What would you give up to be a better Christian? On September 4, the appointed Gospel reading was Luke 14:25–33. In it, Jesus tells his audience, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” The passage concludes with Jesus summarizing, “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Jesus is at his most uncompromising and hyperbolic in this passage. As I listened to the Gospel reading and the sermon upon it, Jesus’ brusque demand struck me, not because of its seeming harshness, but because of its applicability to a wide range of relations beyond the familial. Any social tie can be a spiritual hindrance, and some ties are genuinely destructive. Surely it is good to rightly direct the former, and necessary to depart from the latter.
In subsequent weeks, I also considered that possessions could mean something more than just material goods. In its most basic, plain sense, the closing verse is about cutting ties — first with family and then with material things. The Greek word ὑπάρχουσιν (huparchousin), translated as “possessions,” can also refer to circumstances or resources. But the English carries connotations that the Greek does not.
Merriam-Webster lists three meanings for possession, the third of which is further divided into three variants: (a) domination by something, such as an evil spirit, a passion, or an idea; (b) a psychological state in which an individual’s normal personality is replaced by another; (c) self-possession. Surely it is not unfair to apply Jesus’ command to the wide range of immaterial things that define us. Because few things define us as much as our political identification, and because some people appear genuinely possessed by their politics, Jesus’ words might also be allowed to mean, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate his own political party cannot be my disciple.”
I grew up in a household in which being Christian and voting Republican went hand in glove. When I turned 18, I registered to vote but as someone with No Party Affiliation. In popular American political parlance, I became an Independent. My reason was simple: I did not believe that the Republican Party embodied the values of Jesus, even if it did embody and defend some Christian convictions and practices. I also recognized that the Democrats were no different. They too failed to embody the values of Jesus, even if elements of their political platforms dovetailed with this or that facet of the gospel. The Christian Right was, at one point, probably the Republican Party’s greatest means of grassroots support; the Christian Left may prove to be the same for Democrats, at least in some places. By having grown up among conservative evangelicals, and having spent the last 10 years in the Episcopal Church, I have observed that the Christian Left and the Christian Right are identical in a crucially important way: for each group, politics gives form to their faith, rather than faith forming their politics.
But is this Christianity? Jesus also says, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Matt. 6:24). Spoken in the context of God and money, his statement remains wholly applicable to the topic; and besides, who can imagine politics without money? Perhaps his words are even damning: Christian Right, Christian Left, idolaters all. Either expenditures — of time, of resources, of emotional investment, of outrage — will frame faith, or faith will frame these expenditures. Either faith will frame politics or politics will frame faith.
Some might counter that even if we cannot identify equally as both Christian and Republican/Democrat, we can still maintain each identity. Perhaps this is true for some, but I suspect that it is not true for most. The reason is simple: political parties have become like strong secular religions, for they are often more dogmatic than most religious groups. Few Democrats oppose abortion on demand; few Republicans oppose deregulating the market. Political parties offer adherents a clear sense of self, belonging, and aspiration. No less important, political parties offer a clear sense of who the opponent is: the other political party. This lockstep orthodoxy is a remarkable — and sometimes an unbelievable — thing to behold. Churches have nothing like it. Rather, in the churches you find argument upon argument about practically everything. Bible, creed, morals, ritual — all seem up for grabs. With political parties comparatively unified and cohesive, it should not surprise anyone that once appended to Right or Left, Christian operates as the merest of adjectives.
Perhaps the time has come for the Church to abstain, in Lenten fashion, from political parties. Lent is the principal season for fasting in the Christian Church. In order to better reflect upon the meaning of Christ’s passion and resurrection, we give something up for 40 days. However, the value of Lent is significantly curtailed if we leave its practices relegated to the season immediately before Easter. Lent should not be the only time when we consciously refrain from something that we possess (or that possesses us). The Christian life should be a Lenten life. Turned toward the promise of Easter, at the beginning of Lent we are reminded that being from dust, we shall return to the same. If this unapologetic affirmation of mortality is true for the Christian who believes in resurrection, why do we put so much faith in political parties that will turn to dust but never again rise? Perhaps we profess one master but really serve another.
A Lenten approach to political parties should not be confused with abandoning the wider polis. Turning from political parties will enable us to behold God with fewer of our idolatrous political propensities. Turning from political parties will also enable us to turn toward our neighbor — any and every neighbor as a neighbor, regardless of political persuasion. We will turn to these neighbors as Christians, not as Christians merely modifying Right or Left (or whatever). Christ did not come so that we might have political parties but so that we might be free — and yet, we so often live and argue and even rage against one another as if the contrary were true.
Christianity unencumbered is Christianity truly. The time has come for Christians to reclaim it.