Radical discipleship questions personal and political allegiances

In his bestselling book “Radical,” David Platt encourages readers to engage in radical missions by downsizing, traveling to underdeveloped countries, and risking economic stability for the sake of the Gospel.

He argues that one’s search for the “American Dream” can hinder the “downward mobility” Jesus advocates when he tells his followers to “sell all you have and give to the poor.”

Although “Radical” is a wonderful read, Platt never questions how a Christian’s political and social ethics might actually derail this radical call from the get-go.

Nor does he challenge readers to evaluate so-called “Christian” socio-economic, political worldviews that actually foster an “American Dream” mentality, a dream born out of a rigorous Protestant work ethic.

Don’t be fooled: Missions and politics are bedfellows.  It’s difficult to be on mission when one’s politics don’t make room for welcoming strangers and “the other” as equal neighbors whom Jesus calls us to love (Lk 10:25-37).

I had to fight this battle in my own Christian journey.  I grew up in an extremely ideological household in which hard work and independence championed an ideal lifestyle.  People who were poor were seen as mere “leeches” who lived off of society.

When I engaged in urban ministries during college, I found Jesus challenging this ideological bent and bringing my own political views under scrutiny.

How was I going to befriend, minister to, and be compassionate towards the very folks I had always viewed as leeches?

More significantly, I never saw myself as a bigot, but when I started to define who “those people” were in those low-income homes, I saw my own prejudice coming to light.  “Those people” happened to be minorities and immigrants.  I was a bigot after all, even if I never believed myself to be one.

There are many churches in our society that have property in the midst of an urban, low-income setting.  Often, parishioners drive to church from outlying neighborhoods and worship for several hours a week.

Instead of seeing their church’s neighborhood as a mission field, they are content on writing checks or engaging in foreign ministries in denominational organizations.  They will celebrate their large gifts to the Christmas Missionary Offering, but fear the people who live on the same block as the church.

If a church were to read “Radical” and take it serious, I think it must also pose a pressing question: How could a church partner with God in a low-income neighborhood when our current politics drive a partisan message in which well-to-do entrepenuers battle entitlement-saturated communities over solutions on how to curb our nation’s federal debt?

It’s hard to be “on mission” when you see your neighbor as nothing more than immigrants, “leeches,” crackheads, low-lifes, or simply “those people.”  It’s hard to be on mission when you see beneficiaries of that mission as political opponents.

It’s hard to be on mission when one is not willing to pay a fair share of taxes while working towards a smaller, less intrusive government.  It’s even harder when one is trying to cut entitlements while offering subsidies to corporations that don’t foster “made-in-America” manufacturing jobs.

A truly “radical” call to missions is one that transcends political absolutes.

There is room for several ethical constructs to exist in a democracy: We must help people of all income levels to see that individual responsibility improves sustainable housing and jobs, but Christians must also advocate for the poor when systemic injustice–like unfair wages, anti-labor manipulation, and outsourcing–roots itself deeply in an impoverished community.

It took me several years to look past a person’s income level to train myself to see others as Jesus sees them.  Once I started to live in the midst of low-income families, break bread with the oppressed, befriend the poor, and minister to criminal and saint alike did I finally see that my political views and voting record needed to reflect a radical allegiance to Jesus and to the “least of these.”

In an economy in which no one has the upper hand and all are indebted to someone else, becoming a radical disciple has never been more pressing.

Compromise is an important part of leadership, federal budget debate

(This letter was originally submitted to The Rockdale Citizen on May 11, 2011).

Dear Editor,

On May 10th, Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA) unveiled a budget proposal that cuts national spending from 25% of the GDP to 18.5%.   Like other plans, Toomey’s enacts restrictions on entitlement spending and healthcare reform.

As I listened to the conference, what I found interesting was not the proposal itself, but the rhetoric framing the budget debate as communicated from the Republican co-signers of the proposal.  It was Toomey’s fellow Senators, Jim DeMint and Marco Rubio (of South Carolina and Florida respectively), that thanked him for his leadership on this issue.

Leadership:  When it comes to the budget debate, this loaded term invokes the apparent in-action of the Obama Administration in contrast to the Republican Party’s commitment to resolve the issue.

Whenever I hear about leadership, I get a little nervous.  Are the Republicans looking for leadership that seeks to balance the budget in a prudent and tempered fashion—a type of leadership that navigates through the complexity of a multi-trillion dollar system?  Or are they seeking the type of leadership like that of the previous presidential Administration, in which the executive branch bullied the legislative and judicial branches?

Leadership without patience and prudence has the potential to unleash unintended and long-term consequences.  The previous Administration’s costly and ill-informed unilateral attack on Iraq is just one example where lack of prudence failed to garner positive, cost-cutting results.

And there is something to be said about the Democratic Party’s inability to form a budget proposal whatsoever.  Certainly, a recession makes a proposal all the more difficult; but for a party that had control of both houses of Congress, this lack of leadership is inexcusable.

Suffice it to say, budgets are more complex than some might assume.  It took my wife and me days to carve out a budget on a mere five-figure income.  Imagine the time it takes to do that on a trillion-dollar scale—with a “scalpel” (in the words of President Obama) at that.

When it comes to weighty matters in which an entire nation is involved, leadership with an eye towards compromise is key to bringing about positive reform.  After all, the Constitution itself  was born out of compromise—Remember the “Great Compromise” in which the Founding Fathers married the best of the New Jersey and Virginia plans to develop representation in Congress?

Compromise is not a sign of weakness; it’s the foundation upon which our very democracy was built.

If leadership is the problem, both parties seem to be guilty, for true leadership happens when persons of difference can sit down and produce a plan that’s in the best interest of the greatest good.

There is great concern that federal debt must be dealt with, lest the issue become a problem for our children in years to come—to quote Sen. Rubio, if there is no action, “We will be the first Americans to leave our children worse off than ourselves.”

Perhaps we should ask ourselves what kind of legacy we are leaving our children when it comes to wise governing.  I’d rather model for my children healthy teamwork and conflict resolution than to pass on the anxious uncertainty inherent in partisan pontificating.   Let’s pray that both parties can get their act together and get us on the road to economic stability.

Blessings,

Rev. Joe LaGuardia