jesus’ wilderness testing as a paradigm for christian vocation

Is it problematic that it is so often impossible to distinguish the social visions of most Christians from their political party of choice?

Over the weekend I went on retreat to heaven (i.e. Cudgee) with friends from Melbourne. One of the things that we discussed at a number of points was the story of Jesus’ wilderness temptation in Matthew 4.

In this story we see Jesus, the one who was sent to change everything, being offered the apparent means to enact such change and solve many of the world’s problems – material possessions, religious power and political power. Rather than accepting such earthly power, Jesus rejects it – it is simply not the way of the kingdom of God.

Jesus instead chose a different way, a way in which people were invited into the life of God in the world, not coerced by power. This Way was not grasped by those in power, and this incomprehension continues today.

Christians are called to continue this mission, one of embodying rather than enforcing, of inviting rather than inciting, of compassion rather than control. It is the way of love.

What does this Way embodied by Christ mean for Christian engagement with modern politics, with the centre of power?

Big question, no doubt. At the very least it should call into question the Christian allegiance to a particular form of political power and ideology, lest Christian hope be collapsed into the policy platform of some party. Jonathan Cornford, in an essay that deserves as much attention as possible, makes an important point:

Essentially, where we have identified problems in the world, we have generally failed to own them as our own problems. There is a great truth in the popular wisdom which notes that whenever you point the finger, there are three fingers pointing back at you. Hence the strength of Jesus’ language concerning logs and specks.

Conversely, because we have lost sight of what the problem is, it is not surprising that Christians working for change often lack a clear vision of what the Christian hope is for this world. It has been my observation that the political outlook of most ‘progressive Christian activists’ is basically the policy platform of the Australian Greens, or perhaps the Democrats. Is this because a secular political party has somehow arrived at the same view of society as Jesus of Nazareth? I don’t think so. The real reason is that for the last three hundred years most of the church has studiously avoided having an opinion on most matters of social and economic life. What is a Christian perspective on the stock market? Or the real estate industry, or superannuation, or health insurance, or land use, or genetic modification, or … whatever? In the absence of any solid teaching from the church on these matters, politically minded Christians have understandably turned to the nearest and most amenable secular ideology.

Of course the same point applies to those of a more conservative bent, and their preference for parties of the Right, since they are less in view in Cornford’s essay, being directed as it is at socially progressive Christians.

It seems to me that Christian hope and vocation has too often been subsumed in other ideologies, other -isms. As Cornford says, we have “become trapped in the same tired old debates between socialist and capitalist, between conservative and progressive, and between environmentalist and rural producer.” As a result we end up with nothing uniquely Christian to say, as if the mission and teaching of Jesus was made unnecessary by later ideologies. Worse, we have so often relied on those in positions of power to bring about our preferred social vision that we have not actually embodied it.

To return to my original question – Is it problematic that it is so often impossible to distinguish the social visions of most Christians from their political party of choice?

If so, what is a uniquely Christian hope? And in light of our view of hope, what is the Christian vocation in the world?


Posted on May 2, 2012, in Advocacy, Church/Ecclesiology, Politics and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Matt, this is a great post. It speaks to me of the way that some seem to claim Jesus as theirs (Jesus MUST be a “liberal” or a “Green”) Which I don’t personally subscribe to.

  2. This is excellent stuff Matt! – as usual.

    You are right on the money, and what you outline here is why I have not been able to bring myself to join any specific political party (even though at times I feel, almost overwhelmingly, like I must).

    I’ve got to say, though, that I respect the hell out of some of those Christians who do roll up their sleeves and jump in to the cut and thrust of the political process, knowing full-well that their political party is not presenting anything near the full message of the gospel but wanting to influence their party with their own embodiment of kingdom values nonetheless.

    I guess these people know that, at the end of the day, they have to toe the party line in public, but can still have an influence in the party room that may result in modifications to policy (…someday…perhaps…).

    Sure, it’s a messy game, and I don’t think anyone can come away from it unscathed or untouched by the messiness of it all, but I do still think there’s the possibility of Christians ‘infecting’ their party in some way through their own embodiment of the gospel message, rather than themselves being totally overcome by the party machine and losing sight of the larger picture.

    I don’t think I could do it (which is why I don’t), but I do know some people who do, and have incredible respect for what they’re doing.

    This is not offered as a critique of your post, but just something that I’ve been thinking about lately that (I think) ties in a bit with what you’re saying.

  3. Amen, Matt. And this from Jeremy Scahill – not a Christian, but one of the world’s most respected journalists:

    ‎”The moment you cede your conscience to any politician or any political party is the moment you’ve stopped fighting for political change.I don’t care if it’s Barack Obama or Gandhi that you’re supporting – when you cede your conscience to someone else in the service of their aim at getting power (in the case of the Democrats) then you’ve stopped actually fighting, you’ve stopped actually engaging in the fight for actual democratic principles in this country. When you cede your conscience to a political party, then you’re allowing them to think for you, and you’re engaged in groupthink.”

    The whole talk is fantastic, but if you don’t want to watch all 40 minutes at least catch this ten:

    • That’s a fantastic talk!

      I do have to ask, though: do you think that joining a political party, or being elected to represent one, amounts automatically to ceding your conscience to them?

      • Not necessarily, but that’s essentially the way most people want it. That way they don’t actually need to get involved in the world, they can just vote and assume they’ve done their part to change the world (or keep it the same, as the case may be).

        Or perhaps it’s not so much our conscience we’re ceding as our responsibility.

        In reality, our proxies are given thoughtlessly much more often than election day – as Wendell Berry puts it (I could read him all day):

        “The danger now is that those who are concerned will believe that the solution to the “environmental crisis” can be merely political—that the problems, being large, can be solved by large solutions generated by a few people to whom we will give our proxies to police the economic proxies that we have already given. The danger, in other words , is that people will think they have made a sufficient change if they have altered their “values,” or had a “change of heart,” or experienced a “spiritual awakening,” and that such a change in passive consumers will necessarily cause appropriate changes in the public experts, politicians, and corporate executives to whom they have granted their political and economic proxies.”

        “The trouble with this is that a proper concern for nature and our use of nature must be practiced, not by our proxy-holders, but by ourselves. A change of heart or of values without a practice is only another pointless luxury of a passively consumptive way of life. The “environmental crisis,” in fact, can be solved only if people, individually and in their communities recover responsibility for their thoughtlessly given proxies. If people begin the effort to take back into their own power a significant portion of their economic responsibility, then their inevitable first discovery is that the “environmental crisis” is no such thing; it is not a crisis of our environs or surroundings; it is a crisis of our lives as individuals, as family members, as community members, and as citizens. We have an “environmental crisis” because we have consented to an economy in which by eating, drinking, working, resting, traveling, and enjoying ourselves we are destroying the natural, the God-given world.”

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