Ministerial Musings: God's Politics

The nonprofit, nonpartisan religious organization Sojourners, founded by Jim Wallis of God’s Politics fame, circulated a bumper sticker and hosted an on-line petition during the 2004 campaign under the mantra, “God is not a Republican…or a Democrat.”  That’s true.  God may be a Socialist, though — at least Jesus of Nazareth was.

First of all, Jesus was an itinerant preacher who shunned earthly possessions and sought to establish a covenantal community (a koinonia) in which all people had equal access to food, shelter, and basic care — not to mention God’s grace! Jesus’ message was one that challenged the political and religious authorities of his era by bringing those from the margins to the center of the social order.

Secondly, read the opening chapters of the Book of Acts (the second part of Luke’s Gospel).  After the Holy Spirit is bestowed upon the Church (giving birth to the body of Christ on earth) we are told that, “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” (Acts 2:44-45, NRSV).  Commenting on these verses, Robert W. Wall states that, “A fellowship of believers shares more than common beliefs and core values; they display a profound regard for one another’s spiritual and physical well-being as a community of friends.” (Wall 2002, 71-72).

Are these not basic civil rights? Is this not a fundamental ethical aspect of communal living in which we are all embroiled (be it in the Church, or society at large, or both)?  Two chapters later, the apostolic record reiterates this point: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” (Acts 4:32-35, NRSV).

Yet, for some reason, the two-party system that dominates American political discourse continually vies to incorporate God on “our” side; at least that is one of the objectives of conservative Republicanism. Pundits on the right (the political and religious) constantly claim that this is “a Christian nation.”  Remember Dr. D. James Kennedy’s quest to “Reclaim America for Christ”?  Although that movement is defunct, the desire is alive and well with many in the Republican Party and the Evangelical community. Kennedy said it best in his book Character & Destiny: “The time has come, and it is long overdue, when Christians and conservatives and all men and women who believe in the birthright of freedom must rise up and reclaim America for Christ.”(Kennedy 1994, 80).  Constitutionalists, who fail to read the first ten words of the First Amendment, claim it is part of our national DNA.

I recently saw this illustrated in a most offensive way in a Christian bookstore. In their “God and Country” section, they were selling small statues of Jesus being lowered from the cross wrapped in an American flag as opposed to the white shroud.

What does this all have to do with Socialism?

Obviously, I was being facetious in claiming that God is a Socialist. However, contemporary Christians (liberal and conservative alike) need to take stock of the fact that the fundamental tenets of modern day Democratic Socialism are found in the practices of the Early Church. The first believers certainly were not Republicans who supported huge tax cuts for big businesses or privatized medicine to make pharmaceutical companies and HMO shareholders wealthy off of those who are lucky enough to afford health insurance. Although the radical agenda found throughout the Gospels coincides with much of the Democratic platform, it mirrors the principles of Socialism more acutely.

Jesus was a pacifist. He taught about radical inclusivity as a defining characteristic of the realm of God. He sought the liberation of all oppressed people, as Latin American Liberation Theology (with its basis in socialist thought) advocates. He incorporated women and children (who had no social status in 30 CE) into his fellowship. He broke bread with (and entered the homes of) tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners — the social pariahs of first century Palestine. He advocated for the physical, mental, and spiritual well-being of all people. He strove for justice for everyone, especially those sequestered to lower or subservient classes.  Jesus was a socialist (with a small “s”). The Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Epistles make this self-evident.

It is true that the majority of Americans claim allegiance to one form of Christianity or another. According to the CIA, 75.2% of Americans are either Protestant or Catholic. Mormons comprise 1.7% of the population and “Other Christians” account for 1.6% for a grand total of 78.5%. That obviously does not mean that the spirit of capitalism is the equivalent to the spirit of Christianity, the latter being rooted in love and justice and the former in profit and manifest destiny. Political scientist Benjamin R. Barber cautions us that, “Social justice makes little headway against market ideology than national self-interest. Markets are by their nature unfair, and when confronted with state-generated public interest issues like justice, full employment, and environmental protection, they seek above all to be left alone.” (Barber 2001, 28).

Abraham Lincoln once said, "My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side.” When we are genuinely concerned about the rights and welfare of all people — regardless of their race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, ability, or age — then (I believe) we are on God’s side. Socialists fight for these rights. Is not the Church Universal called to do the same?

The Rev. Dr. John Tamilio III, Ph.D., a resident of Lakewood, is the Senior Pastor of Pilgrim United Church of Christ in the Tremont neighborhood of Cleveland. A version of this article previously appeared online on the Socialist WebZine site.

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Volume 7, Issue 4, Posted 6:48 PM, 02.22.2011