22 October 2020  |  

by Jim Walters and Nathan Schilt

This dialogue is reading for the Adventist Today Sabbath Seminar of 24 October. 

Nate to Jim:

I sometimes ask myself a question when my passion for earthly justice threatens to produce more judgment and negativity than love and compassion: How much have the truly important things in my life, or in the lives of those I am close to, been affected by the person who occupies the White House? 

So Jim, how much have truly important things in your life changed for the worse as a result of Trump’s presidency? Of course, for Christians who prioritize the Kingdom, life is not just about us and our well-being. So perhaps I should pose the question a bit differently: How has the President adversely impacted your personal Christian witness or service? This seems like a valid question, answers to which might reveal important truths. It seems to me, if Christ’s life and words teach us anything, it is that removal of earthly kingdom perpetrators of political injustice and oppression is more like shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic than paving the way for the Gospel Kingdom.

“[God’s] Kingdom is not of this world.” “If it were,” Jesus said, “[His] servants would fight.” Somehow, our moral conceit easily tempts us to believe that our political policy preferences are Kingdom issues. So I’m wondering, Jim – do you think your vote this November will advance the Kingdom of God? And if I vote otherwise, am I voting for evil?

Jim to Nate:

From a biblical viewpoint, Nate, I don’t see the primary question in this election as about the well-being of me and my family. Frankly, I and my family—like you and yours—will fare well regardless of who’s elected. I’m a modern-day scribe, part of the elite, whom Jesus criticized. Today’s elite, like those of 2,000 years ago, are only of Jesus’ concern as they thwart service to those of Jesus’ primary concern—the underprivileged.

You cite Jesus’ telling Pilate that his Kingdom isn’t “of this world.” I’m happy you’ve immediately appealed to this primary theme of Jesus—the Kingdom of God. The Jews had accused Jesus of political treason in hauling him before Pilate, and Jesus—knowing his death was imminent—pointed to the “truth” for which “I was born.” But this transcendent element of the Kingdom of God only undergirds—is not in contrast to—the now-ness of God’s Kingdom. Note that Jesus’ inaugural sermon was an exegesis of Isaiah 61: 

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…to preach good news to the poor…to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.” 

And then Jesus, breaking off at mid-sentence, sat down, and commented: 

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:18-21). 

Yes, Nate, my vote directly bears on my Christian witness: which candidate will favor the underprivileged?

Nate to Jim:

I appreciate your reference, Jim, to Jesus’ inaugural embrace of Isaiah 61. But if you think Jesus was talking about a political-social gospel, you misunderstand Him as badly as His listeners did when He read from the scroll of Isaiah. In neither word nor deed did Jesus suggest His mission was to alleviate material want. The good news to the poor was that, in the Kingdom they were not defined or ranked by their material circumstances. 

I don’t know of any jailbreaks that Jesus facilitated. He certainly didn’t do much for His cousin, John. So release for the captives and liberty from oppression was evidently not a political agenda for Jesus. 

I don’t find the word “underprivileged” in the Gospels, and I’m not sure what you mean by that term. Jesus seems to have viewed poverty not as a curse imposed by power hierarchies, but as an ideal posture from which to see and enter the Kingdom. Jesus offered a path to spiritual freedom through self-denial and personal service. He did not advocate for socio-economic equality or material well-being through structural/systemic mechanisms of justice.  

I too will vote for the candidate whose policies have proven, and promise, to economically benefit the underprivileged. Capitalism has lifted more people from poverty than any other economic system. Sadly, as an earthly system, it has also produced increasing greed, envy, resentment, and entitlement among those who have most benefited from it. Capitalism is great for the poor. But it’s not a pathway to the Kingdom. That’s why I believe the banner of Jesus should not be carried into socio-economic political battles. 

Jim to Nate:

I can’t emphasis strongly enough, Nate, that Jesus DID NOT see the Kingdom of God as merely other-worldly. That’s why Jesus prayed, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The conscious choice of speaking of the “Kingdom” of God (used 20 times in the short gospel of Mark) was itself a this-worldly decision, understood by Jesus’ hearers in their world of oriental monarchies. You’ve just mentioned John the Baptist, and let me just give a related but opposite view: John’s imprisonment, says Josephus, resulted from Herod Antipas’ fear he’d foment a political insurrection.

You’re right, Nate, Jesus did not facilitate jail breaks, and neither did he begin an ADRA-like ministry. But you are wrong in saying Jesus didn’t contend for “socio-economic equality.” You over-emphasize the Kingdom’s otherness, but even when Jesus speaks of the Kingdom to come, he inextricably links entrance into that Kingdom with this-worldly action: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matthew 25).

Yes, Jesus didn’t advocate “structural /systemic mechanisms of justice.” But, so what? He did something more fundamental: He preached and lived a life for others—the poor, the politically disenfranchised, the religiously outcast. So what that underprivileged isn’t a NT word? The Bible isn’t a literal, how-to manual. 

As Marcus Borg reminds us, taking the Bible seriously doesn’t mean taking it literally. What we learn from Jesus isn’t a program so much as a priority, an attitude, an emphasis, a sentiment. And because the Bible is so foundational, the modern adoption of capitalism can be a step forward in advancing the this-worldly needs of the underprivileged. As you indicate, even democratic capitalism has a profound down-side, but thanks for bringing it up—a topic needing more discussion.

