Are the teachings of Jesus too radical for public policy?

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Our recent discussion about torture brought to mind some tough questions I’ve been asking myself recently. Chief among them are these— 1) To what extent can we apply the teachings of Jesus to an earthly kingdom? 2) Are the teachings of Jesus too radical to take literally?

I started thinking seriously about this after a discussion with a friend of mine about the Christian response to poverty.  In the conversation, I suggested that care for the poor should be provided regardless of whether or not the poor “deserve” or “earn” it, citing the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount:

Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' lend to 'sinners,' expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. (Luke 6:30-35)

My friend suggested that Jesus was speaking hyperbolically here, that such a position is too impractical to apply literally (or to America’s poor), and that we should instead defer to Paul’s instructions in 2 Thessalonians 3:10—“if a man will not work, he shall not eat.”

While I understood his position to an extent, I struggled to see why Paul should be taken more literally than Jesus on this matter.  It seemed to me that the “no work, no food” attitude was indicative of the world’s way of doing things, while “give without expecting anything in return” reflected a higher way.  Should one be applied to the government, but the other applied to the church?

I struggled with the same questions as we discussed torture yesterday. I wondered - Was Jesus speaking hyperbolically when he said, “love your enemies”?  Should we attempt to apply this to U.S. foreign policy? Is that practical? Why should we apply the teachings of Scripture to our positions on state-sponsored abortion but not to state-sponsored war? Why do some conservative Christians say that the end justifies the means when it comes to torture, but not when it comes to stem cell research? Why should our faith inform our vote in one area but not another?

Fortunately, we do not have to rely on the words of Jesus to make a case for why torture is wrong. I believe torture is wrong because it violates international law, it is a human rights abuse, it occurs without due process resulting in the abuse of innocent people, and it sets a bad precedent /example to the rest of the world.

What troubles me is this: When discussing how to apply the Bible both personally and in public policy, nine times out of ten, the words of Jesus are trumped by some other biblical passage or are discounted as impractical. And yet, when I imagine what the world would be like if we more consistently applied those teachings, I’m confident it would be a better, holier place.

As I’ve mentioned before, (check out this heated pre-election post about Dobson’s criticism of Obama), no person, denomination, or political party has a monopoly on how best to apply the Bible to public life. The Bible is not that easily contained, and I think we can all agree that the distinction between church and state is a good thing. I guess I’m just wondering if the reason we tend to flip past the Sermon on the Mount when discussing  issues of war and poverty is not because the teachings of Jesus are impractical...but because they are hard.

Just before he was crucified, Jesus told Pilate, "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place."

So what are we to do when we have dual citizenship? To what extent can we apply the teachings of Jesus to an earthly kingdom? And, on a personal level, are the teachings of Jesus too radical to take literally in our day-to-day lives?

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