A colleague and friend responded to my blog last week about “Patriotic Grace” by asking, “Should we just sit back and accept things, as is, to continue on the road our world is traveling on or should we speak up for our Lord and Savior and His teachings? Political Grace, how do they intermingle?” These are the right questions, Debbie.
What I wrote in “We’re All in This Thing Together” was a thought piece, the elucidation of what I believe is a Biblical principle. I’m a pastor/preacher, a practical theologian, this is what I do. I live in a world of big thoughts that I find in Scripture about God, and humanity, and how it is that we connect with and relate to each other. What you want is for me to put some wheels on the concept so that it can get some traction on the road of real life. What you’ve asked reminds me of something I heard my friend Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger say earlier this year at one of our Faiths in Conversation programs.
He told a story about William Sloane Coffin, one of the previous ministers of New York City’s historic Riverside Church. After another one of his many appearances before a congressional panel in Washington D.C. on some pressing social issue where he had prophetically tried to speak truth to power, he was chided by one of the congressmen for always speaking in abstractions at the level of what someone has called “big hairy truths.” “Talking about peace, and justice, and equality, and compassion is fine,” that congressman said, “but specifically… practically… concretely… at the point of policy and law, just exactly what was it that you want us to do?” And Dr. Coffin reportedly said that figuring that out wasn’t his job. That was their job. “Amos thundered ‘let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream’ (5:24),” he said, “but Amos didn’t draw up any plans for the construction of reservoirs and irrigation systems.”
In my July 1 blog – “Is the Fourth of July a Religious Holiday?” – I referenced the thinking of the Dutch theologian/statesman Abraham Kuyper who said that “there’s not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ does not cry, Mine,” but who also believed that God does different things in and through the church than God does in and through culture. I explained, “Just as you wouldn’t go to a bank to get a loaf of bread, or take your dog to an auto mechanic to treat him for fleas, so while God is at work in and through both church and culture, God is not doing the same thing in both places.
This is a gross oversimplification of what Kuyper taught, but we could say that the assignment that God has given to the church concerns the eternal needs of our souls as human beings, while the assignment that God has given to the culture concerns the temporal needs of our bodies. The Great Commission sets the agenda for the life and work of the church. To teach what Christ commanded and to make disciples is the church’s job. And it’s something called the “Cultural Mandate” that sets the agenda for the work that God expects culture to do. The “Cultural Mandate” is what the Creation stories of Genesis are talking about when they call all human beings everywhere and always to the tasks of “filling and subduing” (Genesis 1:28) and “tilling and keeping” (Genesis 2:15). These are God’s assignment for culture. Creating and then maintaining the conditions that are most conducive to human thriving in this world, that’s the assignment that God has given to culture.
So, within this framework, back to your good questions Debbie.
What is it that we as Christians are supposed to do? Within the “sphere” of the church’s assignment, what should we be doing, especially right now and right here in this moment of violence, anger and fear? Well, last Sunday morning I preached on the Sixth Commandment – “No Killing” (Exodus 20:13). This sermon series on the Ten Commandments was planned three months ago. The intersection of this specific text with the events that played out in downtown Dallas, and in Minneapolis, and in Baton Rouge last week, are what I can only describe as a “Godcidence” (as opposed to a coincidence).
The decision that I preached for last Sunday morning was this –
Jesus said that while the prohibition of the Sixth Commandment still stands, that we must understand that killing is never just an outward act. “Murder comes from the heart” Jesus said (Matthew 15:19). Long before it’s an external act, murder is an inward attitude rooted in envy, anger and hatred. When another person has been judged to be worthless by us, then their life is of no longer of any concern to us. And when this happens, then we’ve already committed the hidden murder of the heart. And so, this is where Jesus Christ dug in His holy heels and intervened with His “transforming initiative of grace.” Long before another person has been denigrated and dismissed, Jesus told us to interrupt this slide of them becoming dead to us by choosing to deliberately relate to them as a human being instead.
So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23-24)
It’s not unimportant that people of Biblical faith take principled moral stands against killing in any of its familiar forms in our current culture of death. The Sixth Commandment is supposed to be one of the points on our moral compasses as Christians, and in our American context, I believe this means that it needs to be taken into serious consideration as we make our choices about who it is that we want making the life and death policy decisions of our nation. But if that’s where you stop, then it seems to me that what you’ve got is an Exodus chapter 20 kind of faith, but not a Matthew chapter 5 kind of faith. What you’ve got is the law, but not the Gospel.
So, what does the Gospel look like in this specific situation? Well, I think that it looks an awful lot like that picture from Tuesday’s memorial service at the Meyerson. Blacks and whites, men and women, Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and progressives, police officers and Black activists, Jews and Muslims, Christians and secularists, all standing side by side and hand in hand. This is a powerful picture of the kind of “Patriotic Grace” of which I wrote last week, and I believe that it’s a picture of the kind of work that the church is called to do, and about which I preached last Sunday morning.
My “Disciple” conscience and conviction, shaped as it is by the open Lord’s Table with the emblems of God’s saving grace in the person and work of Jesus Christ to which everyone is invited by faith on it, creates a passion in me to work to want to help people who are pulling apart to find the common ground where they can come within “hearing distance” of Christ and one another, and find their peace.
And so, while I believe that it’s important to oppose killing in our society as a person of Biblical faith, I believe that it is just as important as people of Biblical faith that we consciously and consistently choose to concretely love those people who, for whatever reason, we are most tempted to treat with contempt and disdain. It’s because anger and hate are the roots of the kind of killing that the Sixth Commandment prohibits that Jesus told us as His disciples that it’s right there in those difficult relationships that the Gospel’s transforming work of grace must begin.
Debbie, this is what we do. This is how we live “Patriotic Grace.” This is the work that I believe we are called to be doing right now as Christians. This is how, and this is where the hard work of hope begins. DBS +