Lisa Sharon Harper is director of mobilizing for Sojourners and was the founding executive director of New York Faith & Justice. She holds a master’s degree in Human Rights from Columbia University and an MFA in Playwrighting from the University of Southern California. UrbanFaith talked to Harper about, in which she and co-author D.C. Innes discuss sometimes controversial issues from different political and biblical persuasions. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
URBAN FAITH: From reading your book, Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics, it seems that you and your co-author hold fundamentally different views about the role of government. What are the essential differences in your positions and/or your views on the role of government?
LISA SHARON HARPER: We debated on Patheos.com and one of the things that we discovered in the midst of this is that our differences on the role of government and also on the role of business actually stem from our differences in the way that we approach Scripture.
For me, Scripture is not supposed to be used as a formulaic, how-to textbook where you can pick a verse and it tells you exactly what you’re supposed to do, out of context. What we have is lots of stories, histories, poems, poetry, song, prose, and together they tell a meta-narrative. They tell the story of the fall, the reconciliation of all relationships that God created.
So, I think the fundamental difference between us is the way that we view the Scripture and in particular the story of what is the gospel, what is the good news, then I think it really permeates the way that we approach the Scripture for our understanding of those basic questions of the role of government.
UrbanFaith columnist Andrew Wilkes wrote about a panel discussion that you participated in with Innes and others. He noted that you tended to draw from the Old Testament and Innes drew from the New Testament. Was that coincidental?
Yes, I think so. If you look at the book and at discussions that Innes and I have had since then, the foundation of my argument is based in the biblical concept of shalom, which has its foundation in the very beginning, in Genesis 1, but it’s woven through the entirety of Scripture. We find the establishment of the people of Israel and the law and government of Israel in the Old Testament, but then we see Jesus’ priorities on who needs to be protected in our society when he gives his very first speech in Luke 4, where he proclaims that he has come to pronounce freedom for the captives, good news to the poor, and sight for the blind.
The last speech he gives before he faces the cross is Matthew 25. When someone asks me what my political agenda is, I say, “Look at Matthew 25.” You actually see there the things and the people that Jesus was most concerned with. He’s looking at hunger. He’s asking the questions of food distribution. He’s looking at thirst. Who has access to water? I’m not just imposing that on the text. Jesus says, “The righteous will say, ‘When did we do all of this for you Jesus?’” What that word righteous means is “ones of equitable action and character.” It means “the just ones.”
When you start talking about equity, you’re talking about systems, the way things work. And so what Jesus is really saying is the ones of equitable action will say, “When did we do this?” And Jesus will say, “When you did it to the least of these.” Also, we have legislatures that will one day stand before Jesus, and Jesus will ask them, “What did you do for the hungry? What did you do for the thirsty? What did you do for the stranger, for the immigrant in our borders? Did they feel welcomed? What did you do for the sick? Is there an equitable distribution of health in our society? What about the prisoner? Is there equitable distribution of justice in our society? How about the destitute, those who are naked? What did you do for them?”
We are all going to be held to account for the ways that we treated the most vulnerable, and not just on an individual level, but on a societal level, and in the way that we create our systems.
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