Making Moral Witness

Last week we had a “Faiths in Conversation” on the question of how communities of faith are to make public moral witness.  This was a follow-up to the Faiths in Conversation gathering that we had the week before on the question of “Religion and Government.


Bracketing these two conversation were the Inauguration of President Trump on Friday, January 20th and the Women’s March on Washington D.C. on Saturday, January 21st, and the March for Life on Friday, January 27th.

polAnd then over the weekend, spontaneous protests broke out at airports all over the country in response to the President’s Executive Order (“Protection of the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States“) signed on Friday that indefinitely suspends admissions for Syrian refugees and limits the flow of other refugees into the United States by instituting a policy that calls for the development of procedures for the “extreme vetting” of immigrants.  People of faith and conscience were involved in all of these events making their convictions known, and providing our “Faiths in Conversation” conversations with an immediate context in which to reflect on how people of faith are to respond to the positions and actions of government.

At all of these rallies I saw placards invoking the name and teachings of Christ as the basis for the action for which the protestor was calling. Their presence and passion for the cause that they were publically promoting were clearly expressions of their personal faith commitments.  These were Christians telling their government what to do on the basis of their beliefs as Christians.   This raises some questions for me.

Thirty years ago I was listening to a radio talk show in Houston. The host was a conservative Christian who liked to quote Scripture to his callers while making his arguments.  He was in the middle of doing this with a caller that day, when the caller suddenly interrupted him, saying: “But I don’t believe anything that the Bible says.” Well, this stopped that host dead in his tracks, mid-sentence.  There was a long silence, and then the host abruptly hung up on the caller, saying: “Well then, we’ve got nothing more to talk about!” That memory has been rattling around inside me as I prepared my remarks for the two “Faiths in Conversation” gatherings at which I spoke these past two weeks, and as I have been watching the protest marches and rallies of recent days.

martinAt the “Faiths in Conversation” about “Religion and Government” the blessed memory of Dr. Martin Luther King was invoked, and that iconic picture of him marching side by side, arm in arm with Jewish Rabbis, Catholic priests and nuns, Protestant ministers and secular humanist atheists was recalled, and rightly so.  This is one of the quintessential images of public moral witness in United States history.  And last week, after my presentation on the “Two Kingdoms” theory as one way that some of us who are Christians have tried to make sense of the complex relationship between religion and Government, Rabbi Schlesinger asked me if Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel weren’t in that picture as religious leaders making a religious statement to the government?  He was trying to make sense of what I had said in my presentation on the “Two Kingdoms” Theory (My presentation was posted at “Soundings” last week under “Religion and Government”). And my answer to the good rabbi was, “Of course they were.”

Looking mystified, I further explained that while the “Two Kingdoms” theory views religion and government as two different spheres with two different divinely given assignments, that’s not to suggest, not even for a moment, that they’re watertight compartments that never touch.  God is over them both, and human beings live in them both, and so my faith convictions and values as a Christian are necessarily going to inform my understandings of what I as a citizen think it is that the government should be doing to promote the common welfare in the interests of human thriving.

My faith as a Christian shapes my understanding of and my commitment to things like the value and dignity of each human life, justice, peace, equality, freedom, and righteousness, both personal and social. And as a Christian who is also a citizen who lives in this society, I appreciate having a voice and a vote when the government is making decisions and establishing policies that touch these concerns.  I want to be part of that conversation; in fact, I believe my faith requires me to do so.  But as that famous photograph shows, it’s not just Christians who have a moral vision for the world and its people.  It’s not just Christians who care about the value and dignity of human life, justice, peace, equality, freedom, and righteousness.  And it’s not just Christians who have voices and votes, and who want to be heard as citizens.

Let’s be very clear, I believe that Dr. King was there that day in the picture marching because of his commitment to Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior. As anybody who has ever read his story knows, Dr. King’s public witness arose out of his sense of Christian discipleship and his work as the pastor of a church.  But Rabbi Heschel who was marching right beside him that day was clearly not there because of his love for and obedience to Jesus Christ.  He had a moral vision for the world and its people too, but one that was informed by Torah rather than Jesus.  As Biblically informed ethical monotheists, Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel shared some common moral perspectives that despite their rather significant differences of theological conviction enabled them to make common moral cause that day.  But what about that secular humanist atheist who marched with them that day as well?

One of my theology professors in seminary liked to show us this same picture of Dr. King and his fellow marchers from that day 50 years ago, and ask us to explain why that secular humanist atheist was there with them? This was my professor’s way of getting us to deal with the classic question of whether it’s necessary to believe in God in order to be moral.  To be sure, both Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel were there that day because it was part of their faith in and obedience to God to do so.  But not the atheist!  He had a moral vision for the world and its people too, but it was one that didn’t involve God at all.  And this is where the public moral witness of people of faith gets tricky.

As people of faith we promote a moral vision for the world and its people that arises out of our particular faith convictions, but if we insist that people share those faith convictions in order to embrace that moral vision, then, just like that radio talk show host, at some point we’ll have nothing more to say to each other. And this is where Christian moral witness tends to get muddled, if you ask me.  The work that God assigns to the church gets confused with the work that God assigns to the government.

