6 “With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
8 He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:6-8)
34 But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:34-40)
I know many people may find this hard to believe, but I seem to have the ability to really tick people off with some of the things that I say. I have the uncanny ability to step on toes during sermons or during panel discussions, or even just over dinner.
In seminary, I just knew that one night I would be jumped in the parking lot by a band of angry divinity students after I had the temerity to ask them this question during one of my classes. You see, my degree was in theology, not divinity so technically at that time I was on track to be an academician – not a preacher. They were on track to become Methodist pastors.
So, I asked them: “When you get out of seminary and you’re pastoring a church, will you preach about the things you’ve learned here? Will you preach about justice, about social change, about how the church can be involved in the world? Will you make your congregation members think and act? Or, will you give them candy coated sermons meant to keep butts in seats and you in a career?”
There was an audible gasp in the room. Obviously, I had touched a nerve, but I believe it’s a fair question. Too many preachers are giving their congregations pabulum – bland sermons filled with nothing more than congratulatory nuggets meant to make their members feel good about themselves and the religious choices they’ve made. It’s like walking into a religious bookstore and finding only books that affirm that you’ve made the right choice being a Baptist or a Methodist or a Presbyterian or what have you. There’s nothing there to challenge you – to make you think, to make you want to walk out the door and turn your faith into action in the world.
I swore that if I ever got a chance to be a preacher, I would not be that kind of preacher. I would be the kind of preacher who challenges listeners to grow in their faith, to explore the depths of their beliefs, and most importantly, to ask questions of their spiritual leaders. Now that I’m here – I’m finding the task a little daunting. I want to challenge you, but I don’t want my sermons to become screeds – unbearable to hear because all I do is talk about what’s wrong and never about how to fix it. I always want to be fair and balanced (a phrase that needs redeeming if there ever was one!). I’m still searching to find the right way to talk about two things we’re warned never to talk about together – religion and politics. My job description here spells out my ministry focus as social justice because that is my passion.
But, I often feel like Henry David Thoreau who was once warned that he should not speak of religion and politics in his lectures. Thoreau replied sadly, “I can’t speak of anything else.” And this is my dilemma as well. If I cannot speak of politics and religion in the same breath, then I cannot speak – I have nothing else to say.
Do not get me wrong. When I talk about politics, I’m not talking about partisan politics. I don’t think it’s any big secret that I’m no fan of the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I disagree with his policies. I believe they leave behind the poor and disenfranchised in favor of lining the pockets of his rich friends.
I believe we are in an illegal war that did not have to be fought and that diplomacy and non-violent strategies would have brought down the dictator with no bloodshed. I believe our country has squandered the good will of the world that we had after the attacks of September 11 because we have arrogantly gone it alone. I think we have worsened the terror threat in our world because of our actions. But, I would say the same thing if the resident of the White House was a Democrat and these were also his policies.
It was German theologian Karl Barth who advised preachers to have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Barth wrote during the rise and reign of Hitler when many German churches stood with the Nazis and turned a blind eye to the Holocaust. Barth and others were highly critical of the German church and I think they would be highly critical of many churches today who believe the church’s politics should favor one party over the other.
But, the role of the church, and therefore its leaders, is not partisan politics. The role of the church is to be prophetic – to speak truth to power, to hold the government’s feet to the fire when they are neglecting any segment of society. What does God expect of us? The prophet Micah makes it plain – to love mercy, to do justice and walk humbly with God. We, as the church, are called to speak out against oppression wherever we see it – whether a Democrat or a Republican perpetuates it. The church is not called to be among the power brokers. The church should never seek the seat of power, but should always be outside the centers of power, providing a prophetic voice, calling the powerful to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.
This is our task as the church. This is our task as people of faith – to realize that our faith is always political and to not be afraid of mixing the two. Let us then meld our faith and our politics into what Sojourners editor Jim Wallis calls in his new book God’s Politics.
“God’s politics is never partisan or ideological. But it challenges everything about our politics. God’s politics reminds us of the people our politics always neglects – the poor, the vulnerable, the left behind. God’s politics challenges narrow national, ethnic, economic, or cultural self-interest, reminding us of a much wider world and the creative human diversity of all those made in the image of the creator. God’s politics reminds us of the creation itself, a rich environment in which we are to be good stewards, not mere users, consumers, and exploiters. And God’s politics pleads with us to resolve the inevitable conflicts among us, as much as is possible, without the terrible cost and consequences of war. God’s politics always reminds us of the ancient prophetic prescription to ‘choose life, so that you and your children may live,’ and challenges all the selective moralities that would choose one set of lives and issues over another.”
