June 4, 2017

Neither to the Right nor to the Left

The ditch on either side of the road is just as deep.

Don W. McFarlane

My wife and I carry British passports. So our eyes were glued to the television on the evening of June 23, 2016, as the results of the United Kingdom’s referendum on whether or not to remain in the European Union came in (Brexit). We were as surprised as most Brits that the “Leave Europe” supporters won that referendum.

People, or Pigeons?

The decision by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union is seen by some as a victory for the political Right. Modern society seems to have a fascination with pigeonholing everyone politically. No longer is it enough to see someone as just a citizen. Everyone now seems to be left wing, right wing or moderate. Political scientists see right-wing politics as appealing to conservatives, traditionalists, reactionaries, and fascists; while left-wing politics attracts progressives, socialists, and communists.

Several European countries appear to be lurching more and more to the right. “Across the once-placid political landscape of Western Europe, right-wing upstarts have created what Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, recently termed ‘galloping populism.’ He was referring to movements like the Sweden Democrats, the National Front in France, the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, and other voices on the far right calling for their once-open countries to close up and turn inward.”1

The result of the 2016 presidential election in the United States is seen by many observers as the triumph of right-wing politics. Simon Shuster commented, “All the rising rightist parties [in Europe] are aligned with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in what they encourage voters to fear: migrants taking your jobs, Muslims threatening your culture and security, political correctness threatening your ability to speak your mind and, above all, entrenched elites selling you out in the service of the wealthy and well-connected.”2

“The movement generally referred to in the U.S. as the Religious Right came of age in the late 1970s. While it’s extremely diverse and shouldn’t be characterized in simple terms, it’s an ultraconservative religious response to the sexual revolution. It’s a response to events that are seen by Religious Right proponents as being connected to the sexual revolution. Its goal is to effect this religious response as public policy.”3

On the surface it might seem that Christians should feel obliged to cast their lot with the Religious Right, as it purportedly is concerned with returning to traditional family values and saving America from sliding down the slippery slopes of hedonism, moral relativism, and decadence. Who can successfully argue with the need to safeguard Christian values, and for Christians to stand as a bulwark against the tide of self-indulgence that threatens to destroy Western civilization?

The church needs to be where Jesus is: among the people.

The “Religious Left” now apparently seeks to assert itself in the United States as a foil to the “Religious Right.” Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary, and one of the leaders of the Religious Left, said, “The election of Trump has been a clarion call to progressives in the Protestant and Catholic churches in America to move out of a place of primarily professing progressive policies to really taking action.”4

The Religious Left seems to have as strong an argument as the Religious Right’s for Christian adherence and unreserved support. The Christian Left’s official Web site, www.thechristianleft.org, clearly states that this movement is based on Jesus’ teaching to love our neighbors as ourselves, and the Christian obligation to care for those in need: the “lost, ignored, excluded, overlooked, abandoned, uncared-for.” Who can argue against this?

John and James: a Metaphor

The powerful arguments of one side are met by the equally compelling arguments of the other. So on which side of the religious-political fence should the church be sitting? A particular illustration I occasionally use to address this dilemma goes like this:

Two men, one of whom I will call John and the other James, are members of their local Adventist church. John is present in church every Sabbath. He is meticulous in returning tithe. He does not drink, smoke, or swear. He is seen as one of the fathers of the church, and is known as a moral and upright man. However, he is critical of those who do not measure up to his expectations. He never offers a word of encouragement or support to others or places a comforting arm around anyone.

James’s life is marked with many personal disasters. He drinks like a fish and swears like a fisherman. He attends church only occasionally and seldom gives money to the church. But James would give his last dollar to feed someone who is hungry and the shirt off his back to clothe another. He seeks out those who are lonely and depressed to befriend and encourage them. He always has a word of encouragement for those who need it.

After describing the two men, I ask, “Which of the two is a Christian?” One or two hands go up for John and several for James, but most would not commit one way or the other—a wise response. The fact is, Christians are the ones who combine the positive characteristics of John and the positive characteristics of James, being mindful at the same time that they are capable of slipping into the negative modes.

What does this tell us about where we should pitch our tent as far as the divide between the political Right and the political Left is concerned?

Life Above Politics

If my illustration has merit, the answer is neither Left nor Right. My 44 years of ministry have taught me that the greatest challenge that the church and its individual members face is that of being true to its values and ideals, while at the same time applying them sensitively and compassionately to people who are broken, depressed, hopeless, and weak.

It’s fairly easy to throw those ideals and values at broken people and tell them to strive to be like us. Often members who take this approach are considered by some to be the guardians of the church and the defenders of the faith. The “defenders of the faith” are usually ambivalent as to how to view those who sit and walk with the needy, without obvious reference to Christian values, viewing them at times as preaching a social gospel or even abandoning the principles of the church.

Again I ask: On which side should we pitch our tent as Christians? Bill Miller, president of the Potomac Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, in an address to conference employees on April 3, 2017, said, “We must rise above politics and be Christians.” Another way of articulating this point is that we must follow the example of Jesus.

Jesus understood people more than anyone else did. He would have made a great politician. However, He chose not to involve Himself with politics, even with the various religious movements of His time. His focus was people and their needs, whether those needs were material or salvific.

The church needs to be where Jesus is: among the people, irrespective of political views, religious persuasion, nationality, residential status, or sexual orientation, in an effort to reflect God’s love and grace to those who are seeking meaning and hope.

Seneca, a contemporary of the apostle Paul, said of the time in which he lived that all humans were looking ad salutem (toward salvation). “What we needed, he said, was ‘a hand let down to lift us up.’ ”5 Epictetus wrote that men were seeking a peace “not of Caesar’s proclamation, but of God’s.”6

It is the work of the church to be the channel through which God’s hand touches everyone, offering a peace that comes only from being citizens of God’s kingdom.

  1. Simon Shuster, “European Politics Are Swinging to the Right,” Time, Sept. 22, 2016.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Tom Head, “The Religious Right Movement and the Sexual Revolution,” ThoughtCo, Mar. 19, 2017, www.thoughtco.com/the-religious-right-721631.
  4. In Ann Corcoran, “ ‘Religious Left’ on the Rise in Response to President Trump’s People and Policies,” https://refugeeresettlementwatch.wordpress.com/2017/03/28.
  5. William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible: The Letter to the Romans, rev. ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975), p. 19.
  6. In ibid.

Don W. McFarlane, formerly president of the British Union Conference, is administrative pastor of Sligo church in Takoma Park, Maryland.