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.
For Lisa Miller’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/onfaith.