Certainly no one understood this more than Jesus. In Matthew, he spells out quite clearly what those who heard him understood as an incredibly powerful and radical political message. A Pharisee tried to trap Jesus by asking him what the greatest commandment was. Now, remember, the law in this time was the politics of the day – religion and politics could not be separated, they were one in the same, so Jesus’ answer would have great political implications.
Jesus tells the Pharisee that all the laws and prophets hang on two commandments, love God with all your heart, soul and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. We’ve heard this passage so often that we are numb to its radical message. In our world of continuing war, poverty and greed, we tend to scoff at people who talk endlessly of peace, love and understanding. We laugh at them because the idea of peace, love and understanding seems like a pipe dream in our world.
We no longer hear these words of Jesus as a call to transform the world in a very fundamental way – by embracing the idea that we can bring about peace, love and understanding by following these words. But, make no mistake, the Pharisees heard him loud and clear and it was this message that ultimately got him hung on a cross because he was a threat to their power. The Pharisees of our day hear him just as clearly, which is why they would like us to remain numb to this message.
Let’s reexamine this passage and try to understand just how radical this teaching is. Think about what you really want for yourself – a good job, financial security, a good, loving relationship, full equality. Now, imagine someone you don’t like very much. When you have that person in mind, imagine wanting for this person all those things that you want for yourself. Imagine doing all you can to make sure that this person has a good job, financial security, a good, loving relationship and full equality. Want that for this person just as much as you want it for yourself. It’s tough, isn’t it?
But, if we truly love our neighbor as ourselves we must want for them everything we want for ourselves with equal passion. Only then do we transform the world. Think about it, if we embrace, in our hearts and minds that we must love our neighbor just as we love ourselves, what becomes of greed when you love your neighbor as yourself? What becomes of superiority when you love your neighbor as yourself? What becomes of power over when you love your neighbor as yourself? What becomes of oppression when you love your neighbor as yourself? What becomes of war if you love your neighbor as yourself?
The political implications of this message are enormous. If the hearts and minds of the people are changed and they demand that people love their neighbor as they love themselves and they begin to design society in that manner, then naturally their government will change.
Those who are using government to enrich themselves and have power over people they consider lower then themselves will find themselves out of luck if suddenly the people who have learned to love their neighbor as themselves demand the same from their government. Or worse, in the mind of the Pharisee, what if Jesus’ message takes hold in the hearts and minds of those in power and they begin to change the government from within – to a power structure based on loving everyone else just as much as you love yourself?
Do you see how radical this idea is? This is a revolution of ideas and values – a revolution that causes people to change their government! Those in Jesus’ day and those in our day understand this and they fear it! They don’t want Jesus’ ethic to take hold because they can no longer oppress others, or give in to their own greed because the people will insist that the government love the neighbor as they love themselves. That means striving for peace. That means being a peaceful people. That means spreading an ethic of equality and justice for all people. That has huge political implications!
Imagine what the German church would have done if it truly embraced the ethic of loving your neighbor as you love yourself. If the German church had recognized the Jew as neighbor it never would have supported the Third Reich. But, instead it became a cheerleader for the government and complicit in the Holocaust because it was blind to this radical teaching. So we must teach in all places and in all times that we must love each other as much as we love ourselves because that is truly the only ethic that can become revolutionary – that can change hearts and minds and can change world governments.
Those divinity students never did jump me in the parking lot like I expected after I asked my impertinent question. However, at the risk of having the congregation jump me in the parking lot later – I’d like to modify the question just a little bit and ask you all a couple of questions.
Will you insist that your church be a body of faith that speaks prophetic truth to the world around us? Will you insist that your church be on the forefront of social justice issues like poverty, war, homelessness, unfair tax structures and corporate greed as well as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights? Will you support your church as it goes forth into the world speaking in a prophetic voice to the powerful no matter which party they belong to?
Will you insist that your church prepare you as an individual to speak prophetically to those in power? Will you insist that your spiritual leaders give you opportunities to learn about these issues and learn about how you too can develop your prophetic voice so that you too can speak truth to power – not in a partisan way but in a way that calls all sides of the political spectrum into line with God’s clear instruction that we do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God?
I bring you this challenge, my brothers and sisters – that you embrace the role of the church as prophet, and the role of the church leaders as well as church members to take on that prophetic role individually and work for justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. Dwell on what it means to really love your neighbor as yourself. During this coming week, every time you think of something you want – think about wanting that for someone you don’t like very much. Let it sink in just what a deep, radical, political message Jesus outlines for us. Because until we embrace Jesus’ instructions for how to change our world, then the idea of peace, love and understanding will remain a quaint, dare I say, queer, idea that we’ll never be able to realize.
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.