The Sermon on the Mount is often taken as Jesus’ list of private recommendations for a select few followers. And yet he is revealing the fundamental conditions of discipleship in his kingdom. He is speaking not only to his closest chosen friends, but to hearers at large. The Sermon ends, mind you, with, “His teachings made a deep impression on the people because he taught them with authority, and not like their own scribes.”
Much of the Sermon, of course, was not new. After all, Jesus came from Isaiah’s people who were commanded to share bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and homeless, and clothe the naked. Isaiah wanted his nation to shine like a light, breaking forth as the dawn. “If you remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech; if you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted, then light shall rise for you in the darkness.”
With his announcement of the kingdom, Jesus, like Isaiah, makes clear that he is calling his followers to have an impact on their world. After the Beatitudes and just before his teachings on radical trust, money, and forgiveness, he challenges his listeners to live out their discipleship precisely in the context of their culture and world.
“You are the salt of the earth. But what if salt goes flat? How can you restore its flavor? You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. You do not light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket. You set it on a stand where it gives light to all.” Those who are enlisted in Jesus’ kingdom must let the light of faith shine before the world so that praise might be given to God.
Jesus seems aware that we may be tempted to hide our faith. We might repress it in our public lives, presuming that it has nothing to offer the “real” world of politics and economics. Or we may just keep it under a basket—a “private” matter that makes no difference to society.
A second temptation is related to the first. If we think that our faith really makes no difference in the “real” world, it goes flat. It has nothing special to offer the world. Having lost its special taste, it never changes culture. It just mimics it.
In our own day we have our own special complications. There are many people who seem to put their Christian faith on a pedestal for all to see, but it’s a faith whose authentic flavor has gone flat. Imagine the irony of a Christian political movement which trumpets the priorities of public prayer, military security, tax cuts for the well-to-do, and capital punishment.As one “born-again” former Catholic put it in The American Enterprise magazine, he’s “pro-life, pro-free market, patriotic, pro-national defense, pro-gun, and anti-welfare state.” I get the pro-life part, but the other stuff doesn’t ring a bell when I think of Christ’s teachings.
This is not a put-down of any particular political party even though at first sight it may seem so. Close examination of the dominant parties in the United States today will show that both of them are in the pockets of the rich and powerful, both of them neglect the poor (although they use different rhetoric to cover their negligence), both of them are nationalistic, and both of them underwrite health, immigration, and labor policies that hurt the most vulnerable in society.
A Representative named Hyde was very Christian in his defense of unborn babies, but I wonder what he thought of capital punishment, capital gains, and military adventures. A Senator Kennedy rose as a great defender of women and the poor—but only as long as they are not snuggled in a womb somewhere or oppressed in a “most favored” trading nation. Cultural “conservatives” may talk about the moral rot of society, but how often do they link it up to capitalism and a me-first mentality?
If we are honest with ourselves, we will discover that our Christian faith functions little if at all in our political life. The talk is talked, but the walk is not walked. Lip service is paid, but almost every other kind of service is paid to our cultural dogmas. Just spend some time reading the Sermon on the Mount in the coming weeks, and ask yourself whether our Americanized Christianity is a light in dark times or salt for the earth.
Our faith, as St. Paul writes, is not communicated by the eloquence of high-sounding words or worldly wisdom. Clever argument and jaded rationalization are the very tools most often used to explain our faith away. The wisdom of a crucified God and the teachings of the Christ give little consolation and support to an acculturated mind.
Can a politician, then, give witness to evangelical faith? Can any of us? I think, yes. But it will require of us an admission of how readily we compromise the revolutionary message of Jesus. Upon that admission, we might then discover a Christian politics that illuminates the world far more brilliantly than the dim ideologies we guide our lives by.