We Don’t Recognize Our Own Spin
In recent years I have taken some Masters Courses in Divinity. Part of the program is one of classroom content on various evangelical and Christian topics. The other part is scripture practicum (SP). SP is a study into exegesis. Exegesis is the process of taking a critical look at scripture to understand Gods truth. One of the things I remember in SP was that before we apply Gods truth in the the hear and now we must first understand the then and there. First, then and there… then, here and now. In other words before applying scripture today we should understand the biblical text through the eyes of the original author before we apply or misapply Gods truth today.
The second thing I remember from SP was that total objectivity of truth is a myth! I remember these words very well! In other words all of us bring our biases and filters into our interpretation of scripture and the world everyday. If we do not understand our own biases and filters we may never see truth in it’s fullness. If we had an emotionally difficult day we WILL interpret Gods truth differently than if we had a good day. If we have experience Y in our background we will interpret things differently than if we had X in in our background. No matter how hard we try or how much time we spend reading scripture, we will always have a slant and a bias as we interpret truth! The question is are you aware of your own biases and filters so you can … at times … put them down and let the “real” truth stand on its own! Exegesis is a arduous and difficult process since our lenses have often become “rigid” when we interpret and study God’s truth.
So I realize, for some, I may be stepping on some odd ground here. I want you to know I am not saying Gods truth is relative or different based on experience. I am also not saying Gods word is errant. I believe Gods word is completely inerrant! What I am saying is that our interpretation of truth and the world gets skewed and often twisted because of our own biases, filters, and experiences.
To illustrate this point, I want you imagine the BIG picture of where you are standing or sitting. You are sitting here on the planet Earth. What are you doing (big picture) on the planet Earth? You are standing in one spot on the Earth and the Earth is spinning. So, here is the important question. Why are you not aware that you are spinning? The answer is because everything around you is also spinning “relative” to your position!! You are not aware of your own spin!!!!!!
As I have grown (and hopefully matured) over the years, I have started to do something very differently before every major presidential election. I find it fascinating to place various news sources side by side and compare their biases, filters, and skews to life and politics. And as I consider my evangelical beliefs I always consider how my faith needs to play out in politics. I always consider the position and the posture of Jesus Christ to the world as I work my faith out in the political world.
There was a time when I shared in one specific biased extreme to politics. However, as I matured and developed a new “lens” of understanding God, my faith, the world, and politics I came to see things very differently. I came to realize that when listening to news sources, much like the practice of exegesis, that total objectivity of truth is a myth. We all bring a lens, bias, and filter to how we interpret truth in news. This is why the idea of fake news is pervasive. In today’s political language the word “fake news” is being used to represent biases that are only different from our own. Many evangelicals believe there is liberal news bias in the news. However, the bias they are perceiving is really just a bias and “spin” different then their own. And most people are not aware of their own “spin” to truth. In other words, just like the planet Earth analogy.. the world is spinning its truth in news right along with them and people don’t recognize their own spin.
Since many are not aware of their own spin,,, the next statement will be hard to hear for some…. but it needs to be said briefly to make a point. CNN (especially in election times) is biased and spinning left of center, Fox (especially in election times) is biased and spinning right of center. Then since ratings make money and people seem to rally around people that share their own spin, many people love the political polarizers and news shock jocks. Or another word you can use is they are political opinion shows. The shock jocks include people like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Tucker Carlson, and Breitbart on the right to name a few. The shock jocks on the left include the Daily Show, the Guardian, NPR, Al Jazeera, etc to name a few. Forget right now if you disagree with the last couple sentences. However, I want you to hang on to a couple of ideas for later on? What draws people to political polarizers and news shock jock shows … and why do many smart, intelligent people agree with some news sources when other smart, intelligent people agree with other sources of news? Also, why does biblical interpretation have a pervasive interpretive pluralism and why does the practice of exegesis have to be so arduous and involved. Do we not recognize our own spin? And is this especially true when it comes to areas of faith, politics, and moral topics where emotions tend to run high on both sides? Those will be the questions we consider as the various topics as this series unfolds. There is a considerable amount of anxiety in today’s world when it comes to politics. The question that needs to be thought through is what side is Jesus on when it comes to politics?
