I recently witnessed a debate between the co-authors of a new book entitled Left, Right, and Jesus. They are both Bible loving evangelicals. One is a young black woman, the other an older white man. One (I will let you guess which) comes out on the political right—the other on the other side.
As I listened I was reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s famous words in his Second Inaugural Speech: “Both [sides] read the same Bible, and pray to the same God…” But recollecting Lincoln didn’t make me cynical. Lincoln was no interpretive nihilist. He plainly believed that some readings of the bible on the slavery issue were better than others.
Interpretational nihilism is a trendy cop out—a lazy person’s excuse for not thinking hard. On any issue some interpretations are better than others—say Bonhoeffer’s versus Hitler’s interpretations of the value of Jews. Nevertheless it is very important to notice that two Bible loving people can come to very different places in politics. They can do it with a high degree of integrity. It is happening all the time these days, and we need to respect it in each other.
Why the differences? Because the way we see things, including the way we read the Bible, while it may not be completely controlled by our backgrounds and experience, will nevertheless be influenced by them. One of the reasons we get so angry with each other is that we don’t realize this, or we do realize it but refuse to admit it. We confuse the infallibility of the Bible with the infallibility of our interpretation of the Bible.
And why do we cling so stubbornly to our interpretation of the Bible when it comes to politics? I am sure there are many reasons. But one of them is that politics is more important to us than the church is. If the church had its proper place in our hearts, if it occupied the place in our hearts that it occupies in the heart of Jesus (who died to save and make us one), we would be bending over backwards to give each other the benefit of the doubt, working double time to submit our own interpretations of Scripture to the scrutiny and critique of the brothers and sisters who disagree with us, looking for common ground.
I am happy to report that the co-authors in the debate I saw were gracious towards each other. They sparred a bit, scoring points here and there, to applause from their different constituencies in the audience, but there was good will between them.
We need such good will. We need more meetings of this sort. Christians on both sides need to be sitting together in the same room listening to each other. The church needs to be different from the world, animated by a unity that is higher and deeper than that of party.