Prophetic or Political?

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I would like to begin this discussion by looking at Tim Keller’s objection to the recent Statement on Social Justice. He said, in effect, that while he agreed with much of what the statement said, he had a problem with what the statement was doing. The statement offered up a lot of true things for us to consider, but it had the effect of marginalizing people that Keller did not want to marginalize.

We may or may not circle back around to this point later, but the reason I bring it up at the beginning is that I would like to apply this standard—“not what it is saying, but what it is doing”—to Tim Keller’s recent op-ed in The New York Times. What was Tim Keller doing with this piece?

The answer is that he was being very, very careful, like a cat on hot bricks.

In order to be fair to Keller, we must determine what he was doing on the basis of the things he said and did not say, but in this situation, it is not all that difficult.

The question before him was how Christians fit into our political two-party system, and his answer was that we don’t. Some of what he said in this regard was solid and uncontroversial but a good bit of what he said was a textbook case of what is wrong with evangelical cultural engagement.

In one respect, we fit into the system very well indeed. There are two ways of being political—one has to do with political positions and the other has to do with a political manner. While Keller was very careful about what he said with regard to the Christian positions on ex, why, zeee, the most notable thing about it was how careful he was being. Put another way, it was remarkable how political he was being. He sounded very much like a congressman who was just asked a direct question.

He did acknowledge that to “not be political is to be political.” His example there was the poor example of churches in the early nineteenth century that did not speak out against slavery. Seriously? Why use a sin that is two centuries old?

So get the vantage of two hundred years from now, and have a doctoral student in American history examine Keller’s op-ed piece for any reference at all to abortion, or to the fact that Planned Parenthood, subsidized by our tax dollars, sells baby parts. It is not there. So what does this say if it is true—as it is—that to not be political is to be political? It means that Tim Keller would have been willing to write an op-ed for the Charleston newspaper in 1850, just down the street from the slave market, in which he denounced a sin of dereliction on the part of the Christian church two centuries before that, in 1650 or thereabouts. Maybe a criticism of how we handled the execution of Charles I.

So why didn’t more churches apply what the Bible requires of slave-owners two hundred years ago? The answer is that back then it would have taken courage to do so, just as it would take courage today for Keller to denounce Planned Parenthood in The New York Times.

Keller does denounce sins in this piece. But he is still being careful because the sins he denounces are safe sins to denounce—we know this because they are all the sins that the secular world routinely uses to denounce the conservative Christian world. There is the sin of not working for “better public schools,” or not working for a “justice system weighted against the poor,” or “to end racial segregation,” or failing to “lift up the poor.” It is as though we found John the Baptist chiding the Israelites for failing to see the moral imperatives contained within Herod’s economic stimulus programs.

So he then argues that Christians can register with a particular party, and be active there, but is insistent that we must not identity the Christian faith “with a political party as the only Christian one.” But this is way too sly.

Of course we must not identify our political party with the kingdom of God. This is self-evident. If I were to belong to an organization called Americans for Life, I would do so knowing that a bunch of my fellow members were taking a good stand, in favor of life, but that they still need to hear the good news about Jesus Christ. I would know that they were not Christians. This understanding is commonplace among conservative Christians who are politically active, and has been for a long time.

What Keller does not directly address is whether there are political parties or movements that a Christian has no business associating with at all. To draw the question in high relief, is it okay for a Christian to join the Klan, just so long as he doesn’t “identify it” with his faith? Of course not, I would say, along with Keller. Don’t be absurd, we would both say.

Okay then, what follows? What about a political party that has successfully purged all pro-lifers from any significant role at all, and which adamantly supported the right of women to pay a doctor to dismember their baby? The issue is not whether a Christian can join “a political party,” just so long as he is careful. Of course that is true. The issue is rather whether Christians can march under the White Hand flag of Saruman, provided they maintain careful distinctions in their heads.

Keller is aware of this problem, and waves at it from a distance, but does not deal with the ramifications of it. He says that one of the reasons why Christians cannot allow the church to be “fully identified” with any particular party is that increasingly political parties are demanding an all-or-nothing allegiance. Keller calls this “package-deal ethics,” where “you cannot work on one issue with them if you don’t embrace all of their approved positions.” But if Keller actually took this position seriously, he would then tell Christians that they had to forsake any party that required mandatory allegiance to the death-cult of abortion rights. But he doesn’t—and not to be political, as we learned early in the piece, is to be political. And we also learned that we should not limit ourselves to what someone is saying, but also include the impact of what they are doing. And what Tim Keller is doing is compromising.  

Keller tells the story of a conservative Republican guy from Mississippi (and a traditional Presbyterian) who visited the Scottish Highlands, and found orthodoxy, and Sabbath-keeping, and memorized catechisms, and other glorious stuff. But then he one day discovered that they were all socialists. Their approach to economics and statism was “very left wing.” He returned to the US, in his words, “humbled and chastened.” But he ought not to have.

“He realized that thoughtful Christians, all trying to obey God’s call, could reasonably appear at different places on the political spectrum, with loyalties to different political strategies.”

Now this is quite true if we are talking about Christians differing over whether we should paint the cupola on city hall white or off-white. It is not true if we are talking about turning Venezuela into a smoking ruin—even though there are plenty of very sweet Christians who are economically illiterate enough to cheer on the policies that will bring about said ruin. Individual sweetness of temperament in an upstream voter does not at all make the result any less ruinous. We have always had Christians who tithe mint, dill and cumin out of their spice racks (Matt. 23:23), who have also been happy to vote for the faction that is happy to devour widow’s houses (Matt. 23:14).

Socialism is theft. Christians who support it are supporting theft, and I am afraid Keller is among them. He says that we have a mandate to help the poor. There are different ways to do this, he says. “Should we shrink government and let private capital markets allocate resources, or should we expand the government and give the state more of the power to redistribute wealth? Or is the right path one of the many possibilities in between? The Bible does not give exact answers . . .”

Except that “thou shalt not steal” sounds like an exact answer to me. What is meant by that wicked phrase redistribute wealth? It means that widow’s houses are fair game.

Jesus said to heal the sick too. This does not make it a matter of indifference when sweet Christians differ among themselves over whether the juju bean poultice is an adequate treatment for a staph infection.

There are many more things to say about all of this, but let me conclude with this. If we are to love the Lord our God with all our minds, then I would want to add that we should love our neighbor that way too. And it is not possible, in this day and in this time, to stand for true biblical justice without making all of Manhattan into your mortal enemy. It would mean including unborn children among the poor and defenseless. It would mean condemning that great enslavement machine called socialism. It would mean condemning every form of racism, whichever direction it runs. It would result in, for Keller, a series of very novel reactions to him.