LOS ANGELES, December 6, 2013 — The controversy over religion’s proper role in politics is an old one, and never fails to elicit strong feelings. This was again evidenced just days ago when Pope Francis issued his apostolic exhortation, in which he attacked the “tyranny of unfettered capitalism,” and called on the wealthy nations of the world to provide “dignified work, education and healthcare” for its peoples, while rejecting the “economy of exclusion and inequality” that leaves so many behind.
The pope’s comments have stirred a hornets’ nest of debate here in America. They prompted liberal commentators like Randi Rhodes to celebrate the Pope’s recognition of the incompatibility of “Ayn Randian” philosophy and Christianity. At the same time they forced conservatives like Rush Limbaugh into the uncomfortable position of having to criticize the head of the Catholic church, an institution that the conservative movement has been aggressive in courting in recent decades.
The pope is right, of course; we should not submit to the idolatry of money. Whether his general criticisms of capitalism are correct, though, is debatable. What is disappointing about the pope’s comments is not really their substance, but rather that he used his spiritual authority to emphasize a subjective, theologically informed set of policy positions. He did not emphasize the objective substance of the gospels, particularly as they pertain to human relationships.
We suffer from nothing more greatly in our current politics than from a lack of trust amongst people, leading to a lack of civility. This results in the inability of people in general and political leaders in particular to cooperate in efforts to tackle the very problems which Pope Francis decries.
There was a teacher who outlined a path to understanding and unity for mankind. That teacher was Jesus of Nazareth, and whether we are Christians or not, he shows us the pathway to a politics beyond ideology.
From an ethical-philosophical standpoint, Jesus’ moral philosophy begins with the command to “love your neighbor as you love yourself.” (Mark 12:31). This alone is almost a revolutionary concept in modern politics. His injunction to love our enemies — which Democrats and Republicans aren’t really supposed to be — is even more remarkable.
But similarly fundamental is Jesus’ teaching of non-judgment, and self-reflection. “Judge not, that you be not judged … and why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? … First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:1-5)
The practice of politics is now and has long been to emphasize and exaggerate the faults of the other side, while minimizing or covering up the flaws of one’s own. This tendency has only gotten worse. Liberalism does not have the answer to all of our problems; neither does conservatism. One side may be more correct than the other over time, but that is insignificant compared to the moral imperative of abiding by the ethical strictures without which we will never grow towards a better society, whether the ideal be liberal, conservative or neither.
Jesus was willing to minister to adulterers, thieves and other sinners, to teach us to love our neighbors. So too ought the partisans in our nation be willing to reason calmly with one another, understanding that a difference of opinion does not justify reviling the other side. Insults should not be repaid with insults.
The angry words of Rush Limbaugh and Ed Schultz reflect the broad universe of insults thrown back and forth between left and right on a regular basis in America, and not just on TV and radio. This happens between ordinary people in their daily lives. Yet Jesus taught that he who calls another a fool risks hell fire, and cautions us that we will be judged for every idle word we say.
We should be careful with our words, in other words, because if we love one another as we ought to, and if in our political strivings we genuinely seek the best for even those who disagree with us, it is our words that will build an environment where understanding and unity between people is ultimately possible. May this truth of the gospels be reflected in our politics.
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