By Charles Redfern
Our culture’s weary rivals are lining up in my inbox like scarred, fatigued warriors. One side sees everything through the prism of “traditional family values.” The other bays open-mindedness and brands its opponents as intellectual Neanderthals. Both are reading from a stump speech worn out several elections ago.
And my own script has yellowed: “Fine, we’ll talk values. I value life-long heterosexual marriage; I value respect for parents; I value the sanctity of life and I’m against abortion on demand. But I also value the biblical mandate for environmental stewardship and I fear human-induced global warming; I value God’s compassion for the poor and argue for universal health care; I value the truth; I value life for street kids and advocate gun control laws (like many police chiefs). There’s more to biblical ‘values’ than the ‘values voters’ value …”
But the trite clichés thud on the ground like a somnolent soldier’s exhausted feet. I can’t help but think we’re missing it; we’re reading from the wrong script; we’re marching to the wrong battle in the wrong war with the wrong weapons. All the value rasping steers us far from the Gospel of Jesus Christ, before which all political debate lays flat. The New Testament is not about “values.” It tells of the Life behind all life, the Absolute Being in whom all values are wrapped, who turns toward wayward humanity – a “spoiled species,” to quote C.S. Lewis – and embraces it and bathes it in love. This Life entered our plane of existence and became a man. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, humanity is no longer one with its “origin,” so God came in the form of Jesus to bring it back.
The New Testament is about a Person. Values flow from our deepening relationship with that Person as He reaches into us and re-forms us. Values without that relationship are orphans, cut off from their source. They wither. We may rejoice in pyrrhic culture-war victories, but God would still weep even if the entire world reversed itself and adopted “traditional family values” without the relationship: Ozzie and Harriet would be teamed up with My Three Sons, still alienated from their origin.
Perhaps that’s why the most value-prone and religious often don’t get Jesus. He doesn’t fit their template. He mingled among the value-less. He forgave the adulteress. He supped with a puny tax collector named Zacchaeus, who possessed all the integrity of a traitor and loan shark (see Luke 19:1-9). The religious leaders, who argued over values to no end, were dumbfounded and offended. They didn’t understand that Jesus had all their values, plus one: He valued Zacchaeus himself. His entry into the tax collector’s home was an extension of his overall, incarnational ministry (God walking in a world of sinners), and they would have halted that ministry in the name of “values.” I can’t help but notice how they received his worst venom: “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34).
Incidentally, Jesus did not condone ethical violators: He told the adulteress to “go and sin no more” and he only commended Zacchaeus after his repentance. He was not an enabler; he was a redeemer – and redemption came when He brought God’s holy presence into an unholy world. This gives me a command enfolded in permission: it is a genuine privilege to mingle with those who disagree. I should befriend gays and lesbians – and something’s wrong if I cannot genuinely enjoy those friendships. I can cherish adamant NARAL members who bristle at my unenlightened abortion position. I can treasure them like Jesus does. I’m making no compromise when I listen and try to understand their perspective.
And I can’t help but notice Jesus’ “target group:” the general populace. He did not try to change the government. He changed people instead. Society changed once the people changed. The government eventually followed.
It isn’t that the “values voters” are wrong. I’m one of them in their pro-life stance and when they argue for so-called “traditional” sexual morality. But do we see how family values come in a larger moral package? More important, do we see how Christ transcends current political labels? He seems conservative on some issues and liberal on others. Maybe that’s because he views the whole scene through different lenses.
And even more important than that, do we hold to his priority, which is a relationship with God? Proper values without that relationship are like uprooted trees. They may appear lush and green, but they are already dying.