Politics Makes Strange Bedfellows

Jesus wouldn't have it any other way....

March 4, 2009

Cross-posted from the Huffington Post.

The Washington Post printed a story this week about the Poverty Forum, "an unusual coalition of Christian leaders and policy experts from across the ideological spectrum" that is working together to advance a series of anti-poverty initiatives. The Forum plans to present its recommendations to the Obama administration next week; included among these is passage of legislation that would restore federal voting rights to persons disenfranchised on account of criminal convictions.

The strange bedfellows aspect of the collaboration—Former President George W. Bush's speechwriter Michael Gerson called it "an orgy of strange bedfellows"—provides an irresistible media hook, but such collaborations among devoted Christians shouldn't be all that surprising. Make no mistake, I'm thrilled at the existence of such an alliance. But given Jesus' own teachings about our obligations to the less fortunate and instructions as to how best to treat our enemies, I cannot help but be disappointed that such alliances are newsworthy.

There is no shortage of Biblical lessons on the subject of our responsibility to the poor (or prisoners for that matter, giving a special appropriateness to the recommendation to restore voting rights to persons disenfranchised on account of criminal convictions—people who in large part are poor and have been prisoners). And anyone who has been to Sunday School or recited, read, or heard the Lord's Prayer knows we cannot hold grudges against our enemies. So something seems off-kilter when conventional practice is to write off political enemies when trying to effectuate Jesus' teachings to help the poor.

One of the most widely known parables specifically contradicts this view. The Good Samaritan in Jesus' story was not just some guy who helped an injured person ignored by a hypocrite priest and religious official. He is someone who, in helping the injured Jew, helped an enemy. And, his manner of "helping"—taking the injured Jew to an inn and promising to pay the inn owner for all costs incurred in the course of nursing him back to health—exposed the Samaritan to some real risk.

Jesus presents a portrait of someone who honors his obligations, and acts charitably and compassionately, while exposing himself to danger (it was not safe to linger on that road from Jerusalem to Jericho), and also donates to his enemy, food, clothes and shelter. It is a much more modest ask for Christian advocates and activists to spend some of their political capital trying to forge alliances with political enemies to achieve the Samaritan's same objectives.

The collaboration giving rise to the Poverty Forum is surely a blessed event. I hope, however, that soon it becomes an ordinary one.