When it comes to politics, the Bible gives us no reason to believe that Jesus would side completely with one political viewpoint over another. Rather, when it comes to kings and kingdoms, Jesus sides with himself. The following encounter between Joshua, an Israelite military commander headed into battle, and the angel of the Lord is instructive:
When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, “What does my lord say to his servant?” And the commander of the Lord’s army said to Joshua, “Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so. (Joshua 5:13-15)
Lord, are you for us or for our adversaries? “No, I’m not,” he replies.
The question, then, is not whether Jesus is on our side but whether we are on his. This is the appropriate question not only for politics and government but also every other concern.
It may surprise us to know that there was political diversity among Jesus’ disciples. Included in the Twelve are Simon, a Zealot, and Matthew, a tax collector. This is significant because Zealots worked against the government, while tax collectors worked for the government. Interestingly, Matthew the tax collector emphasizes this diversity more than any of the other Gospel writers. Despite their opposing viewpoints, Matthew and Simon were friends, and Matthew wanted us to know this.
Matthew’s emphasis on a tax collector and a Zealot living in community suggests a hierarchy of loyalties, especially for Christians. Our loyalty to Jesus and his Kingdom must always exceed our loyalty to an earthly agenda, whether political or otherwise. We should feel “at home” with people who share our faith but not our politics even more than we do with people who share our politics but not our faith. If this is not our experience, then we very well may be rendering to Caesar what belongs to God.
People from varying political persuasions can experience unity under a single, first allegiance to Jesus the King, who on the cross removed and even “killed” the hostility between people on the far left, people on the far right, and people everywhere in between. Wherever the reign of Jesus is felt, differences are embraced and even celebrated as believers move toward one another in unity and peace.
Now let’s consider two different ways to look at politics. First, we will consider the world’s politics. Then we will look at the politics of God’s Kingdom.
The World’s Politics
In the eighteenth chapter of John’s Gospel, we see a clash between two governors: Pontius Pilate, the governor of Rome, and Jesus Christ, the governor of the universe.
Jesus is brought to Pilate by an angry mob. The mob charges Jesus with being an enemy of the state and a threat to Caesar’s preeminence. Pilate, wanting to hear the account directly from Jesus, asks him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus responds, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth.” Not sensing Jesus to be a threat, Pilate says dismissively to the crowd, “I find no guilt in him.” But then he makes a concession according to Jewish custom to release one man for them at the Passover. The crowd pressures Pilate to release Barabbas, a known murderer and insurrectionist, and to crucify Jesus in Barabbas’s place. Wanting to please the crowds, Pilate accommodates. Jesus, the innocent man, gets the death penalty. Barabbas, the guilty man, goes free. Modern politics can also work this way.
The goal of politics is to get people to support a particular vision for the world and to conduct their lives according to that vision. In pursuit of this goal, politicians today often use the same strategies that Jesus’ accusers and Pilate employed: misuse of power and manipulation of truth.
The Misuse of Power
The world’s politics rely heavily on power. Pilate finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place: he believes that Jesus is innocent; he also knows that Barabbas is guilty. Yet the calculating governor is desperate to please the crowds. As he considers the accusations against Jesus, he goes back and forth between his private chamber and then back out to the crowds. Though he knows who is innocent and who is not, he can’t decide whom to crucify and whom to set free.
What is happening here? We can assume that Pilate is taking the temperature of the crowd. He is assessing potential out- comes, discerning which course of action will be best for his own approval rating as well as the preservation of his own stat- ure. His conscience makes him reluctant to crucify Jesus, yet he wants the favor of the crowd. But in worldly politics, when conscience and the crowd are at odds with one another, the crowd always wins. When the crowd always wins, bad people can go free and good people suffer.
