Q & R: 6 Questions about Faith in Public Life

Here are the Q’s with R’s inserted:

(1) How do you distinguish between those moral issues that ought to be confronted in the Church alone, and those moral issues that ought to be confronted by the Church in the culture at large?

— I believe the call to morality is an upward call. The Spirit of God meets us where we are and calls us to take the next step. So God calls us to cease from human sacrifice before leading us beyond animal sacrifice. God confronts us with the immorality of slavery, and then the immorality of segregation and apartheid, and then the immorality of discrimination and prejudice, and so on. So I would wish that our churches would always be in the forefront, grappling with the next-step moral issues that the culture at large is not ready to confront. Sadly, in recent centuries at least, it seems that the Holy Spirit often finds more of a receptive audience outside than inside our religious structures – but I suppose that is a reflection of how things were for Jesus: Galilee was more receptive than Jerusalem.
I think three moral issues will be critical for the century ahead. First, care for the planet means confronting the immorality of greed. Second, care for the poor means confronting the concentration of wealth and opportunity in the hands of a few, and requires the promotion of wiser and more compassionate economic policies for the ninety-nine percent, which the Bible calls “the multitudes.” And third,constructive work for peace will mean transferring our sense of security from “horses and chariots” – or in our day, guns and bombs – to active peacemaking, in the words of Jesus as he wept over Jerusalem, “what makes for peace.” Although many churches remain oblivious to these issues, and in some cases, line up on the wrong side of them, more and more Christians are being drawn to them as central to the biblical vision.

(2) Jesus choose not to answer some questions relating to moral behavior. How do we know when to remain silent?

— Sometimes I don’t think we “know,” in the sense of having so much certainty that we don’t even have to think or pray or talk about it. I think we need to do the same thing Jesus did … which is to grow in wisdom, and to seek God’s guidance in prayer, and to stay deeply open to the Spirit. I think we can learn a lot from studying history, and we can learn a lot by listening … especially listening to people we normally don’t listen to. When Jesus told us, for example, to love our enemies and to love the “least of these,” I think he meant for starters that we should listen to them, to see them as human beings. Often, it is only through listening to “the other” that we discover our own immorality.

(3) How do we distinguish the Spirit’s prompting us to speak over against our own sense of moral outrage?

First, I think we need to clarify what we mean by moral outrage. I think there is a kind of pure moral outrage that is part of any good heart. A mother, for example, feels it when a bully picks on her child – and she feels it maybe even more strongly when her kid bullies another child. But there’s another kind of moral outrage that is tinged with superiority, a desire for revenge, and other dark things.
I think Dr. King learned something about this that we all need to learn. Echoing Jesus’ words about living and dying by the sword, and also Jesus’ words about taking the splinter out of our own eyes, he said we can’t defeat violence with violence, hate with hate, dishonesty with dishonesty. I find that if I feel moral outrage, I need to then turn it into moral self-scrutiny and work on the issues that arise in me first. Then, when I turn toward the issue, I will be operating from more of a place of humility that makes me more guidable by the Spirit.

(4) Jesus was labeled as one who “has a demon” and a “drunkard,” but never “hateful”, “self-righteous,” or “ignorant”? Are such terms a red flag that one has misstepped or are they signs one is on the right track (being “persecuted for the sake of righteousness”)?

That’s a fascinating observation, one I hadn’t noticed before. As a follower of Jesus, I would rather be criticized for being a friend of sinners, as Jesus was, then a persecutor and accuser of sinners, as Jesus never was.

(5) It seems many Christians do not have relationships with those they call out in the public square. Should we seek to influence those we refuse to associate with?

Ironically, if we refuse to have a relationship with our opponents, we almost guarantee we will not influence them. We might coerce them. We might undermine them. We might defeat them. But we won’t influence them. And since Jesus teaches us to love our opponents and do for them what we would want done for us, and since I would think we would much rather be influenced than be undermined, defeated, or coerced, it makes sense that trying to build relationships would be a good start.
I know from experience that this is hard work, and often meets with rejection, even insult. But even the act of seeking civil interaction – which usually must be pursued in private so as to avoid grandstanding, and so on – we are changed, softened, and humbled, which changes the spirit in which we seek change.

(6) What virtues are most important when choosing what we say about moral issues in the public square?

— For me, we couldn’t do much better than to saturate ourselves in the Sermon on the Mount. The beatitudes, for example, set our moral compass to a different north than the typical gamesmanship of political discourse. Jesus’ warnings against insult, judging, and even anger are game-changing. And underneath it all is the reminder that we are bound to our neighbor and enemy, so we must love them as ourselves, seeking not the binary of defeat/victory – but reconciliation and the common good.
Something else we learn from Jesus in general is something I’m not very good at: being pithy and brief and unforgettable. What is true of prayer is true of public discourse: we will not be heard for our “much speaking.”

I met you briefly 4 years ago, but would like to repeat that the work you have done has been very important to me personally. Many thanks for your faithfulness and courage!

That’s encouraging to know. Thanks for your insightful questions.