Tom (not his real name), sat up from his position on the couch opposite me, exhaled deeply, and asked the group, “So, what should we do about it?”
Last Sunday at our weekly church gathering we found ourselves in a debate. People say never to mix politics and religion, but Jesus never shied away from it. So here we were, studying the beatitudes and Jesus’ teaching on living as salt and light in the world (Matthew 5:1-16). In the attempt to get practical, someone in the group made a comment about America’s current migrant situation on the southern border, the conditions that children separated from their parents were being held in, and how we should be thinking about this situation as those who claim devotion to following the ways of Jesus.
There were a few tense moments in the discussion as we sought to find common ground on which to stand: the Gospel and Jesus Christ as our Lord and King. At the conclusion of our time, as we do every week, we came together as one body in Christ, celebrating our oneness and unity in the Father by partaking in the celebratory and unifying meal that Christians call ‘The Lord’s Supper’. Despite our differences of opinions and our limited understanding of the situation on the ground, we left being reminded of the One who was beaten, bled, and died for the sins of the world in order to restore us with a new life and new identity as children of God.
If we are not thinking, feeling, and living in the ways of our teacher sent from heaven, then we have no authority to consider ourselves one of his disciples.
Yet Tom’s question still went unanswered on Sunday. Issues such as the one we debated on Sunday seem so large, so complex, and filled with so many barriers for the everyday person to tackle that we can feel helpless and defeated before we even begin. It’s no wonder we often leave these issues to those in political power and authority positions and simply shrink away to sharing our angst and opinions on social media. It’s also easy for the Christian to be reminded of our salvation, our absolution of sin, our new life, and simply say “I’ll pray about that” without taking meaningful action.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Tom’s question this week. His question is honest and real. It deserves an answer, not just because Tom is an individual of our church community who should be honored and respected, but also because we as Christians who bear the name of Jesus Christ have an obligation to know how to respond to such issues. If we are not thinking, feeling, and living in the ways of our teacher sent from heaven, then we have no authority to consider ourselves one of his disciples (John 14:21).
A proper diagnosis
At the heart of our debate was not the issue of injustice, how to love others, living under our governing laws, or addressing complex foreign relationships. Rather, our debate was far more nuanced that sought to challenge our underlying presuppositions and worldview – our ultimate loyalties and beliefs. The debate was the active work of the Holy Spirit among us who is ever seeking to renew our hearts and minds to the will of God (Romans 12:2).
Every story, every command, every psalm, every word of wisdom, and every prayer in scripture is part of a greater narrative and calling by God to every created person, summarized in these words of Jesus:
“‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” (Matthew 22:37-39)
Speaking to our ultimate loyalties and beliefs, the way of reconciliation and restoration with God, self, others, and creation is to embrace a heart-overflowing, soul-stirring, mind-captivating love of God and others above anything or anyone else regardless of the cost. To miss or downplay this crucial teaching of Jesus in the Christian faith is to neglect his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and therefore the promise of our salvation.
A clear example of this is Jesus’ interaction with who is commonly referred to as the Rich Young Ruler in Luke 18:18-30. In his inquiry with Jesus on how a person can inherit eternal life, the young ruler self-justifies himself declaring that he has upheld and faithfully obeyed all the commandments in scripture since he was a child. Jesus then responds with a radical new idea, “Sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor.” We often speak of this passage as an example of the difference between what we call “works-righteousness” and “righteousness by faith”, with faith being the highest virtue. I contend this is an important argument, but does not address the heart of the debate Jesus is having with the young ruler. Instead, Jesus is presenting a bigger problem to be corrected: who does the young ruler truly love and is ultimately loyal to?
The way of reconciliation and restoration with God, self, others, and creation is to embrace a heart-overflowing, soul-stirring, mind-captivating love of God and others.
On every page of scripture we are challenged to think through the lens of the gospel of Jesus Christ. That message is the good news that sinners have been rescued from this evil world, restored as new living beings, adopted into the eternal family of God, and given one command to live by in this life: be fully-devoted lovers of God and others. The more we split hairs on this issue, the more Satan sees a playground of division and disunity that he is happy to meddle in. We must resist the temptation to self-justify our actions, beliefs, and ultimate loyalties that are anything shy of the true call of discipleship. This applies to our political affiliations, notions of the successful life, ideological visions of the future, concepts of what defines health and prosperity, and our valuing of the human life regardless of gender, culture, ethnicity, wealth, education, or religion.
