So far in this five-part series, we’ve considered how the gospel ends racism, misogyny and abortion, both now, in the lives of all true believers, and ultimately, in Christ’s future worldwide reign. Regarding the subject of this e-teaching, political polarization—something we’ve certainly witnessed during the last election—it is easy to understand why only one political viewpoint will dominate the future reign of Christ. But it is puzzling that evangelical Christians are politically polarized, right and left, along with everyone else, with each side claiming the higher moral ground.
I confess that I—on moral grounds—lean a little more to the right, but I’ve got good Christian friends who lean a little more to the left—and also on moral grounds. Yet we’re all reading from the same Bible.
Of course, Christians don’t agree on every point of theology either, even though, again, we are all reading from the same Bible. So, maybe the reason all believers don’t agree politically is the same reason they all don’t agree theologically. Perhaps one side or the other is wrongly interpreting (or applying) Scripture. Or perhaps both sides need to listen to each other to arrive at a more balanced perspective.
One basic belief that polarizes people politically—in general—is their view of human nature. Some view the world as being full of people who are basically good but trapped in evil systems. Thus, if we remove the barriers and temptations that cause them to do evil, their true, good selves will shine through. It is those who create or sustain such barriers and temptations who are therefore to blame for moral evil.
Most Christians, on the other hand, realize that the world is full of people who are basically not good. And even though they sometimes may act good, it is often because of some self-interested motivation, such as fear of punishment or hope of reward. The only hope of changing people who are basically evil into people who are basically good is the gospel’s promise of a transforming spiritual rebirth.
In my observation, there exists a more subtle version of the conflicting world views I’ve just described—a version that even polarizes Christians politically from one another. It comes down to the question, “Who is to blame?” What is the chief cause of a person’s sin, themselves or their environment? Christians who lean to the right tend to hold individuals more responsible, whereas Christians who lean towards the left tend to blame people’s environment and those who exercise control over those environments.
This polarization was evident from comments I received regarding my last two e-teachings on the subject of abortion. My left-tending Christian friends, all very compassionate and all very much opposed to abortion, sent me their thoughts about the need to fix environments that seem to breed abortion. One wrote:
When I taught in some of the inner city schools, it was really clear that these children are not growing up with the same opportunities that we and our children grew up with. Some schools were filthy, poorly run, no discipline, 95% of the children failing standardized tests. These children aren’t receiving basic reading and math, so they certainly aren’t learning sex ed. My experience with [our] teenaged foster daughters was that they saw some very unhealthy sex practices modeled by their mothers, and that was very difficult to break through. So how can we just expect that these women raised with such limited education and healthy families modeled will not get pregnant? And, my understanding is that it’s usually women who already have multiple children who get abortions. They don’t see any other choice. They don’t have education or skills to support the children they already have. So I suppose we could just say that outlawing abortion would solve the problem because they would continue to get pregnant and give their unwanted children away. But is that really the only answer?
That, I thought, was an excellent commentary. Those of us who are the Archie Bunkers of the world need to realize that not everyone grew up in a Leave it to Beaver home. And I’d like to submit that the answer to the “Who is to blame?” question is not as clear cut as some of us think. Although God certainly holds individuals responsible for their sins, He also takes their environments into consideration, and as my friend pointed out, particularly childhood and family environments.
For example, Jesus said, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt. 18:6). Obviously, those who cause children to stumble into sin are to blame, at least in part, for the stumbling.
Jesus went on to say, “Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks! For it is inevitable that stumbling blocks come; but woe to that man through whom the stumbling block comes! (Matt. 18:7). Jesus was not shifting the blame entirely from those who stumble to those who set up stumbling blocks. Rather, He was transferring some of the blame. The person who publishes pornography, for example, bears some of the blame for those who sin by viewing it. But porn publishers don’t bear all the blame.
Similarly, we find God declaring about Himself five times in the Old Testament:
The Lord is slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, forgiving iniquity and transgression; but He will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generations (Num. 14:18).
