Sunday, January 25, 2009

It isn't what we say

This is Mr. Weber's address to JPII students on Monday, January 26, 2009.

I was asked to speak on behalf of Catholic education yesterday at St. Henry's in west Nashville, and on my way home I must have passed 6 or 7 large churches as their Sunday services were going on. If the full parking lots are any indication, there are a lot Nashvillians who regard their faith as important.

And that reminded me of an article I recently read which said that 53% of Americans consider religion to be "very important" in their lives. This compares with 16% in Britain, 14% in France and 13% in Germany. So there are a lot of Americans, too, who regard their faith as important.

But here's a troubling trend: Despite this professed importance, we're increasingly inclined to regard our faith as irrelevant in terms of what our social policies should be, or in the shaping of our political views. In this manner of thinking, faith is best practiced in private--in church, perhaps, or in one's home, with one's family--but not in the rough and tumble world of business or politics. For many Americans, "faith" is a "churchy" thing that shouldn't "impose" its views on others about abortion, welfare reform or whether or not it is appropriate to go to war.

But the Scriptures flatly disagree! From the Old Testament prophets, to Jesus, to the testimony of the early Christian Church, the message is unequivocal: if our faith is to be authentic, it must compel us to build just relationships with others.

Consider the prophet Amos, preaching to Northern Israel some 2700 years ago. At that time, Israel's faith appeared to be flourishing, if one measured faith on the basis of Church attendance, the fervor of worship in the temple and the number of sacrificial offerings made. But the words of the Lord through Amos are damning:

"I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings, I will not accept them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; To the melody of your harps I will not listen. But if you would serve me, then let justice surge like the waters, and righteousness like an unfailing stream." (Amos 5: 21-24)

Archeological evidence from Amos' day helps explain his vitriolic criticism: pauper's shacks have been found right next to lavish palaces, suggesting a deep economic divide in Israel, even despite the outward piety. Slavery and social injustice were rampant, and for Amos, claiming to be "religious" while practicing such injustice was the worst kind of hypocrisy. It is no coincidence that Martin Luther King Jr. often quoted this exact passage from Amos in an effort to challenge Christian believers, too many of whom had tacitly supported bigotry, to practice what they preached.

James, writing 700 years later in the New Testament, echoes the sentiments of Amos:

"If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them: "Go in peace, be warmed and filled" without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead" (James 2:15-17)

And of course, Jesus himself was clear on our social obligations in many places, perhaps most forcefully recounted in his vision of the last judgment:

"When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.

Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, `Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.'

Then the righteous will answer him, `Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?'

And the King will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.' (Matthew 25:31-44)

The consistent message of Scriptures is clear: one cannot claim to be Christian unless one understands that central to one's faith is the obligation to work for justice. Emphasizing "spirituality" or "religiosity" without a commitment to building a better world or supporting policies, institutions and practices that clothe the naked, feed the hungry or welcome the stranger is an empty, hollow faith at best, and hypocrisy at worst.

It isn't what we say that makes us Christian....

1 comment:

Mark Green said...

Mr. Weber,

I enjoyed your commentary.

For whatever reason, we have the hardest time distinguishing the supernatural amidst our natural observations and experiences. Yet occasionally we see "through a glass darkly" into the life of God's purpose, expressed in remarkable events both good and bad.

Usually the smallest events, and their timing, serve as the greatest reminders. Remember the moments. Just when all seemed lost, there God appeared to us through some kind word or gesture from another person who was merely obediently following Christ through his own actions. Then we realize, contrary to first impressions, that what we saw in that tiny moment was no accident. What we saw was God's magnificient and powerful love in action. We must never forget such moments. They are the answer to the Centurian's prayer, a prayer we too ask, for more faith.

Mark Green