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Neither to the Left nor to the Right
"So be careful to do what the Lord your God has commanded you: do not turn to the right or the left." I cannot resist, I will make every biblical scholar cringe and bring an application to this verse that it never intended but to which its truth nevertheless applies in our day.
Being involved in teaching about the engagement of faith with the marketplace I often find myself in discussion about such issues as money and wealth, prosperity and poverty, simplicity (your definition or mine) and all the permutations of our faith engagement with one of the dominant, competing principalities2 of our day: materialism.
It never ceases to amaze me how such discussion carries so much political prejudice amongst Christians and the extent to which we as Christians interpret our theology on these topics through the filters of the political left and the political right.
Do we allow scripture and biblical theology to have priority in shaping our political views or do we read our Scriptures through political lenses? It is disturbingly hard to discern, both in ourselves and in others. Coming back from Australia after ten years away I was surprised at the frequent use of the words left and right to describe people's political, economic and social views. I even heard the language used to describe theological positions; "a left wing theologian" and a "right wing theologian".
As followers of Jesus we need to become more discerning and more submissive to Christ. Otherwise we leave ourselves open to becoming naively aligned with worldly political and economic frameworks – often surrendering one biblical insight to achieve another in that neverending either/or kind of analysis that pervades our culture.
Such behaviour was illustrated vividly in recent debates in the USA, and is paralleled in evangelical circles here in New Zealand, as we struggle to prioritise a range of social evils all requiring the focus of our political and social activism. The needs of the poor versus the needs of the abortion-threatened baby, the needs of the marginalised versus the needs of the family – and yes, these were discussed in terms of the 'evangelical left' and the 'evangelical right'.
Our polarisation under these labels and through our submission to these paradigms often prevents us from grasping the inextricable linkages of all of these issues to each other.
As followers of Jesus we need first to declare (and believe) that the economics and politics of both the left and the right are fundamentally flawed. We need to declare them both to be fundamentalist materialistic philosophies. Their different appearance and methodologies do not elevate them above their materialistic heart.
When we seek to uphold one over the other we unnecessarily risk syncretising our faith with that view. Nor do we fix the problem by merging these philosophies into some kind of centre right or centre left average.
Secondly and more generously, we can see in the philosophical constructs of left and right a shadow of what God reveals as being his Kingdom. From the left we can draw the concepts of care for the poor and needy, of redistribution and of collectivising (as an expression of community) as resonating with the created purpose of humanity made in the image of God. From the right we recognise that its greater emphasis on production, innovation and reward for effort also captures something of the purpose of God mandated in the creation accounts.
Equally we could draw on the negatives of each paradigm, illustrating how easily they allow the expression of sin and evil.
We might also see the oscillation from left to right that has characterised New Zealand politics (and indeed that of most democratic countries) as a casting around for balance and integrity in these Kingdom 'shadows', calling in turn on each to right the inherent weakness of the other. We fail to recognise that they are fundamentally flawed by their very exclusion of God. They are flawed because it is only God who can solve the fundamental problem defined in the clash of these left/right paradigms.
The collectivist, distributive left in human experience tends to undermine its own productive resource base; the productive focus of the right undermines the very societal purpose and permission for its own existence, to meet needs and improve the quality of life of all.
I use the phrase 'shadow of the Kingdom of God' because that Kingdom will never exist apart from its king. God never created the world to exist apart from his presence. The life and balance of the Garden of Eden (garden of delight!) required the acknowledgement of the creator as sovereign in name and in practice.
The denial of his sovereignty created the problem of relative scarcity (Genesis 3), the fundamental premise of the spectrum of economic philosophy. It is in voluntary submission to God's sovereignty that his Kingdom is established and the economic question can begin to be resolved.
God's promise that he would bless the land of Israel if its people obeyed his commandments3 was not because the commandments carried inherently sound agricultural practices, but simply that his hand would be on the land in blessing. The land would have the productive capacity to supply the needs of all including the poor, the widow, the orphan and the sojourner – all of whose care is a key to obedience.
In their state of obedience the scarcity question was dealt with. It was God, however, who himself made the productive difference.
How might we apply this then to our national political economy? Surely (and less importantly) at the ballot box we would support politicians of all persuasions who were prepared to submit to God and his word to increase the likelihood of decision-making occurring in that Kingdom spirit? More importantly, we are challenged as the people of God to live and model that Kingdom style of life in our community. We would encourage the productive and the creative to produce and create more, we would encourage the givers, the carers and the sharers to do more of that. We would expect that community to see God's hand on 'the land'. That community would model the Kingdom.
I hear the whisper from some reading these words, "He's heading into 'prosperity gospel' . . . . See he is a right wing theologian after all." Aren't these labels useful? They help us to stop listening. No, this is not 'prosperity gospel', that particular selective approach to Scripture has its own set of abuses as does the other paradigm: the 'poverty gospel'.
This is about a Kingdom that is genuinely good news for the poor because it has a heart for the poor through redistribution and care. It is a Kingdom that does not shy away from God's subsequent hand of blessing on the land in terms of productive capacity (even if our standard Christian dualism shudders at the thought that God's blessing may also be material).
It is a Kingdom community where, if I may really abuse the opening imagery, the left hand does know what the right hand is doing and the right hand does know what the left is doing, and they approve of each other because they are linked and centred in the person of Christ. Christ who is both the head and the heart, and who as the king in his Kingdom is as capable of putting his hand 'on the land' today as he was when he produced a miraculous catch of fish, or fed more than 5000. Who is as capable, now as then, of turning the hearts of the community to the poor and needy – and who does not have the split personality that we 'left' and 'right' Christians seem to require of ourselves.
This is a Kingdom of people who recognise that consistent with the experience of their king they too dwell in a sinful world and may in life also carry a cross (collectively or separately) and that on that day, the blessing will be to partake in the fellowship of his sufferings.