Friday, March 24, 2006

Criminalizing Jesus

Conservative columnists and bloggers are making much of Hillary Clinton's assertion that an immigration bill that has passed in the House of Representatives would "literally criminalize the good Samaritan and probably even Jesus himself.” Ms. Clinton, who is occasionally portrayed by her friends as a life-long committed Methodist zealous of good works, thus identifies herself as one of many Americans who use the term "literally" to describe something they don't conceive of as literal. There are so many things in that single portion of a sentence that would be ridiculed if said by, for example George Bush or Dan Quayle, that it boggles the mind.

Anyone who criticizes Ms. Clinton for appropriating Jesus on an issue on which He never is known to have stated an opinion -- illegal immigration -- will likely be reminded that conservatives are sometimes guilty of the same thing. Recognizing that to be true, we might respond that, in fact, by bringing religion into the discussion in this manner, Ms. Clinton is emulating some of the very worst rhetorical behaviors of the religious right.

The idea of deciding how one should behave by asking "what would Jesus do?" was commonly taught to children and youth groups in the 1970's and 80's. Sometime since then, clever marketers have successfully brought the idea into the common culture.

For Christians, the Bible contains much that can inform one's perspective on public policy debates. For a non-controversial example, one can easily point to the faith statements of many of those who led the civil rights movement in the 1950's and 1960's. Biblical statementsaverringg the value of all human beings in the eyes of a God who is gathering a people from all peoples and nations provided ballast to assertions of civil rights. Biblical notions, correctly applied, can valuably inform both private decisions and public policy.

That being said, there is much about public life to which the Bible does not speak clearly. The Bible has something clear to say about whether homosexuality is a sin, but it has nothing to say about whether gays should serve in the military. Similarly, the Bible has nothing to say about the appropriateness of driving SUV's or about appropriate levels of taxation. Certainly, there are principles of justice and mercy, right and wrong, that can inform a person in deciding where they stand on all of those issues; however, people should be cautious about claiming God to be on their side on an issue on which God has not spoken.

At worst, such claims falter into the categories of self-worship and idolatry. The third commandment, forbids the creation of images and calling them God. That can include mental images. Making God out to be merely a reflection of our own beliefs is self-delusional and idolatrous.

On immigration itself, Jesus, and the biblical writers, conveyed ideas of justice and mercy that could be applicable to this debate. Indeed, the Old Testament Law and Prophets, more than the Gospels, spoke passionately about the mandate to treat foreigners compassionately in Israel. All of those thoughts may inform a Christian's political perspective, but they are not decisive in the current situation. A Christian may seek to arrive at positions consistent with his faith, but he should be cautious about claiming that those positions reflect the beliefs or actions of the Son of God.

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