It should be possible to keep the faith and compromise

On the face of it, the Bible doesn’t exactly promote the value of compromise. Going along to get along — … Continued

On the face of it, the Bible doesn’t exactly promote the value of compromise. Going along to get along — making nice, doing deals, seeing things from the other guy’s point of view — these aren’t Biblical priorities. The God of Abraham thunders from his mountaintop about his exclusive primacy. The prophets warn of dire outcomes — bad weather, war, apocalypse — that will befall the nonbelievers. Even Jesus, commemorated in these days leading up to Christmas as sweet-tempered and mild, often expresses himself in absolutes. “Repent,” he said, “for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”

But scripture, like a long stretch of weather, is varied and can be temperate in its messages. That’s why its wisdom resonates today, far beyond an ancient world view that sorts right from wrong, the good guys from the bad. In these days of partisan entrenchment over the so-called “fiscal cliff,” and a broader, profound philosophical disagreement between Republicans and Democrats about what Americans’ first obligation should be — the protection of individual rights under God, or the protection of the “least of these” — I called on a few faith leaders of my acquaintance to ask a question.

Might they, based on their knowledge of scripture and religious tradition, be able to formulate a theology of compromise? Might they be able to persuade the two camps to forge a deal based on a higher principle of forward progress and mutual agreement? (I should not have been surprised, perhaps, that the partisan faithful would have a partisan response. But I was.)

“No,” said Cal Thomas, the syndicated columnist, Christian commentator, and former public relations man for Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. He began to rant about a country in which the government has replaced God. “The government is my keeper,” he quipped, paraphrasing the psalm. “I shall not want.” Christian tradition does require believers to do charity, but it also requires from those who receive charity “a change in the way you’ve been living. We’ll help you but you have to stop drinking, get off drugs, get off your lazy butt.”

Jim Wallis, the progressive evangelical and founder of Sojourners, was equally emphatic in his response. “How we treat the least of these is the ultimate question. We can’t compromise on protecting the most vulnerable. Certainly all kinds of other things can be compromised. But that’s not where the real money is.” A path to fiscal sustainability is out there, Wallis concedes, and a faith-based notion of the common good might motivate both sides to sit down together, but “compromise sounds weak and cowardly and all that.”

Compromise is a biblical value, though, if you look for it carefully. Scripture is full of advice and examples about listening to others, and accommodating people who believe differently from you. Leviticus makes rules to live by and also delineates pragmatic exceptions to those rules in important cases of expediency. “Neither shall you stand by the blood of your neighbor,” says the ancient text, a rule about not doing harm that exempts Jewish doctors from observing Shabbat in order to save lives. Hospitality — also interpreted as openness — is a crucial Biblical value in both the Old Testament and the New. In Genesis, the patriarch Abraham serves milk and meat together to three strangers (angels) who visit his house; he violates his own dietary laws, he compromises his own firmly held beliefs, to make his guests comfortable. Peter talks about giving hospitality without complaint, about serving and listening with love. In the Sermon on the Mount, of course, Jesus talks about overcoming difference: “Agree with your adversary quickly,” he says. And: “If you love [only] those who love you, he says, what credit is that to you?”

My search for a theology of compromise was satisfied, finally, when I called Richard J. Mouw, the president of Fuller Theological Seminary, and talked about the Christian idea of discernment, of finding the right path among confusing and contradictory signals. “I’m a Calvinist. I believe we live in a fallen world. Even in our own personal lives, we’re not pure. Anyone who looks into his or her inner self knows that we’re constantly struggling and coping, trying to find the best way through situations that aren’t clear,” he says. Politically, he adds, “We are in the wilderness. The Holy Spirit has gifted us with the ability to discern. To choose among alternatives. God may have all the perfect answers, but we are trying to approximate the answers as best we can as finite creatures. We need to bounce our ideas off other people. We need to test our thoughts.” In secular terms, he says, the word “discernment” might mean “compromise.” That process might work as a model for politicians in Congress, who are mired in their own righteousness.


Comments are closed.

Read More Articles

Valle Header Art
My Life Depended on the Very Act of Writing

How I was saved by writing about God and cancer.

Sociologist: Religion Can Predict Sexual Behavior

“Religion and sex are tracking each other like never before,” says sociologist Mark Regnerus.

The Internet Is Not Killing Religion. So What Is?

Why is religion in decline in the modern world? And what can save it?

river dusk
Cleaner, Lighter, Closer

What’s a fella got to do to be baptized?

Magical Thinking and the Canonization of Two Popes

Why Pope Francis is canonizing two popes for all of the world wide web to see.

An Ayatollah’s Gift to Baha’is, Iran’s Largest Religious Minority

An ayatollah offers a beautiful symbolic gesture against a backdrop of violent persecution.

Screenshot 2014-04-23 11.40.54
Atheists Bad, Christians Good: A Review of “God’s Not Dead”

A smug Christian movie about smug atheists leads to an inevitable happy ending.

Ten Ways to Make Your Church Autism-Friendly

The author of the Church of England’s autism guidelines shares advice any church can follow.

Pope Francis: Stop the Culture of Waste

What is the human cost of our tendency to throw away?

chapel door
“Sometimes You Find Something Quiet and Holy”: A New York Story

In a hidden, underground sanctuary, we were all together for a few minutes in this sweet and holy mystery.

Mary Magdalene, the Closest Friend of Jesus

She’s been ignored, dismissed, and misunderstood. But the story of Easter makes it clear that Mary was Jesus’ most faithful friend.

From Passover to Easter: Why I’m Grateful to be Jewish, Christian, and Alive

Passover with friends. Easter with family. It’s almost enough to make you believe in God.

Top 10 Reasons We’re Glad A Catholic Colbert Is Taking Over Letterman’s “Late Show”

How might we love Stephen Colbert as the “Late Show” host? Let us count the ways.

God’s Not Dead? Why the Good News Is Better than That

The resurrection of Jesus is not a matter of private faith — it’s a proclamation for the whole world.

The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.