Hand washing and Politics

Jesus was often counter-cultural. He upset a lot of people because He would frequently break the status quo and do the will of His Father (Matthew 12:50) instead of “following the rules” society had established.

On the heels of the vice presidential debate and the “super spreading” event that caused the hospitalization of the president of the United States, my mind went to a story in the gospels where Jesus challenges the tradition of the Pharisees.They were offended (Matthew 15:17) because Jesus and his disciples did not wash their hands before eating.

In our “COVID moment” hand washing or its lack thereof now has particular salience. But, in Jesus’ day, to NOT wash your hands meant two things: you weren’t clean or you were unholy AND that you shouldn’t eat until you did. It should also be noted that there was a Jewish ritual for hand washing similar to how contemporary medical personnel wash their hands today. In other words, it was a time-consuming, laborious task. Most importantly, though, none of this ritual is recorded in scripture. Rather, this TRADITION was CREATED, based on an INTERPRETATION about cleanliness from the Torah (the law of Moses). Was it a bad thing? No. Was it commanded by God. No. But that, by itself, was not bad.

The problem Jesus had was that this interpretation created by humans had suddenly become something that every good Jewish person HAD TO do. It became a god substitute and was taught as such. This is why the Pharisees and scribes confronted Jesus. What had been a good thing became a required thing. They even required it of Jesus and His followers: “Why do your disciples not walk according to the traditions of the elders but eat their bread with impure hands?” (Mark 7: 5).Jesus’ response was pointed:IN VAIN DO THEY WORSHIP ME, TEACHING AS DOCTRINES THE PRECEPTS OF MEN.’ “Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.” He was also saying to them, “You nicely set aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition.” (Mark 7: 7-9). The “precepts of men” i.e., humanly interpreted and practiced tradition had become “doctrine.”

That’s what hand washing was in Jesus’ day. It was a manmade doctrine but people thought it came from God.I think that politics in America have become our modern day equivalent for hand washing or the tradition of the elders. What had been a good thing has now become a required thing. And it has adversely affected us as Christians. Like in Jesus’ day, the party we belong to and the way we vote has become a way to define our faith (yes, I said, “like in Jesus’ day.” If you don’t believe me, recall how explicit the Bible is in often mentioning BY NAME those PARTIES that existed in Jesus’ time, many of which were often against Him: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the scribes, the Herodians and the Zealots).

As with hand washing, such affiliation was not necessarily a bad thing at the start. Political action and involvement can definitely do good. But it becomes bad if we let it supersede our commitment to Christ.Election Day is less than a month away and, as it has approached over the last two months, political conversations have naturally increased as well. I have been asked, “how can anyone be a Christian if they vote for (THAT) party” (and I have heard this directed at Christian adherents of BOTH major US parties). I have been told that Christian faith lines up perfectly with their own party’s platform. So, how could anyone vote differently? I’ve also been told that we should vote based on this ONE main issue as a Christian (and it may not be what you’re thinking). Or, how about this? Being a good Christian means being a good citizen therefore we must vote. And if we don’t vote, that is sin.

All of the above are the actual words faithful believers in Jesus Christ have spoken to me about faith and politics. And I just want to say that all of this can quickly and easily devolve into the “hand washing” that Jesus condemned: manmade doctrine credited to God, something you HAVE TO DO. The technical term for this is “conflation,” which the dictionary defines as combining two or more ideas into one, i.e., “faith fits my party” or “my politics match my religion.” The Pharisees certainly believed this. That’s why they started a plot to kill Jesus (Matthew 12:14; Mark 3:6). The more religious word is “syncretization”, which the dictionary defines as the “attempt to amalgamate or reconcile (differing things, especially religious beliefs, cultural elements, or schools of thought).”

But, remember, hand washing wasn’t biblical. It was a sincere interpretation of scripture but wasn’t required by God. It just became that.Two polls have come out recently that have really disturbed me. One is about current attitudes toward race in America among CHRISTIANS. The second is about the election and how people are saying they will act depending on the results.In the first poll, the Barna group reports that between 2019 and 2020, in just one year, there has been a “more than a 11 percentage point increase overall in Christians who are uninspired to address racial injustice, including a doubling of those who say they are “not at all motivated.” This is a survey done by evangelical pollsters on evangelical Christians.

I find this troublesome because it means that BELIEVERS have made NEW and CONSCIOUS decisions to WITHDRAW from INVOLVEMENT in issues of racial injustice within the past year. This seems to contradict the biblical injunctions given to the people of God to care for the oppressed and to love our neighbor.In a different poll, done by a secular political site, researchers found that “among Americans who identify as Democrat or Republican, 1 in 3 now believe that violence could be justified to advance their parties’ political goals—a substantial increase over the last three years…In September, 44 percent of Republicans and 41 percent of Democrats said there would be at least “a little” justification for violence if the other party’s nominee wins the election. Those figures are both up from June, when 35 percent of Republicans and 37 percent of Democrats expressed the same sentiment.” This one is even more troubling because people are indicating that they will now “put teeth” to their political beliefs. This goes way beyond “hand washing”!

