Sojourners has always tried to understand and advocate for “biblical politics.” But what does that mean now, especially as we approach another major election?
I was talking the other day to a Christian leader who has given his life to working with the poor. His approach is very grassroots — he lives in a poor, virtually all-minority community and provides basic services for low-income people. He said, “If you work with and for the poor, you inevitably run into injustice.”
In other words, poverty isn’t caused by accident. There are unjust systems and structures that create and perpetuate poverty and human suffering. And service alone is never enough; working to change both the attitudes and institutional arrangements that cause poverty is required.
To change injustice, you must confront politics. British abolitionist William Wilberforce, for example, didn’t only call upon English Christians to release slaves; he wanted to end the slave trade, and that required a long political campaign. Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn’t content to only ask U.S. Christians not to personally practice discrimination against black people; he understood that the nation needed a civil rights law and a voting rights act. Both took leadership from the White House and votes in Congress. All these changes took politics to accomplish.
Another friend of mine recently told me she has watched the powerful movie about Wilberforce, Amazing Grace, five times this year and was deeply inspired. I was too when I first watched the story of the Wesleyan convert who made ending slavery the mission of his life. But I’ve always thought that the movie focused too much on the man and not enough on the movement that swept the United Kingdom and made the political victory possible.
Likewise, it was more than the inspiring rhetoric of King that propelled the civil rights movement. It was the Birmingham campaign, the dramatic events in Selma, and the march to Montgomery that focused the nation’s attention and led to important legislative actions.
It takes a movement to change politics. Change doesn’t ever start in Washington, but if public momentum can be built among millions of people, it eventually arrives in the nation’s capital.
This is what the Bible teaches us. The scriptures reveal a God of justice, not only a God of charity. Words such as oppression and justice fill the Bible. The most common objects of the prophets’ judgments are kings, rulers, judges, employers— the rich and powerful in charge of the world’s governments, courts, economies, systems, and structures. When those who are in charge mistreat the poor and vulnerable, say the scriptures, it is not just unkind but also wrong and unjust, and it makes God angry.
The subjects of the scriptures’ concern are always the widow and the orphan, the poor and oppressed, the victims of courts or unscrupulous employers, debtors whose debts need to be forgiven, strangers in the land who need to be welcomed. And the topic of the prophets’ messages to the powerful are things like land, labor, capital, judicial decisions, employer practices, rulers’ dictates, and the decisions of the powerful—all the stuff of politics.
I believe that makes very suspect those who want to privatize most of these very public decisions, who claim to trust “the market” to work things out, who want to leave the powerful alone and the corporate elites unregulated and to relegate solving poverty to private charity, and who want to further reduce political accountability on those who rule the economy and society by “making government so small it can be drowned in a bathtub,” as they proudly claim as their goal. The question should never be just about “big” or “small” government, but rather about effective and smart government that has the ability to hold both wealth and power accountable to the common good.
But biblical politics is never only about the candidate either, and some have made that mistake in recent elections. Putting one’s hopes in political candidates and parties has only led to disappointment, frustration, and dangerous cynicism. There are systems and structures that undergird and shape the limits of the political agenda, and challenging those limits to get to root causes and real solutions is always the prophetic task. It is always movements that “change the wind,” and only a change in the political wind can change political policies in Washington.
People of faith, at our best, are the ultimate independents, engaged in politics only because of those moral issues that command our attention and willing to challenge all political sides on behalf of them. Moral independents will change politics more than will religious partisans, who make compromises on behalf of electoral victories. Fighting for justice, not partisan political goals, is the core of biblical politics—and that will continue to be our vocation at Sojourners.
Jim Wallis is editor–in-chief of Sojourners Magazine, November 2011.