I love the animated movie Shrek for many reasons. There is so much about the human experience that the film gets right. One such example is the pitiful little ruler of the land, Lord Farquaad.
Farquaad is a single man. The one thing he feels is missing from his kingdom is the lovely princess Fiona, who has long been locked up in a castle far away, guarded by a deadly, fire-breathing dragon. There have been many failed attempts to rescue Fiona; many would-be rescuers have lost their lives.
Farquaad gathers his bravest knights together for a competition. The knights are placed inside an arena to duel against each other until only one of them is left standing. The prevailing knight will have the “honor” of going out on Lord Farquaad’s behalf to rescue Fiona. Farquaad, himself a coward, offers the following “inspirational” speech to the knights before they turn against each other in the arena:
Brave knights, you are the best and brightest in all the land. Today one of you shall prove himself. That champion shall have the honor—no, no—the privilege to go forth and rescue the lovely Princess Fiona from the fiery keep of the dragon. If for any reason the winner is unsuccessful, the first runner-up will take his place and so on and so forth. Some of you may die, but it’s a sacrifice I am willing to make.
The world’s politics. Your hopes, desires, ambitions, good name—and, if necessary, your life—are worth sacrificing in order to protect and advance my agenda. And I will use my power, the authority of my office, to ensure that this happens. Some of you may die. But it’s a sacrifice I am willing to make. The ends justify the means.
Manipulation of the Truth
The world’s politics are also laced with manipulation of the truth, also known as “spin.” We see this in the exchange between Pilate and the accusing crowds. When Pilate asks Jesus if he is king of the Jews, Pilate is not interested in spiritual matters. He wants the answer to one question: Is this man a threat to my power? Is he an enemy of Caesar, and therefore also my enemy? What is the size of his following? What is his agenda? What kind of momentum is there behind his movement?
Pilate would not be asking any of these questions about Jesus had the crowds not spun Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God to mean that Jesus was an enemy of the state. In reality this is a silly and baseless accusation, because Christ’s teaching directs his followers to honor those in authority in every way possible. This being true, to the degree that Christians follow the teachings of Jesus, they will actually be perceived as the most refreshing and cooperative citizens of any earthly kingdom.
Pilate’s agenda was of no concern to Jesus’ accusers, because Jesus’ growing influence threatened the status quo for them as well. In order to keep Jesus at bay, they created a false narrative about him and went public with it. Eventually it got him killed.
How about us? Are we also prone to exaggerate, spin, and tell half-truths to protect (or usurp) the status quo? How easy it can be to get pulled in to the politics of spin. Some of us have become so used to these tactics and so numb to them that we—yes, even we who claim to be people of truth—have become willing participants in the spin:
On this side of the aisle is our candidate, the answer to all of the world’s problems. She can do no wrong. On that side of the aisle is their candidate, the reason for all of the world’s problems. He can do no right.
Don’t we tend to demonize the dysfunction one candidate while exulting another? And as we do this, instead of providing the culture with a radically alternative way of life, we largely present it with a religious version of what it already is.
Sadly, for many Christians, the tide has shifted in the last presidential election and this demonizing, exulting problem continues. Many that have demonized Obama even when he did many good things are now exulting our new president even when he is dysfunctional. My hope is that this BLOG topic makes people more aware that this does not represent the Jesus in scripture and it does not represent what Jesus wants for His community of Christ-followers!
The question is: are such partisan caricatures and political absolutes a Christian practice, or are they decidedly un-Christian? What do you think?
Leaning toward a certain party is one thing (Matthew did it, Simon did it, and Jesus allowed it), but it is important to see that a partisan spirit can actually run against the Spirit of God. If there ever was a partisan crowd in the Bible, it was the crowd that pressured Pilate to crucify Jesus instead of Barabbas. Barabbas, a true criminal, went free while Jesus, an innocent man, was executed after having his impeccable character assassinated. This is the essence of partisanship. Partisans inflate the best features of their party while inflating the worst features, real or contrived, of the other party. They ignore the weaknesses of their own party while dismissing the other party’s strengths.
