Friday, October 24, 2014

Meaningful words…

One of our congregation’s members is on the ballot this November. I hope you vote. Either for her or against her, or should you live outside Minnesota’s 3rd, for whichever congressional candidate best represents your political hopes. Because participating in our democracy matters. Lifting your voice is an act of faith. And this election has me thinking about how Christians use “our voice” to impact society, beyond simply voting.

For example, not long ago, I had conversation with friends about the word, “justice.” I had used it in a recent sermon. That sparked interesting feedback. So I talked it over with pastor pals, for their ideas. And it occurred to us how this term had taken on litmus proportions in many circles. Like among seminary trained ministers, whose schooling likely taught them (as it did me!) to pray enthusiastically for justice, preach about justice, conceive the very work of God’s Kingdom come as justice be done on earth. 

That notion has deep Biblical roots. Hebrew prophets used “justice” to critique their leaders for forgetting the poor and orphaned. Jesus began his ministry quoting the justice-loving Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has sent me to bring good news to the poor.” As such, many contemporary theologians and pastors describe the entire point of church as God’s people championing justice. They want all Christians using their “voices” for that project, and criticize those who won’t.

But something odd often happens in that process. These calls for justice frequently overlap with certain political agendas, namely liberal ones. One pastor even bragged to me about it years ago. S/he’d written an article listing several reasons Christians should support healthcare reform. Describing the writing, s/he casually remarked, “I basically cut and pasted from President Obama’s website.” Merits of those reasons aside, this nonchalant fusing of faith with liberal politics left me uncomfortable. Surely celebrating “justice”, in a Biblical sense, need not always mean, “I’m liberal”, right? Is our Christian voice that narrow, that unimaginative, that constrained?

It reminds me of how the just-as-Biblically-important word “freedom” was deployed last decade. In response to 9/11 and the Iraq Invasion, “freedom” frequently signaled “conservative.” I can’t tell you how many mailings our church received from conservative religious organizations, demanding all “freedom loving” Christians lift their voices in support of conservative political issues. Therefore, many liberal Christians began avoiding the term like Ebola. Though Paul profoundly claims, “For freedom Christ has set us free,” they couldn’t stomach it. They were different. They loved justice.

In other words, these key words- with all their Biblical wisdom, guidance and inspiration- became litmus tests for speakers and hearers. Are you with us, or against us? I find that sad, and not terribly helpful. Perhaps even dangerous to faith itself. We need deep values like justice and freedom, to say nothing of compassion, reconciliation, forgiveness, to enter the public sphere, to guide decision makers and voters toward more holy solutions to common problems. But if one or the other value becomes totally identified with a particular party’s policies, then our distinctive Christian voice becomes diluted. Our Christian identity becomes cheapened.

Or, and here’s what really worries me, Christians will simply check out. They’ll stop wanting to raise their voices because they fear being co-opted by our divisive politics. And they’d be right. But imagine that scenario with me. This community of faithful souls, committed to loving their neighbors, welcoming back the prodigal, binding the Samaritan’s wounds, decide they’ve got nothing to say about our nation’s most pressing struggles. Which values then will take over? Winning at all cost? Doing what’s best for only your preferred party? At the expense of the common good? That, frankly, scares me. And I hope it scares you.

So let’s be different Christians. Those whose abiding concern for God’s Kingdom trumps partisan leanings. Those who enjoy coming to the Table with sisters and brothers who may vote different, but love Jesus too. Let us lift our voices for justice and freedom, faith and hope and love, to better the lives of all neighbors. Because Jesus’ arms were that wide-open, God’s love that vast. And enduring.

Grace and Peace,
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