Public moral witness is not evangelism. My moral witness as a Christian is not about trying to make society more Christian, but rather, more moral.  Had Dr. King insisted that people believe in Jesus Christ as part of his public moral witness that day, then Rabbi Heschel would not, could not have stood with him.  And if Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel had insisted that people believe in God as part of their public moral witness that day, then that secular humanist atheist who marched with them would not, could not have joined them either.  And this is where that “Two Kingdoms” theory helps me to make sense of this as a Christian.

The “Two Kingdoms” theory does not allow me to think or talk about “Christian” nations.  To my way of thinking, a Christian nation is a non sequitur.  It’s people as individuals and not nations as collectives that become Christian by their personal decisions of faith, through repentance and baptism.  By this standard, there are Christians in every nation, but no Christian nations.  So, if I’m not looking for a Christian nation, what is it that I am looking for?  What is it that I want?  And as a Christian who lives in this nation I’ll tell you that what I want is for my nation to be more thoroughly and consistently moral.  In fact, that’s government’s assignment as I see it through my “Two Kingdoms” eyes.  It’s the government’s job to make our society free and fair for all.  And while my Christian faith certainly informs my moral sense of what that liberty and justice for all looks like, there’s nothing in my moral sense about this that’s distinctively Christian.

Another seminary professor I had back in the day startled a class I was in one day when he got up and announced that, “morally, Jesus Christ didn’t actually teach anything new…. Every moral thing He ever said had been said by the Hebrew prophets before Him.” And what this means is that Christ’s value to me as a Christian is not as a teacher of morality.  I don’t need Jesus to tell me what’s right and wrong.  I’ve got the Law for that, the Law and the way that it’s been written on my heart. What I need Jesus for is to be the Savior who deals with my shame and guilt for not consistently keeping faith with that moral vision that got explicitly cast for me in the Hebrew Law and Prophets, and that implicitly has been hardwired into me as a human being.

Every time my own particular community of faith gathers in worship on the Lord’s Day we break bread and bless a cup to share in remembrance of the sacrifice of God’s love in Jesus Christ on Calvary’s cross. This is the saving act that we as Christians believe reconciles us to God.  This is the Gospel message with which we are entrusted as a community of faith.   It’s predicated on a moral vision, in fact, I would argue as a Christian that it’s that moral vision that makes my theological convictions about Jesus Christ so spiritually compelling.  But you don’t have to share my Christian spiritual convictions in order to make common moral cause with me, because my moral vision is not uniquely Christian.

10-commandmentsMy Ten Commandments as a Christian are no different from Rabbi Schlesinger’s Ten Commandments as a Jew. This is our shared moral ground zero.  These are the basics of the Biblical moral vision that is common to both Jews and Christians, and to which we must bear public witness, especially when see them being violated, abused or ignored.  But as Paul argued in his letter to the Romans, long before these laws were ever written on tablets of stone and given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, they were written on Adam’s heart in the Garden of Eden.  Paul said that when those who do not have the law do “by nature” what the law requires, it just proves that the law was originally written on our hearts, something to which our consciences bear witness (2:14-15).  There’s this sense of moral “ought” that’s been hardwired into us as human beings, and I think that you can see it in that picture of Dr. King, Rabbi Heschel and that secular humanist atheist marching arm in arm and side by side 50 years ago for civil rights.

dr-kingDr. King’s heroic example in that picture reminds me as a person of Christian faith that I have an obligation to bear public witness to the moral vision that’s mine as a follower of Jesus Christ. And the heroic examples of Rabbi Heschel and that unnamed secular humanist in that picture who were marching right beside him bearing public witness as well reminds me that I share this moral vision for a more just and peaceful world as a Christian with all of humanity regardless of whether or not we share my beliefs about Jesus Christ.

I am reminded of Tom Joad’s Shakespearean monologue at the end of John Steinbeck’s’ The Grapes of Wrath  –

grapesI’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.

 Understand, Tom Joad didn’t say this because he was a Christian, or a Muslim, or a Jew. No, Tom Joad said this because he was a human being. It’s just part of the moral structure of the universe and the moral constitution of human beings to stand up for what we instinctively know is right, and good, and fair. My Christian faith certainly has this moral vision, but my Christian faith clearly didn’t create this moral vision, it merely underscored what has always been in my heart.

1And so, my moral appeal as a Christian can’t be – “What would Jesus do?” – because if you don’t care about Jesus, then you won’t care about what He would do, and we who are Christians would have nothing more to say.  My commitment to Christ can explain my moral concern and action as a Christian, and can even be the lynchpin in my appeal to other Christians to become more morally concerned and active about something.  But that’s an intramural conversation.  Intercollegiately, when I make my moral witness to a world that doesn’t share my faith commitments, just as Dr. King was doing in that famous picture, my moral appeal can’t be a “Christian” argument rooted and grounded in a Scripture like the Sermon on the Mount, instead it must be a human argument rooted and grounded in truths that are self-evident, and in rights that are unalienable.  And so, in church I’ll tell you that caring about the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, and the neglected matters because it matters to Jesus Christ.  But when I stand in the corridors of governing power where laws are being written and policies are being developed that I perceive threaten the life, liberty and/or just treatment of another human being, I’ll tell you that I am opposed not because it’s unchristian, but because it’s inhuman, and I will make common moral cause with all who see it as inhuman as well. DBS +






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