I have good friends on both sides of the political aisle. I trust them. Many of them—on both sides—have a strong commitment to their faith. Because of this I grow perplexed when Christian men and women willingly participate in spin—ready, willing, and armed to follow the world in telling half-truths to promote their candidates, while telling more half-truths to demonize their opponents. Have we forgotten that a half-truth is the equivalent of a full lie? What’s more, political spin is polarizing even within the community of faith.
A Generational Shift
I have been struck in recent years by what appears to be a strong reaction among the millennial generation (young adults between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five) toward the faith of their baby boomer parents. Some surveys suggest that millennials are either leaving the church or adopting an altogether different expression of Christianity than the one in which they were raised. In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, reporter Brian Hiatt asked Marcus Mumford whether he still considers himself a Christian. Mumford, a pastor’s son and a famous millennial (he is lead singer of the band Mumford & Sons), had this to say:
I don’t really like [the word Christian]. It comes with so much baggage. So, no, I wouldn’t call myself a Christian. I think the word just conjures up all these religious images that I don’t really like. I have my personal views about the person of Jesus and who he was. . . . I’ve kind of separated myself from the culture of Christianity.
When those who feel a need to distance themselves from Christianity are asked why, Mumford and other millennials cite several reasons. At the top of the list is weariness over the association of right-wing politics with mainstream Christianity. The “culture of Christianity” that Mumford and others want no part of tends to trace directly back to this association. In the realm of politics, millennials have culture-war fatigue.
With this has come a pendulum swing. Wearied by their parents’ right-leaning politics, many millennials have shifted toward the political left. There are good things about this phenomenon. Younger, more progressive-minded believers are bringing a renewed zeal for biblical values such as service, care for the poor, inclusion of people on the margins, ethnic and cultural diversity, and other forms of social justice into their communities. What one wonders, however, is how a generational shift to the political left will play out in the long run. Do millennials risk repeating their parents’ errors, the only difference being a co-opting of blue-state sensibilities into faith instead of red-state ones? Will their children sense an imbalance in them as well? Only time will tell.
The Politics of God’s Kingdom
Please don’t hear me saying that it is wrong for a Christian to support one political party over another. Christians have liberty in things that are nonessential, including politics; that’s the point I am trying to make here. The political left and the political right both have good things to say, and both have their problems as well. It can be damaging to think otherwise.
For example, during the 1992 presidential elections a friend of mine told me about an awkward moment in his Bible study. One of the group members expressed excitement because that Sunday, she had seen a bumper sticker promoting the “other party” in the church’s parking lot. She was excited because, to her, this was an indication that non-Christians had come to visit. Imagine the awkwardness when another member of the group chimed in, “Um . . . that’s my bumper sticker that you saw.”
Can we talk? If a Zealot and a tax collector share a com- mon faith that transcends opposing political loyalties, then left-leaning and right-leaning believers must do the same. It is wrong to question someone’s faith because they don’t vote like you do. Yes, wrong.
It’s Not about Which Side of the Aisle
I love it when people of different political slants can live in loving diversity in Churches. This really encouraged me, because it shows that there are indeed some Christians who value the growth and sharpening that can come from diversity, including political diversity. This is a man who, unlike those whose maturing process is stunted by blind partisan loyalty, is on a fast track toward greater maturity. As he opens himself to learn from the perspective of others, he also moves toward Jesus, who is neither conservative nor liberal, yet is also both.
In many ways, Jesus is more conservative than the far right. For instance, he says that “not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”11 He warns that anyone who adds to or takes away from the words of his Book will not share in the tree of life or the Holy City. He emphasizes the importance of evangelism and conversion and said that unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God. These are all hallmarks of today’s conservative Christians.
