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In the church I grew up in it was culturally assumed that Christians would vote Liberal. Jesus wasn’t party-partisan, we knew, but on “family values” issues – sexuality, marriage, abortion, euthanasia, drugs – we were pretty sure his values aligned with ours and so did the Liberal party’s and so a conservative victory was a win for the “Christian” way of life.
By extension, the subconscious – and sometimes overt – assumption was that the remainder of the conservative policy platform must also have God’s blessing. Environmentalism, refugee rights, multiculturalism, unions, welfare, reconciliation with Australia’s First Peoples … these were at best irrelevant to our faith and, more regularly, derided as evidence that Australia’s Christian values were being undermined by a progressive, socialist or humanist anti-God agenda.
So while not party-political, this Jesus was, by association, partisan – on the side of the free market, low taxation, Work Choices and the Iraq war. Jesus wasn’t necessarily a Liberal, but he was certainly aligned with individualism, capitalism, militarism, western colonialism and the United States’ hegemony.
I grew increasingly unable to reconcile this with a gospel that proclaimed itself “good news to the poor”. As a pastor and preacher confronted with both the record of Jesus’ everyday interactions in the gospel narratives, and the reality of life for young people, people seeking asylum and others living on the margins, I found the mental gymnastics required to hold up this world view not only tiring but vacuous.
We’d turned a religion based on following the ultimately selfless One into an institution that validated selfishness as “blessing” and used any power it possessed to maintain its cultural and political ascendancy. Now, as in Jesus’ time, the political and religious elite collude to maintain the structural and economic inequalities that are of benefit to them.
At Easter, I find this inherent contradiction most stark and galling. The American theologian John Howard Yoder describes Jesus’ death as: “the political, legally-to-be-expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling his society.” We remember His death, and we see that the manner of his death, the testimony of his life, and, in fact, the Old Testament prophets that gave context to his arrival, all point to an unassailable truth: Jesus was a partisan, but not in the way I’d been led to believe.
Jesus was overtly on the side of the poor, the excluded, the ignored, the disenfranchised and the exploited. He was on their side when it damaged his reputation, his earning potential and any hope he had of moving up the ranks of religious or political power. He was on their side when he drove out the price-manipulators and rent-seekers in the temple courts and he was on their side when it cost him his life.
It would be hard to argue that Christians should support one party or another – to be unconditionally aligned no matter how their values and policies change over time.
However, I do believe we are called to on the side of those who are marginalised and disadvantaged by a system designed to benefit those at the top. If we follow Jesus, we will stand with and for all who are left out, forgotten, abused and socially, economically and politically excluded – no matter the personal cost.
Being on the side of the poor or excluded isn’t about having progressive values, the right opinions or even voting the right way. It’s about the decision to leverage any power, privilege, abilities and resources you have to transform not only an individual’s immediate circumstances but, more importantly, the economic, social and cultural systems that perpetuate inequality, poverty, exclusion and exploitation. Laws matter, national budgets matter, political policies matter because they not only reflect what society says is OK but provide the framework on which structural inequality – or social equity – is built.
Jesus’ vision wasn’t for a hospital at the bottom of a cliff (that you can only access if you’re willing to sit through a sermon first) – it was presenting the real possibility of an alternative society in which the cliff has been dismantled.
We know that corporate greed, neoliberalism and trickle-down economics are not working. We know that unfettered capitalism is destroying our planet and rapidly increasing inequality. We know that discrimination – whether due to race, gender, sexuality or religion – makes individuals suffer, our communities less healthy and our world less safe.
We know that the economy is designed to favour the wealthy when income for those at the top increases while wages at the bottom go down. We know in whose favour our leaders govern when the rich are given tax breaks while community legal services, needs-based education funding and other social supports are being cut.
And we know that Jesus was consistently on the side of the poor.
Easter, with its powerful image of Jesus nailed to a cross because the religious and political leaders wanted him dead, invites Christians to give our lives for the sake of others. Following Jesus requires we love people not only with words, theology or charity but in costly solidarity and a determination to expose the evil of any ideology that pretends inequality, violence or exploitation are noble, natural or ordained by God.
The Easter weekend reminds us that we know how this will end. That those in whose favour the system is rigged will crucify those who threaten their power.
And then, one day, we will win.
Brad Chilcott is a Common Grace Board Member, the Founder of Welcome to Australia and Lead Pastor at Activate Church in Adelaide. This article was originally published in an edited form by Guardian News Australia.
Image by Stefan Kunze.