Nate to Jim:

I’m not sure, Jim, why you seem to think I am arguing that Jesus saw the Kingdom as merely otherworldly. That is not my position. The Kingdom most definitely acts in this world, and on this world, to demonstrate that we are not defined or determined by its naturalistic or socio-political orders. That’s why Jesus said, to put it in your terms, “Blessed are the underprivileged; for they are best positioned to enter the Kingdom.” Of course all Jews in Jesus’ day, including the Jewish leaders, saw themselves as underprivileged victims of Roman colonialist oppression.  

But Jesus did not aim to ameliorate the external conditions of the “underprivileged” through structural political and economic reforms. Rather, He taught and demonstrated through personal acts of love and mercy that Kingdom living disempowers the moral claims and perceived necessities of the natural order, as well as the discriminatory political structures of this world.

The aspiration of social justice warriors – that eradicating material inequality or need, through benevolent exercise of political power, will put humanity on a path to utopia – has been the deadly moral claim of every mob and tyrant throughout history, particularly in the past century.

Immanuel’s miracles were signs to let us know that the chaotic ravages of natural order are not the result of personal sin; that when God is with us, and the Kingdom is within us, we are not controlled by the deterministic demands and expectations of religious and political authorities. And He invites us to prove the transformative power of that freedom in our lives by advancing the Kingdom through personal acts of love and mercy.  

I hear your contention, Jim, that Jesus contended for socioeconomic equality. But you offer no evidence to support that argument. Voluntary downward mobility; choosing to be a servant to all; taking up one’s cross; dying to self; charity – not some government-coerced notion of socioeconomic equality – are the pathways to the Kingdom.

Yes, Jim, earthly justice is important. I advocate for a limited government, with checks and balances, that protects personal liberty and equal opportunity, ordered by the Constitution and equal application of the rule of law. At the risk of putting words in your mouth, you seem to believe in a more centralized national government presided over by highly educated experts -– a political order with global priorities that wisely calibrates the scales of justice, as needed, to respond to ethical priorities, so as to maximize fair outcomes and rectify the injustices and human imperfections that you believe are responsible for socioeconomic inequality and global threats. 

But important as these things are, I don’t believe that either of us is advocating for things that advance God’s Kingdom. Nor should we claim that God is on our side in our political battles, as it divides us as a church in advancing the Gospel. We should humbly admit that, in seeking the best for earthly political justice, we are simply rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. 

Jim to Nate:

I’m gratified, Nate, to hear you affirm that God’s Kingdom also pertains to the present world. Many Christians, perhaps most Adventists, see the Kingdom of God as primarily—if not exclusively—about the world-to-come. That surely was my experience as a young Adventist.

You affirm this world, but a close reading of your response reveals a God only entering this world to show we aren’t “defined” by present “sociopolitical orders.” Tell that to Trevon Martin, Breonna Taylor or George Floyd—or to the “poor,” the “oppressed,” and the “captives” Jesus named in his inaugural sermon. Yes, there’s a better world to come. However, Jesus and his prophetic tradition stand staunchly against the Great Divide between pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by and present gaping human need.

I fear, Nate, that you’ve bought into a profoundly unbiblical Divide of future/present, and spiritual/social. At the beginning and end of our exchange you say both conservatives and liberals who rectify social injustices are but futilely rearranging chairs on the Titanic. But that contradicts Jesus, who foresaw the final judgment: “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom…for I was hungry…” One scholar counts over 300 Bible verses about the poor and social justice. So where did the Division of faith and works for the poor arise? Surely the Divide is ancient (see, e.g., Isaiah 1:11: “…incense is an abomination to me…”), but pious British philosopher John Locke, a significant influence on American society, articulated the Great Divide most clearly: “The only business of the Church is the salvation of souls; and it no way concerns the commonwealth, or any member of it.” This is Biblical heresy!

Let me conclude this fascinating dialogue, Nate, by commenting on your notion of Jesus’ “personal acts of love and mercy” (twice mentioned). Agreed; you describe well what Jesus did. But I question your implication: that this is the complete paradigm for contemporary Christian practice. Yes, personal acts of kindness to neighbor and homeless panhandler are mandatory. But are you actually arguing that’s sufficient in our modern democracy of 330 million people? In your recent response I count a dozen references to “political,” “economic,” “material,” and “government”—all in a negative context, except one (“limited government”). This is good conservative politics, but how is it true biblical religion? I suggest that the proper contemporary Christian response is this: How can the attitude, intuition, and concern of Jesus regarding the poor be translated to today’s society? If small government is sufficient, wonderful. If not, in our democracy where we citizens determine how we deal with the poor, let’s vote for government policies that further the undivided concerns of God’s Kingdom.

I’ll close by noting how ancient Israel addressed structural, political, and economic issues head on: There were far-reaching regulations on gleanings of harvest fields, sabbatical years, and the jubilee. Ellen White writes in keeping with the prophetic-Jesus tradition: “The regulations that God established were designed to promote social equality. The provisions of the sabbatical year and the jubilee would in a great measure, set right that which during the interval had gone wrong in the social and political economy of the nation.” Patriarchs and Prophets, 534.

Thanks, Nate, for this exchange about big ideas of faith and society!

Jim Walters is a contributing writer for Adventist Today and professor emeritus of the School of Religion at Loma Linda University.

Nathan Schilt is an attorney in Loma Linda, California, and an Adventist Today board member.