Jesus is also in many ways more liberal than the far left. In saying repeatedly, “You have heard that it was said . . . But I say to you . . . ,” he upends the long-held traditions of his time, establishing a new vision for the world for anyone who would receive it. In this, Jesus is quite subversive with respect to the cultural norms of his time. He says that traditional Jews and modern Gentiles should not separate, but should stay in community together, and that serving the poor is central to his mission.14 That’s all very progressive of him.
How Do We Know We Are on God’s Side?
The politics of God’s Kingdom are different from the world’s politics. Kingdom politics reject the world’s methods of misusing power and manipulating the truth. What does it look like for Christians to live out Jesus’ Kingdom vision in our daily lives? It looks like taking care of widows and orphans, advocating for the poor, improving economies, paying taxes, honoring those in authority, loving our neighbors, pursuing excellence at work, and blessing those who persecute us. When this happens, kings, presidents, governors, mayors, law enforcement officers, park officials, and other public servants will take notice. Those in authority will begin to see Christians as an asset to society. They will recognize and appreciate that Christians, as citizens first and foremost of God’s Kingdom, value leaving the world in better shape than we found it. Consider these words from C. S. Lewis:
If you read history you will find that the Christians who did the most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. . . . The conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.
Let’s consider for a moment what history does in fact tell us.
Christianity Has Always Thrived Most as a Life-Giving Minority, Not a Political Majority
Some believe that putting Christians in office and other places of power is the key to transforming the world. “If only there were more people in power who followed Jesus,” the reasoning goes, “that would be the game changer that would finally make the world what God intends it to be.” While it is indeed a very good thing for Christians to serve in public office, neither the Bible nor history supports the idea that holding positions of power is the key to bringing God’s Kingdom to earth as it is in heaven. On this point, Jesus’ own resistance to earthly power is telling. At the peak of his popularity, the people wanted him to be king. But he had a different agenda: “Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.”
Why would Jesus resist earthly power? Why would even a “politician” after God’s own heart, King David, tell us not to trust in chariots, horses, or princes? Because Christianity always flourishes most as a life-giving minority, not as a powerful majority. It is through subversive, countercultural acts of love, justice, and service for the common good that Christianity has always gained the most ground.
For example, Christians in ancient Rome faced severe opposition and persecution from the state. Yet in this climate, believers had “favor with all the people” because of the refreshing way in which they loved all their neighbors. Following many failed attempts to exterminate Christians from Rome, the emperor Julian wrote a letter to his friend Arsacius. In the letter, Julian conceded that the more he tried to destroy Christians, the more their movement grew. Said the emperor, “The impious Galileans [Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well.”
When did Christianity begin to falter in Rome? It began when a later emperor, Constantine, sought to impose Christianity on all of Rome as the state religion. The results were disastrous. Rather than becoming more like the city of God, Rome went into spiritual decline, and the salt of early Christianity eventually lost its savor. The same can be said of many European countries. When those in power made Christianity the state religion, the church began its decline toward irrelevance. More recently, the so-called Moral Majority sought to bring “Christian values” to American society through political activism and “taking a stand” for what they believe. ***** Unfortunately for them, this strategy has had a reverse effect. *******
Christianity Embraces Both Conservative and Progressive Values
The Kingdom of Jesus does not advance through spin, political maneuvering, manipulation of power, or “taking a stand” for what we believe (do we ever see Jesus, or for that matter Paul or any of the apostles, taking a stand against secular society or government?). Rather, the Kingdom of Jesus advances through subversive acts of love—acts that flow from conservative and progressive values. This is the beauty of the Christian movement. It embraces the very best of both points of view, while pushing back on the flaws, shortcomings, and injustices inherent in both.