I realize that some Christians believe such passages teach that God punishes children, grandchildren and great grandchildren for the sins of their parents, grandparents and great grandparents. But may I submit, if that is what it means, we ought to all start looking for a new religion, because the God we serve is not only grossly unjust, but He is also a blatant hypocrite, as He has commanded humans never to punish someone for the sins of someone else (see Deut. 24:16; Ezek. 18). Everyone knows, of course, that punishing one person for another person’s sins is morally unjustifiable.
In that verse (Numbers 14:18), God said “He will by no means clear the guilty.” The “guilty” are those who are guilty, that is, those who have committed sin, not the offspring of the guilty.
And God did not say that He would punish offspring for the sins of their forefathers. Rather He said that He would “visit the iniquity of the fathers on the children.” He was speaking about sins that parents commit against their own children, such as setting an evil example before them. God holds parents accountable, at least to some degree, for the sins their children commit as a result of learned behavior from their parents. And God holds parents partly accountable even for the sins of their grandchildren and great grandchildren, due to their original evil influence.
That interpretation of Numbers 14:18 not only makes perfect moral sense—underscoring God’s perfect justice—but it also highlights the fact that we, too, should consider environmental factors when we assign blame or embrace political viewpoints based on moral principles. If we are promoting righteousness, we ought to be promoting not only individual responsibility but also just systems that reward righteous behavior (and that do not reward unrighteous behavior).
Take criminal justice. Most everyone believes that lawbreakers should face just punishment. But are we paying attention to the fact that children who grow up in mother-only households are almost twice as likely to end up incarcerated as children who grow up in mother-father households? (See www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2013/apr/18/john-duncan/rep-john-duncan-jr-says-90-percent-felons-grew-fat/ and www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2012/12/the-real-complex-connection-between-single-parent-families-and-crime/265860/.)
That fact, of course, does not exonerate criminals raised in single-parent households. Rather, it incriminates absentee fathers, and it illustrates that environmental factors affect individual behavior. Christians should be in favor of political solutions that reduce negative moral environmental factors, and conversely be opposed to political solutions that increase negative moral environmental factors.
When we ignore environmental factors that clearly affect individual behavior, condemning those who are caught in negative environments because they haven’t escaped, we not only appear to be compassionless, we are compassionless.
Yet on the other hand, when the “solutions” that are proffered to help people actually incentivize them to remain in negative environments, our compassion is exposed as little more than self-serving sympathy that makes us feel good without doing any good. And just as it is possible to shut our eyes so we don’t have to acknowledge the existence and impact of negative moral environmental factors, it is also possible to ignore individual irresponsibility.
For example, Scripture teaches, “If anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either” (2 Thes. 3:10). That is just as much of a biblical injunction as is the Bible’s instruction to care for the poor. The person who refuses to work (although perfectly able to do so), but who expects others to work so that he can eat, is in the category of those who hold slaves. Politicians who think it is morally right to take money from those who work and give it to those who will not work need another primer on morality.
In summary, I think that we, as Christians, can do a better job at eliminating political polarization among ourselves. Not every issue has to be “either/or.” Often both sides have validity, and we’d realize that if we’d just listen to each other. The Bible has more to say on the subject than what is often jokingly quoted from Ecclesiastes 10:2: “A wise man’s heart directs him toward the right, but the foolish man’s heart directs him toward the left.”
Finally, all of this is one reason why I think Christians should be cautious identifying themselves with any political party. We don’t want those who observe us to equate Christianity with a mere political platform consisting of policies that might be perceived, rightly or wrongly, as irresponsible, immoral or unjust. Jesus has so much more than that to offer, and we are supposed to represent Him. I think Shane Claiborne expressed this point well: “Mixing Christianity with a political party is like mixing ice cream with horse manure. It might not harm the manure, but it sure messes up the ice cream.” — David