Over the last few decades, within the institutional Church (and my Church, The Episcopal Church), the way we as the Church have made decisions about our beliefs, our advocacy, and our governance has become increasing influenced by the prevailing sociopolitical cultural patterns. The result has been an increasing dependence on arguments resting squarely within a secular, psycho-therapeutic, and civil-rights based ethos, rather than by the means given to us in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I know this is really nothing new, but the extent to which this now occurs within both the conservative and liberal Church structures has overwhelmed even our conceptions of what the Gospel compels us to do.
By being so overwhelmed with secular, sociopolitical ideologies, we have lost our ability to present to the world a different way being together, of resolving conflict, and of making decisions for the common good. We within the Church alienate and marginalize like the best of them, even as we declare, at least on the surface, that we are all about inclusion and welcome and the common good. Do people seeking a different way find anything worth considering in the Church, today?
When I hear that the Church should do this or that or be engaged in one thing or another, too often the reasons given sound more like justifications devised by social-justice organizations, overly sensitive psychotherapists, or political action committees rather than from a body of people who place at their center the commands of Jesus. The central characteristic of all decision-making within the Church should rest squarely, and in most cases exclusively, on the two great commands of Jesus: 1). Love God with all of your being; and 2). Love your neighbor as yourself. Both 1 & 2 must be emphasized, because #2 is not possible in and of our human selves without #1. For a long while now, and I can only guess due to an overactive need for affirmation by the secular culture, we have moved increasingly along a trajectory that tries to relativize or relegate #1. This doesn’t work, and over time experience has proven that it does not.
For example, it seems that in our fighting against injustice, the way we conduct ourselves is justified by Latin American infused Liberation Theology, which is based more on Marxist ideology than on Jesus’ command to love our neighbor (at least as it is worked out on the ground). Loving one’s neighbor requires us to put our lives on the line for the person subjected to the injustice, but the reason is not for political liberation within a geopolitical state. On the other side, when we suggest that something like free-market Capitalism should be championed by Christians, because of the belief that the State should stay out of the affairs of individual citizens (in this case, expressed in the economic enterprise), we more often than not base the arguments on such things as personal greed, materialism, or consumerism rather than a desire for the betterment of both the common and the individual good – as well as for the benefit of our competitors.
When we argue for emigrant reform, when we argue for full inclusion of gay people, when we argue for strengthening and sustaining the family, when we champion sustainable agriculture, when we advocate for low-wage earners, as we champion individual freedom and individual responsibility, as we campaign against hatred, prejudice, and bigotry, when we call for reform of any kind, as Christians the only foundation upon which all these arguments or positions should be based is upon those two great commandments. Social-action groups make their arguments based on individual “civil-rights” language and concepts. Arguments based on individual civil-rights are not the arguments of the Church. They automatically lead to alienation and tend to not change the hearts and minds of opponents. The Church works to change hearts and minds, not to enact or enforce a myopic and often trendy political-correctness. Loving one’s neighbor as one loves him or her self is upon what we base our positions, our arguments, and our advocacy.
In the Church, if I use civil-rights based arguments that a woman or a gay person has the “right” to be a deacon, priest or bishop, I have already lost the case with regard to the Gospel. I have already alienated and marginalized groups of people with whom I disagree. No one has the “right” to be a bishop, priest, or deacon – not matter what gender, ethnicity, sexual-orientation, race, etc. “Rights” based language does not change hearts and minds and does not preserve unity. There are losers and winners – or rather, there are just another and different a set of losers and winners.
I am not suggesting a mushy sentimentality when I speak of loving one’s neighbor. It is very, very difficult to love an opponent, even more so an enemy. No matter what decisions or statements we make, some people will be put-off or offended. We cannot always help how others will respond, but we can help how we act, respond, and react. To abide within the two great commands of Jesus necessitates humility, a willingness to understand the other side of issues and arguments, and the willingness to compromise when needed for the benefit of all, and even for the other. We can be strong and vigorous in our advocacy, championing of things, and in our arguments – no need to be a welcome mat – yet our concern is always for the betterment of not only the ones or the issues we support, but for our opponents as well. We, those who call upon the name of Christ, should consider the wellbeing of the other before we consider ourselves.
If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care– then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.
Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death–and the worst kind of death at that–a crucifixion.
Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth–even those long ago dead and buried–will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of God the Father.
What I’m getting at, friends, is that you should simply keep on doing what you’ve done from the beginning. When I was living among you, you lived in responsive obedience. Now that I’m separated from you, keep it up. Better yet, redouble your efforts. Be energetic in your life of salvation, reverent and sensitive before God. That energy is God’s energy, an energy deep within you, God himself willing and working at what will give him the most pleasure.
Do everything readily and cheerfully–no bickering, no second-guessing allowed! Go out into the world uncorrupted, a breath of fresh air in this squalid and polluted society. Provide people with a glimpse of good living and of the living God. Carry the light-giving Message into the night so I’ll have good cause to be proud of you on the day that Christ returns. You’ll be living proof th
at I didn’t go to all this work for nothing.