The authors of this latter essay, all professors and researchers in their own right, note that we should listen to “these expressions of violence” since “both history and social psychology warn us to take them very seriously.” They go on to show how in “Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, a rising tide of armed street mobilization and of violent clashes between rival partisans ravaged fragile democratic cultures, bullied and marginalized moderate forces, and gave rising autocrats an excuse to seize emergency powers.” That was a hundred years ago. As I was writing this piece the news broke of the FBI arrests of real life conspirators who were plotting to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer and “put her on trial” before the November 2020 presidential election. It is as if that article and the scripture are speaking prophetically to our day. I never thought I’d see something like this in my lifetime, much less in America.

In June 2020 alone, the FBI made a record 3.9 million background checks on new gun owners, a 135.7% increase from the same time last year. Guns sales overall are near the highest in history this year; there is actually a shortage of firearms in gun stores right now. And New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman recently told CNN’s Anderson Cooper in an interview that he could see a new American civil war erupting soon. A NEW CIVIL WAR! The Michigan kidnappers said that they wanted to start one. This is not fiction, folks. Truth is stranger than fiction.Writing for the Gospel Coalition, California pastor Eugene Park, asks the question, “Are Christians More Confident in Politics Than in Christ?”

In the article, he points out that many Christians, like those in the larger secular society, feel that they are left with an “either/or” option. You are either for us (and our party) or against us (therefore you can’t be a real Christian). “As each camp believes its viewpoint is foolproof, perceptions of and accusations toward the ‘other side’ become increasingly brazen, graceless, and prone to nuance-free caricature.” He notes that the remedy is not about “just preaching the gospel” either but rather that “Christians ought to approach politics with radical humility, guarding against the brash certainty and overconfidence that leads to idolatry.” RADICAL HUMILITY. The Bible speaks of this, too (Romans 15:1; 1 Corinthians 10:12; Philippians 2:3; Colossians 3:12) IDOLATRY. False dichotomies lead to the worship of false gods, political affiliations being one of those gods.

The tragic result has been not just “cancel culture” or the “unfriending” of people on Facebook, Twitter or other social media but the loss of real relationships and of blame shifting because of “guilt by association.” This human collateral damage stems from disputes arising out of our own modern day version of hand washing. We too easily buy into the culture around us, and one of the most prominent ways we do this is by our politics.All of these actions and attitudes begin in our mind, with our (political) thoughts and our (partisan) beliefs. And they all must be measured against inspired, inerrant scripture, put under the sovereign will of the Lord and the sin-piercing conviction of the Holy Spirt so that the glory of God Himself may be rightly made manifest through our lives. And let me be blunt here. In many cases, we need to repent of a lot of these convictions because they are “precepts of men” and not from God.

Park has some good counsel for avoiding the idolatry of Christianizing our political beliefs:

  1. Be slow to post, quick to pray: “Instead of rushing to social media to rage…what if we turned first to prayer and meditation on Scripture?”
  2. Be more certain of your failures than others’: “It’s a constant temptation in today’s partisan world to think the absolute worst about our opponents and to assume we can better read their motivations than they can…As Christians, we should be the first and loudest to point out flaws within, even if it marks us ‘disloyal’ to a political tribe. Be most certain of your own shortcomings; extend grace to those who differ..”
  3. Be certain of Christ: “This election season invites me, and you, to not only weigh arguments and candidates, but to also ultimately assess the state of our faith. Is our certainty found in our Savior? Or are we more certain of our politics?”

To this, I would add:

  1. Don’t cancel, empathize: Pick up the phone, meet in person, don’t argue over social media. Find out what’s REALLY going on before you write someone off.
  2. Listen: We are so great at talking and proving our points. We so infrequently shut up and actually hear what the other person is saying. Listen. Please. Hear them quietly. Peacefully.
  3. Ask, if this issue is really scriptural or do I just want my politics to match it? What does another Christian who holds a different viewpoint say about this same issue from the Bible? Can we agree to disagree agreeably? What if I’m wrong? What if I’m right? What are the implications of me judging that other person?

Finally, let me say this. Do I think politics are unimportant? Absolutely not. But my political views must never overtake my faith. They are not equal. Christ is King, not Caesar. We all say we know this. Maybe we do. But the problem I see and my great concern is that many of us are actually blind to the reality that this juxtaposition has actually ALREADY happened in our lives (and I mean, we actually do have it backwards right now).

So, it needs to be changed right side up to where Jesus is Lord again.


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