What a year already.
There are always current events and issues that add a new spin to the perpetual, daily question Christians must ask themselves: “what does it mean to follow Christ today?” Answering these questions has always required Christians to make choices, sometimes simple and personal, sometimes complex and public, and we don’t always choose the same way. (I wonder if this is largely because we don’t frame our ethical questions this way; if we really were asking “what does it mean to follow Christ today”, or even the cliché “what would Jesus do”, rather than just doing what seems right in the moment, Christians might have more in common with one another than we do with our political in-groups.)
But the choices of 2020 may be the most stark I’ve ever seen. Based on the way that news is filtered down through social media which feeds back into politics, we’re strongly encouraged to weigh in and identify with one position or another on current issues, and the issues are framed in the most divisive of terms.
We’re literally being asked to decide if we should open the economy at the expense of the lives that will be lost to COVID-19. To decide between life and money.
We’re being asked if governments should have the authority to deprive us of freedoms – and whether they should be forced to do so because some people are unwilling to sacrifice their personal freedoms for a short time in order to better care for their neighbours. To decide between a temporary, voluntary compliance with social distancing, and setting a new precedent of government control over civil liberties in our societies.
And that’s just the most covered issue. Other crises have not gone away, even though they are no longer in the headlines. We’re still being asked to choose between the economy and the life of the planet, asked to weigh the value of corporate profits trickling down into society vs the value of entire species that are already disappearing forever. We’re still being asked to weigh the value of the lives of Mexican children languishing in makeshift prisons along America’s southern border against the sense of safety some Americans might lose if those children were reunited with their parents. We’re still being asked to choose, on many fronts, between demanding our own liberties and restricting those of others.
These choices are always framed as binary, one-or-the-other kinds of choices, and usually in with-us-or-against-us kinds of terms. Even here I’ve framed them that way, for reasons I hope are clear. The answer someone gives to any of these questions depends first and foremost on which side of an issue their own in-group or political affiliation comes down on – which is to say, a person can answer all of these complex questions without even learning anything about them; and if anyone dares to get into the weeds about a given issue, they tend to learn just enough to justify their position to themselves and those around them, and we have plenty of biased sources curated by interest groups and fed to us through our social media feeds to make doing so all too easy.
Who can blame us for turning complex issues that we have almost no knowledge of and little or no input on into simple yes/no questions? It’s the only way our minds, and our communities, can handle the enormous amount of complexity in our connected world. But Christians have our own way of reducing that complexity in order to find guidance and make ethical choices. We have to keep asking that daily, sometimes moment-by-moment question: “What does it mean to follow Christ today?” Or to paraphrase how Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, “What is Jesus Christ doing in the world today, and how can I participate in that?”
That question reduces the complexity even further. We no longer have to consider the political context of the issues of the day to determine which camp we should belong in. We don’t have to look to political or cultural leaders to interpret the news for us. We often don’t even need to read the news, because so much of it is about things that are outside of our own context and control. If we start first and foremost with the question “What is Christ doing in my home today, my neighbourhood, my community, my province or state, my country, the world?” and imagine Jesus addressing a situation, the answers tend to be clearer than we’d otherwise like to admit.
Can you imagine Jesus putting Mexican children in prison because they crossed a border? He crossed the border into Egypt as a child to seek safety; would he approve of sending ICE after his own relatives? Can you imagine the man who told his followers to expect and embrace their own deaths for the sake of doing the right thing, to justify harming others for the sake of safety?
Can you imagine the Jesus who called money “the root of all kinds of evil” and explicitly told his followers that “you cannot serve two masters; you cannot serve both God and money” now saying that reopening the economy in the middle of a pandemic is necessary despite the loss of life it would cause?
Can you imagine the Jesus who so frequently taught us to learn from the natural world around us to be okay with that natural world being pushed to the brink of extinction for the sake of present economic growth? Would his apostle James, who taught that focusing on economic plans at the expense of recognizing the true source of our wealth, also teach us to sacrifice the earth that sustains us for temporary profit?
Can you imagine the Jesus who was unjustly executed at the hands of, as Paul put it, the fallen powers and principalities, thrones and authorities; and who triumphed over those earthly powers, exposing their injustice by willingly submitting to their authority even in its corruption; can you imagine him approving of granting oppressive control over others? At the same time, can you imagine the Son of God, who gave himself up for the world and revealed his character most fully in the humble service of others, to insist on his own rights at a time when others might be better served by him temporarily setting his own rights aside?
If you can answer YES to any of these questions, is your answer rooted in the character of Jesus as demonstrated in the gospels? What gospel story justifies your impression of Jesus’ character? And if your position is not rooted in the person of Jesus, can you call yourself his follower?
Of course, Jesus doesn’t judge us based on what opinions we air on the internet; his judgments are based on how we treat one another. So far more important than what position we hold on these political issues that are beyond our control is the question: how can I participate in what Jesus is doing in the world today? It’s one thing to know how he would respond to a pressing political issue, and to use your democratic power to support what you think Jesus is doing about it; but it’s far more important to look at what Jesus is doing in the world you can immediately affect, and participate in it.