Political Witness and the Way of Jesus 2: Saying “No” to the Simplistic

The confirmation hearing of Judge Amy Coney Barrett is quite telling. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham spent a good portion of his 30-minute time for questions by not asking questions. Judge Barrett sat patiently as the Senator engaged in grandstanding after which California Senator Dianne Feinstein, offered what seemed at first to be glowing compliments about Judge Barrett’s family, only for it to be a disingenuous segue to her questions about Roe v. Wade, in which she wanted Judge Barrett to comment on whether or not Roe v. Wade was a good judicial decision. To say yes or no to the question would have required Judge Barrett to comment on a possible future case, which would be judiciously inappropriate. Feinstein feigned disappointment that Barrett didn’t give a straight answer, when in fact, Barrett answered the question in the most direct manner appropriate to her role, not as a politician, but as a judge. Still, grandstanding and feigned fear aside, Barrett’s answers in the hearing will be manipulated to demonstrate to a politicians’ base what “side” she’s on. After all, we’re not really after the truth, we just want confirmations to our pre-existing biases.

The real-life scenario above demonstrates why it’s become exceedingly difficult for people of faith to think and engage politically in ways that promote common good, enable human flourishing, and is consistent with the way and will of Jesus. We tend to make several errors, which I describe in my previous post.

This post looks again to Jesus’ example when he was faced with questions intended to make him pick a side. Jesus actually demonstrates how to think about political realities, how to value opportunities for political engagement, how to recognize the limits of politics, and how to do so first as faithful Christians, as well as active citizens.

So how does Jesus do this? What kind of answer does he give? Jesus does this directly through what he doesn’t do, as well as how he doesn’t do it. See, Jesus approached politics with something very rare: Sensibility.

Sensibility is defined as, “The ability to appreciate and respond to complex emotional or aesthetic influences. Political issues are deeply emotional and aesthetic (concerning goodness or beauty). Sensibility then is about a proper response in light of a question’s complexity than it is in providing an answer.”

In this post, we’ll see that Jesus doesn’t stoop to simplistic political thinking. He instead responds in a manner that promotes critical and nuanced thought to an issue his opponents framed in a simplistic manner.

Here’s the text, “Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. 14 They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? 15 Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked.” – Mark 12:13-15

Despite the flattering words used by the Pharisees and Herodians in the previous verses, Jesus knows that their question is not coming from a place of genuine curiosity. If Admiral Ackbar from Return of the Jedi were narrating the scene, he’d passionately proclaim, “It’s a trap!”

Mon Calamari Admiral Ackbar’s famous statement of the obvious, “It’s a trap!”

The term for “trap” here means to disprove, discredit, or tear down through entrapment. It’s a nasty rhetorical maneuver, but Jesus avoids it because despite the best efforts of his detractors, this issue was not black or white, yes or no, right or wrong. Like so many issues our country faces, there’s complexity and multiple facets in how to understand and approach them.

The problem in oversimplifying issues is that it becomes easy to lose sight of the of the people impacted by those issues. I mean, wouldn’t everything be more simple if it weren’t for people? Driving, waiting in line, parenting, working, shopping … the Department of Motor Vehicles? But avoiding and ignoring people is not an option for Christians. Jesus love people and if we love him, we demonstrate it in our love for neighbor.

See, when Jesus talks about our relationship with him, he is very simple and clear. When he talks about how we are to treat our neighbor, he’s also clear, but when he addresses our relationship to the state or to political power, his responses are nuanced, complex, and even ambivalent.

Why is this important?

We must not do to Jesus what he would not do to himself.

We must not say “that party, that program, that platform; that’s Jesus’.” Jesus didn’t do that, so why have so many done it to him? Later, I’ll go in to why I think this happens because of our confirmation bias and echo-chambers. For now, I’ll just say that we tend to want Jesus to think like we already do.

Followers of Jesus can make a case to vote for Trump/Pence and for Biden/Harris. Each platform contains issues to which people become passionately committed and can make a reasonable case to vote across a spectrum.

But what about issues for which the right answers ARE clear, like abortion? If one genuinely and honestly delves into the abortion debate, it becomes clear that to simplify the issue is to ignore individuals. I am pro-life from womb to tomb and serve as a Board member and Chaplain for a Christian Pregnancy Center. I can say without hesitation that Abortion is NOT a simple issue. So when either side of an issue offers simplistic sound bites, quaint little quips, and thoughtless cliché’s, they do a disservice to the people that issue affects.

 When we give in to political simplicity, we are doing to Jesus what he would not do to himself. Simplicity of faith should not equate to simplistic thinking about life. In his avoidance of political simplicity, Jesus defines what it means for his followers to think well about political issues and the people those issues impact.

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