardent foes.

In describing the kingdom of God, Jesus told a story about a king who invited guests to a great dinner. When they declined the invitation, the king persisted to the point of sending servants into the streets to compel anyone they could find to come to the dinner so that his house could be filled. It is a story illustrating an inviting God and an accessible kingdom. In John's Gospel, Jesus said, "In my Father's house are many rooms"--very large rooms. The image is of a Lord who is preparing a place for us in a welcoming space where there are a lot of different people.

If the kingdom of God is spacious, how dare church leaders take it upon themselves to rope off these large rooms and establish crannies for some while booting out the others? Ordinary Christians should make it clear that church leaders do not speak for them if they advocate exclusivity and division, within the Church and in the world at large.

Whether religion is a reconciling force in America depends on the degree of humility with which we claim its truths to be our own. If we recognize the limits of our understanding of God's truth, we are able to be ambassadors of reconciliation. In that case, our faithfulness in politics depends less on the content of our ideology than on how we view ourselves and how we treat each other.

 

About the Author

Senator John Danforth is an ordained Episcopal priest, former U.S. senator (R-Mo) and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. In 2001, President Bush appointed Danforth as special envoy for peace in Sudan, where he worked to broker a peace agreement that, in 2005, ultimately ended the twenty-year civil war.

 

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Adapted from Danforth, John, "Are Christians Reconcilers?" from Faith and Politics: How the Moral Values Debate Divides America and How to Move Forward, pages 14-21. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2006.

Used by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Faith and Politics by Senator John Danforth

Copyright ©John Danforth, 2006.