29 October 2008

by Rod Benson

What does it mean to live and work as a Christian in a politically charged world?

Some of us would prefer not to hear about politics, or pay politicians, or vote. But active participation in a democracy is both a serious responsibility and preferable to living in a community controlled by fascism, totalitarianism or terror. We need politics.

Political positions are usually cast as being either “left” or “right,” but such classifications are often misleading and outdated. Political theory has moved on, political parties and factions embrace policies across the ideological spectrum, and politicians chiefly use the terms to berate their opponents.

Yet Christians continue to employ left-right language to define approaches to moral and political issues. Of course the media helps – how often have you heard individuals and institutions identified as the “Christian right,” sometimes with the adjective “extreme”? Strangely, the “Christian left” are often called “mainstream churches,” which is also misleading.

This trend to polarize Christians is detrimental to our common mission in the world. David Gushee, a Baptist ethicist teaching at Mercer University, has a solution: disarm the power of the left-right divide in the church by recognizing and strengthening a nascent “centre.” Some will say that this merely exacerbates the problem. Yet I believe he has seen the way of the future, and it is multipolar.

In The Future of Faith in American Politics (Baylor University Press, 2008), Gushee rethinks Christianity’s engagement with culture and public policy. He maps the evangelical “right,” “left” and “centre” in the U.S., and analyses four key policy issues: torture, marriage, climate and war. He calls for an alternative to the main voices being heard right now.

This is an important book that deserves a wide readership. Gushee’s analysis and conclusions are directly relevant for Baptists in Australia today. We cannot afford to be divided by our political and cultural enemies. We must relearn what it means to live and work as Christians in a politically charged world, and retool for the challenges that lie ahead.

I dare to believe that our movement of churches could lead the way.

Rev Rod Benson is an ethicist and public theologian with the Tinsley Institute, an activity of Morling College, Sydney.