How does this work? By the third century, in spite of a government that stood against religious freedom (except for the freedom to worship Caesar), the social fabric of Rome had been transformed for the better. Believers in Christ were the chief contributors to this transformation. Here are a few examples:
First, Christians led the way in the movement for women’s equality. At that time there were double standards in Rome with respect to gender. A woman was expected to be faithful to her husband, while a man could have multiple mistresses and wives. Unmarried and childless women were ostracized. If a woman’s husband died, she had two years to find a new husband before the state would withdraw support and she would likely starve. Christians took up the cause of women, giving them prominent places of honor in the church, taking care of widows as if they were family, and insisting that men be faithful to their wives. In spite of prevailing cultural values, a Christian man was expected to be either single or a “one-woman man,” the husband of one wife. The virtue of monogamous sexuality within marriage—a conservative value today—was at play. But so was the progressive virtue of equality—men could no longer treat women as inferior.
Second, infanticide was prominent in early Rome. There was no prevailing ethic of life except that certain lives were expendable. Consider this excerpt from a letter by a man named Hilarion to his wife, Alis, who was expecting a child. Hilarion was away on business and sent these instructions about the child in Alis’s womb:
Do not worry if when all others return I remain in Alexandria. I beg and beseech of you to take care of the little child, and, as soon as we receive wages, I will send them to you. If—good luck to you!—you have a child, if it is a boy, let it live; if it is a girl, throw it out. You told Aphrodisias to tell me: “Do not forget me.” How can I forget you? I beg you therefore not to worry.
It is stunning how upbeat he is toward his wife on the one hand, and how heartless he is toward the child on the other . . . if it is a girl, that is. “If it is a girl, throw it out.” Sadly, this was all too common in Rome. Christians, however, became known for taking up the cause of orphans (girls, children of other races or with special needs—it didn’t matter) by welcoming them into their families and raising them to adulthood. Here we have the conservative virtue of protecting the unborn plus the progressive virtues of championing female equality and social justice.
Third, as in Hitler’s Germany, the poor in Rome were coldly viewed as “useless eaters,” a drain on society. But in Christian communities the poor were treated with dignity and honor. There was a spirit of compassion and generosity among Christians, which manifested in the sharing of wealth to narrow the income gap—a progressive value. But generosity was voluntary, not forced—a conservative value. I once heard someone say that though the early Christians were monogamous with their bodies, they were promiscuous with their wallets.
The Kingdom of God advances on earth as it is in heaven when the people of God, loved and kept by Jesus, assume a public faith that includes, but is certainly not limited to, government. Public faith enriches the world not by grasping for earthly power, but through self-donation. This is how Jesus transformed Jerusalem. This is how Christianity transformed Rome. This is how Christianity can transform any society, including our own.
“Seek first the kingdom of God . . . , and all these things will be added to you.”
It is my hope during this series of posts that as Christians we develop an increased level of awareness of how we shame others in politics so that we can more fully resemble what Jesus wants in his community and followers. So can represent both the position and posture of Jesus in scripture and so that we do not render the church in its primary mission — to make disciples of all nations. And I pray we learn to more fully allow others to be fully known in relationship with us before we start telling them what is right and wrong. Or as one Pastor once said … we need to stop eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil and start eating from the tree of life (Jesus).
I belief you most represent Jesus when people are uncertain about your political standing. I happen to be very conservative in my beliefs … but to many conservatives I may look too liberal and to most liberals I am far too conservative. I am in a very narrow and lonely spot politically… but I do so because I believe I believe it represents both the position AND the posture of Jesus. I believe it represents ALL of Jesus and not just a portion of Him. Jesus was always counter cultural. Jesus turned the social, political, economic , and religious “pyramids” people lived under upside down by saying the first will be last and the last will be first. Today we need more people willing to be last and turn the social, religious, and political pyramids we are building today upside down. Kyrios Christos! Christ is Lord!
It is my largest hope that this BLOG series will help develop safe, grace-filled communities and groups where people can be fully known and fully loved as they clearly see a Jesus that defeated shame and died for sinners! And since either overt or covert shame is such a strong part of the political landscape , my prayer is that we can defeat this shame at its source so we can look like the community of Christ-followers that Jesus wanted!
Note: Multiple excerpts from Scott Sauls book: Jesus Outside The Lines