Having spent much of my life in secular Northern communities, it was a shock to my faith life to find myself living in Waco, Texas, in 2000. I had gone there to perform what seemed a secular task (teach criminal law at Baylor) but once on the brown dirt of Central Texas I found myself tied up in all kinds of fascinating theological debates.
One of those debates involved the "two-spheres" problem relating to work and vocation. At its heart was the idea that too many Christians divided their lives up into two spheres--one for work and one for their faith life--with different principles controlling each. The man who was pious at church and related activities, for example, might follow different rules during the week as he worked as a car dealer or lawyer, for example. This division of spheres ran counter to the idea of "vocation," where one set of principles, the ones derived from faith, would guide decisions in all areas.
When first confronted with this idea of vocation, I pushed it away. The two-sphere critique struck too close to home. I knew that I had not tried to apply my religious principles to work in any kind of rigorous way. Over time, though, I began to see the wisdom of this unified idea of vocation. Above all else, this view offered integrity, because it integrated one set of values with all parts of life.
In fact, most intentional Christians would say that is their goal--that the teachings of Christ should inform all parts of their life. There should be just one sphere, and integrity of purpose within that sphere.
Yet, in public life, we see too little of such integrity.
As Congress mulls further steps to cut food stamps, it is odd that Christian conservatives seem to be at the front of the charge. Paul Begala, writing for CNN, quoted one of them, Rep. Stephen Fincher of Tennessee, as saying "The role of citizens, of Christians, of humanity is to take care of each other, but not for Washington to steal money from those in the country and give to others in the country." Theft is an odd way to think of food stamps, but it is Fincher's theology that confounds me.
His take is familiar as a classic two-spheres approach. To Fincher, apparently, Christ's clear directive to feed the poor informs his thinking when he is a private citizen in church, but evaporates when he acts as a member of congress. There is no integrity to that. The idea that Christianity is only to inform decisions in our private lives is completely contrary to the example and teaching of Christ. The power and beauty of Jesus's lessons are often in their simplicity, because these simple truths can then seep like living water into every crevice of our lives.
If Jesus told us to feed the poor, that directive should motivate all that we do. We should do it ourselves AND urge our government to do it, because there is no more important imperative.
The quiet of Advent is the right time to ponder this. Like me, I suspect that Rep. Fincher believes that the life of Jesus was not guided by chance. Rather, a loving God scripted that life on Earth, chose the roles his son was to play, and each bit of that life was constructed to reveal truths and to teach us what is important. As we set out a crèche, we are reminded of one of those deep truths: That Jesus, the very son of God, was born into poverty. That means something about what is important, and no political philosophy should be allowed to trump that deep and challenging truth.