Politics Are Personal

Politics Are Personal

RESPECTING THE OTHER: Author and social activist Lisa Sharon Harper.

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 Left, Right & Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics, 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 D.C. Innes 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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Left, Right, and Christ

Left, Right, and Christ

CIVIL DISCOURSE: Lisa Sharon Harper and D.C. Innes provide a model for constructive Christian dialogue across political divides.

Left, Right & Christ is a thoughtful examination of the intersection of evangelical faith and politics by two evangelicals who have spent their careers working amidst the tensions of that sometimes-crazy political space. In the book, coauthors Lisa Sharon Harper, a politically progressive Christian, and D.C. Innes, a politically conservative Christian, engage in a constructive dialogue about the issues that are defining the nature of political discourse in our nation today — healthcare, abortion, immigration, gay marriage, the environment. (Full disclosure: I helped research Lisa Sharon Harper’s portion of the book.) A couple months ago, Innes and Harper held a panel discussion and book signing with Jim Wallis of Sojourners and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Innes, an associate professor of politics at King’s College, offered a construal of Christian public engagement from the right; Harper, director of mobilizing at Sojourners, shared one from the left. Needless to say, it was a lively discussion. Having read the book and attended the launch event, two things merit mentioning here here.

The role of technology in disrupting consumption and employment

An audience member noted that technology plays an often-overlooked role in reconfiguring labor markets and purchasing patterns. For instance, the advent of automated teller machines — ATMs — marks an improvement in the access and availability of money for consumers. ATMs, however, reduce the need for the traditional function of tellers in local bank branches. As more banks adopted ATMs, consumer patterns shifted and the demand for a certain type of labor diminished.

Neither Innes nor Harper fully integrates this ongoing development — Austrian economist Joseph Schumpter calls it creative destruction — of technology in particular, and capitalism more generally, into their account of the State, the Market, and the Church. To their credit, though, both authors acknowledged the point once it was made. Technology is an existential issue as much as an instrumental one. Phrased differently, it not only alters what we do, but it also radically re-arranges our way of being in the world. I left the panel thinking about this question: What does it mean to be the Church in a world where technology is such a powerful force? To put it crudely, is a proximate cause in unemployment and underemployment from Wall Street to Main Street and our consumption of everything — from the news we read to the Facebook updates on our profiles — is mediated through technology? I’m still pondering this one and I encourage you to consider it as well.

The use of Scripture in political arguments

While reading the book and listening to their remarks, I noticed an interesting difference between the co-authors. Ms. Harper generally constructs her arguments from passages of the Old Testament. Her treatment of Genesis 1-3 distinctively accents the image of God doctrine and shalom theology. It is rather commonplace to hear Christians from the left invoke the Hebrew prophets or the Imago Dei as a resource for biblical claims about justice and human dignity. Harper’s unique turn within that conversation is to take Genesis — rather than say, Amos or Isaiah — as her starting point and then to deepen the appeal to the image of God doctrine by connecting it to shalom — the sense of wholeness and right relationships between people, between people and creation, and between people and God.

Mr. Innes, conversely, places the weight of his arguments in New Testament passages like Romans 13:1-7 and 2 Peter 2:13-17. His vision: God ordains the government to restrain human sin, punish evil, and praise the good. The last point is particularly important for the professor, who draws a distinction between a government that praises the good (i.e. distributing civic awards like the Presidential Medal of Freedom) and a public sector that attempts to provide goods such as housing, healthcare, and so on. Innes’ arguments — in the book and in person — conclude that a State with large public expenditures and direct service programs overreaches the biblical proscribed role for government.

At the event, Wallis and Innes held a brief but interesting exchange on regulation, Wall Street, and punishing evildoers. Wallis agreed with Innes that punishing evil and restraining sin is a biblical function of government. He then challenged Innes with a question like the following: “Why not apply the insight about punishing evil when it comes to Wall Street?” Innes did not offer a response, although in fairness to him, Wallis did not substantiate his provocative inquiry with a specific example. Nevertheless, given the high-profile conviction of Raj Rajaratnam for insider trading — and his eleven-year sentence, the longest ever issued for this type of offense — Wallis and Innes certainly stumbled upon a discussion worth having.

The panel discussion took place with a refreshing amount of charity amidst contrasting perspectives. Despite harboring significant and perhaps irreconcilable differences of political opinion, neither one made the argumentative move of questioning the other’s faith, audibly doubting the “biblical” nature of the opposing argument, or otherwise resorting to ad hominem attacks. Harper and Innes’ book, and their public dialogue, provides a helpful example for Christians from left to right. In a political environment that incessantly caricatures and stereotypes contrasting points of view, a steadfast refusal to bear false witness — and its corollary commitment, telling the truth as we see it — is a distinctive gift of conversational charity that Christians can bring to democratic discourse.