Following Jesus, politically

On December 17, 2016, theologian Miroslav Volf and journalist Kirsten Powers had an intriguing exchange on Twitter.

It started out with a tweet by Prof. Volf: “You can be a conservative or a liberal and a follower of Christ, but it is not possible to be a follower of Trump and a follower of Christ.”

Ms. Powers replied: “How is this any less toxic than when right-wing Christians declare liberals not ‘real Christians’? (As I’m told regularly on Twitter)”

To which Prof. Volf responded: “What is toxic ‘bout the claim that Trump’s (or HRC’s) character and political vision are incompatible with Christ’s?”

A few tweets later, Ms. Powers wrote: “I find it toxic when ppl from opposing political sides claim to know who is a ‘real Christian’. . . this is typically done by Christian Right.”

And Prof. Volf clarified: “Responsible Christians debate not who is the real Christian but what positions are compatible with following Christ.”

This exchange raises the question: What is it like to follow Jesus, politically?

My own following of Jesus is increasingly shaped and helped by the historical Christian liturgical year, punctuated as it is by Christmas, Good Friday, Easter Sunday and Ascension. Writing this column during Advent, in eager anticipation of Christmas, I’m particularly wondering what it is like, politically, to follow the Jesus who became incarnate as a human person.

Fellow citizens
Recently, while reading the obituary of a Jesuit scholar, I came across the phrase cura personalis. It is a new term to me, but it turns out that it is a long-established and very important practice for Jesuits. Usually translated as “care for the whole person,” it started out as a summary of how supervisory responsibilities are to be carried out within the Jesuit order: caring for each man in the community in a way that attends to his unique personal gifts, needs, limitations and capabilities. Over time the practice has been extended to the relationships among scholars – teachers and students – in Jesuit educational institutions. This seems to me to be an apt term for what it looks like to follow the incarnate Jesus in our inter-personal relationships, including our politics. What is it like to “do politics” in a way that cares for the whole person of each of our fellow citizens?

Earlier during Advent I was part of a small group discussion of Jesus’ incarnation, for which we read a few paragraphs from the early 20th century Anglican bishop Charles Gore. Bishop Gore wrote about the incarnation: “This was no failure of power. God is love, and love is sympathy and self-sacrifice. The Incarnation is the supreme act of self-sacrificing sympathy, by which one whose nature is divine was enabled to enter into human experience. He emptied himself of divine prerogatives so far as was involved in really becoming man, and growing, feeling, thinking and suffering as a man.” What is it like to “do politics” in a way that follows the Jesus who acted in self-sacrificing sympathy, fully attentive to the feelings, thoughts, sufferings and other experiences of our fellow citizens?

Closer to home
There is surely much more than “care for the whole person” and “self-sacrificing sympathy” to the political implications of following the incarnate Jesus we celebrate at Christmas. And Advent and Christmas are just the very beginning of what the church year celebrates of the life of the Jesus whom we follow. But: wow! I am trying to imagine some of the ways in which I must adjust how I live if I am to follow Jesus, politically, in just these two ways.

Instead of immediately trying to imagine such “care for the whole person” and “self-sacrificing sympathy” on the scale of national or international politics – on the level at which it might directly matter to Americans that they voted for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, or to Canadians that we identify ourselves as members of the Conservative, Liberal or New Democratic Parties – what matters most immediately to me is what following Jesus is like in borough politics. Say, regarding zoning by-laws and parking regulations.

In my own borough of Outremont, Montreal, the big controversy of the moment is the borough council’s decision to ban new places of worship – a decision particularly affecting my Hasidic Jewish neighbours, who are in need of a new synagogue. What would it be like for me, as a citizen of Outremont, to act with care for the whole person, to act with self-sacrificing sympathy, towards both my Hasidic and non-Hasidic neighbours, in the midst of this controversy? I need to get to know my neighbours quite a lot better to even begin to answer this question!

How about you? What would it be like if you were to follow Jesus, politically, at the most local level, in 2017?

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