The Christian, the disciple of Jesus Christ, only knows love because we have experienced, received, and live in light of an everyday love that is foreign, heavenly, and perfect in every way. It is a selfless love of cosmic redemption that God showers us with through his son Jesus Christ and we have come to intimately know in the Holy Spirit who dwells in us. With this love, we are compelled to love God and others in return. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
“So, what should we do about it?”
Tom’s question is still a valid one. To simply instruct someone who is over a thousand miles away to love migrants, their children, the officials on the ground, and policy makers in Washington seems too far removed and theoretical. It’s because the debate is more nuanced and deeply rooted than selling all of one’s possessions and giving them to the poor. This, instead, is an exercise in challenging our deeply rooted beliefs, ultimate loyalties, and loves.
If we love safety more than Jesus, we’ll choose comfort over gospel risk-taking. If we love wealth more than Jesus, we’ll spend more on our homes, clothing, and cars than sacrificially loving our neighbors (near and far) who have no access to food, clean water, shelter, or life saving medications. If we love our consequence-free autonomy, we’ll continue to exploit and oppress others, pollute the world, and excuse immorality at the highest levels of those endowed with positions of authority and influence. The most egregious forms is when Christians participate and excuse these behaviors in the name of Jesus.
To be a follower of Jesus is not to be reduced to a system of belief or fundamental truth statements about the existence of life and the afterlife. Following Christ is a restored way of life that seeks to introduce and live out the new Kingdom here and now (Matthew 6:10). It is to live in a way that our primary obligation to the world is to love every human soul that we share it with as a result of our salvation and a means of fulfilling the commandments of God (Romans 13:8).
Following Christ is a restored way of life that seeks to introduce and live out the new Kingdom here and now.
In the attempt to be practical and answer Tom’s question, I offer the following next-steps for every Christ-follower in how to respond to the difficult issues and debates of our time:
(1) Demonstrate humility. Many of the issues we face in our modern landscape are very complex. It’s often difficult to see the fullness of these issues with clarity and precision. Many of today’s issues are no longer as black and white as they once used to be and we must come to terms with that reality.
(2) Listen well. As we seek to understand these complex issues and find solutions to them, learn to listen to all sides. If you predominately get your information on national and world events from Fox News, listen to NPR occasionally, and vice-versa. If you tend to affiliate as a Democrat, sit down with your Republican coworker, ask non-combative questions, and quietly listen to him or her without offering objections. You have nothing to lose by listening, only to gain.
(3) Remember which Kingdom you belong to. As a Christ follower, your sole allegiance is to Christ as King and the coming Kingdom of God, not America. We are called to engage, influence, and seek the welfare of the country and communities we live in, but not establish them as replacements for the Kingdom of God that knows no boarders or is bound to earthly laws and authorities.
(4) Pray. At what might seem like a passive response is actually where our collective power is. When Jesus told his disciples to pray in faith, he declared they could move mountains and throw them into the sea (Mark 11:22-25). For complex issues that seem impossible to resolve, nothing is too difficult for our God, especially when we ask for his hand to intervene.
(5) Love as you are called (and sent). As a believer, one who has been born again with the Holy Spirit, you have been given gifts and abilities for the purpose of living out the command to love God and love others. In Romans 12:6-8, it says, “In his grace, God has given us different gifts for doing certain things well. So if God has given you the ability to prophesy, speak out with as much faith as God has given you. If your gift is serving others, serve them well. If you are a teacher, teach well. If your gift is to encourage others, be encouraging. If it is giving, give generously. If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously. And if you have a gift for showing kindness to others, do it gladly.”
Imagine that! What if every follower of Jesus stepped into their gifting and used it with unconditional love for their neighbors and the world? Truly, the Kingdom would come because the world would no longer see an irrelevant, passive religious people, but the very presence and manifestation of Jesus Christ, the hope of the world.