An Invitation to the Church to Choose Justice and Peace Over Polarization
Justice stands half-naked in the upper floor of a church in Copenhagen, Denmark. Peace poses beside her, in an equal state of disarray. Two statues tucked away into relative obscurity — nearly forgotten stones in a church, but they deliver a relevant message for us today. They state the tragically obvious; that justice and peace are missing from both our public dialogues and often from our sanctuaries. The first set of US Presidential debates revealed the lows that we have reached. Embattled in the destructive wars of words and ideologies, we are mobilized with a fear that leaves us deaf to one another. Can we hear? Will we hear? Because I have a stinking suspicion that hearing is an act of will. Jesus of Nazareth seemed to think so.
He who has ears, let him hear …Jesus
Settled into a semi-circle of amazing 17-year-old European students of English, I ask an open-ended question. Thinking about the world right now, what are you most hopeful for or most concerned about? The first answer comes, Racism and homophobia. I watch 13 good Catholic heads nod in agreement. And what is the crux of their concern for the future? How the Church (global, not only Catholic, or only Protestant, or only Orthodox) is responding in ways that are unloving, unwelcoming, and lacking in hospitality to those who are different than us.
Church , at this moment in history, it’s more likely that our neighbors and our children see us as a weaponized body rather than a sanctuary for justice and peace. We are polarized, and encouraged to become even more so by politicians, the media, and the power-structures who boil words down into sound-bites for our consumption — sound-bites that weaponize us.
Recently, a friend wrote to accuse me of ‘a long line of leftist, feminist and divisive posts cloaked in religion and compassion’. This is a long-time friend — not an acquaintance, not a random person on my media feed. While I believe that this friend genuinely loves me, somehow, maybe just for a moment, I ceased to be the face of a friend and I became the enemy. We shoot at enemies, and I think this is especially true in our American culture. If I threaten your theological and/or cultural house, there is justification in taking aim, because you perceive that I have threatened the safety of our nation, of your home, of your family, of your religion. Our Christian conscience can’t justify tearing down a friend, but a ‘leftist, feminist, liberal’ is fair game. Christians can’t turn their backs on a teenage boy shivering behind a border fence, or scream baby-killer at a woman clutching her empty womb, unless the boy is an Islamic invader and the woman is gaming the welfare system or morally ‘loose’ sexually. With those things in place, we may become protectors of all that we perceive as ‘Christian’, but we may not act Christianly.
If I tell you the absolutely true story of a young Afghan man of 18 who stood with me for 2 hours in the Serbian cold talking of home and family, and as we parted, he said, ‘Thank you for talking with me. You remind me of my mom. And, I miss my mom,’— can you now see him as a person? Suddenly, it is more difficult to unfairly speak of him, categorize him, and cast him as an ‘invading, military-aged young man’ who rapes vulnerable young western women and does it all in the name of his religion. Suddenly, he is a teenage boy, just like the one that sleeps in your home, the one whose chubby cheeks you stroked as he nursed in the night.
When our words portray that Afghani boy as the enemy, he ceases to be a person of value — even though Jesus inconveniently said, love your enemies. It would have been so much simpler if Jesus would have just shut up about these things. ‘Jesus, shut up about welcoming Muslims, loving gay people, about seeing my complicity in broken systems.’
Certainly, we good Christians would never voice it that way. We give lip service to love and God’s commandment to love, but how willing are we to see and value the image of God behind the mouth marching for #BlackLivesMatter? She is a Marxist. He is lazy. They are anti-family, anti-Christian, anti-God. Or just plain misguided. Jesus said, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, but he didn’t mean all those people hashtagging, or marching down the streets of our cities behind rainbow flags. Did he?
Could it be true that God expects the people of God to drag those relics of justice and peace into the middle of our sanctuaries in spite of how uncomfortable and vulnerable they make us feel? Because having those real and honest conversations — making the choice to hear the human heartbeat behind the assumed or even the real agenda … that stuff frightens us. I’m happy to talk about how to save your soul, but don’t threaten my theological house or my cultural worldview. Don’t pull me into real life conversations where things get complicated and messy with human needs. This must have been where Jesus got it wrong. “He eats with tax collectors and prostitutes,” they said.
Perhaps this is why there is a lot of conversation in our churches and around our dinner tables about our rights. Our rights are clear and well-defined. We have a right to choose to wear masks, worship where we want, speak as we want. We have a right to safety. When things become uncomfortable or situations demand too much, our rights validate our fear of people who look, who speak, and who see the world differently than we do. We have a right to be heard — again I point to the recent Presidential debates as an example. But, what about our responsibility?
What about our responsibility to listen? What about our responsibility to hear one another? What about our responsibility to love? Could I remind us that the Eucharist is a table where our Daily Bread is broken and served to weary wanderers — Christ forfeited his rights as the ultimate act of self-giving, messy, vulnerable love. That bread and wine you partake of is the very definition of welcome to the Other.
There’s not a preacher in a pulpit that wouldn’t postulate that it is God’s living presence within us that brings us, (restores us), into right relationship with one another. What should that right relationship look like? What should it sound like? Because I don’t think we look or sound like the body of Christ right now.
If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.Mother Theresa
We war over abortion to protect an unborn body, yet we are willing to tear the soul in half over whether life is more precious before or after birth. Does the image of God in that beating heart have more value on one side of the uterus than the other?If we will march to protect the sanctity of life within the womb, should we not also march to protect that life beyond the womb? What about the bearer of that womb?
We belong to a God whose journey to us is actually an offer of justice. In Hebrew, there is just ONE word that embraces the full meaning of justice and judgement. MISHPAT — to set things straight; to be put into right relationship. As Christians, we hang all of our hopes for today and for our own eternal destination upon this Hebrew understanding of the justice of God. We hope for this — the undeserved and the unearned gift of God, for if justice and judgement have two faces, we are eternally damned. The entirety of our Christian confession is that we are unworthy of the justice that God extends to each and every one of us. We are judged sinful, we cannot earn our way to heaven. In the absence of a God who pursues MISHPAT for creation, humanity’s story ends here.
But, if I choose to receive justice for myself, I cannot choose to withhold that justice for those who are different, who are Other than me. I cannot choose to withhold that justice from those that I judge unworthy. For many Christians, the culture war over immigration, abortion, and sexuality have become the battle ground of ethics. We cannot see the living, breathing people who inhabit the space of a different opinion because we have framed them as enemies, invaders, baby-killers, deviants, Marxists. We have erased the human face. People become the thing we hate or the thing we crusade against. We cannot, we do not, we refuse to see them as one who carries the image of God, just like us.
He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To MISHPAT and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.the prophet Micah
In other words, if you find yourself demanding that a woman remove her hijab (and religion) before she enters the gates of your country … If you find yourself requiring an individual from the LGBTQ+ community to repent before they cross into your sancutary … If you find that you cannot see the person behind the hashtag Black Lives Matter … If you find that you cannot hear beyond the heartbeat of the baby to the heart of the woman who bears that baby (and vice a versa)…
Somehow, we have allowed our words, our wombs, our sexuality, our borders to be weaponized. Would we be ready to lay down our weapons and wade into the messy, honest, dignity-giving, Christ-reflecting, conversations about our sexuality and our wars and our wombs? Could we believe together that the transformative work of Christ means to birth peace among us as we come to the table together? Might God reveal new ways of understanding justice within us as we dialogue? Is this what faith could sound like: ‘God, we don’t know how to separate conversations about abortion, and women’s rights. We don’t know what to do with sexuality and gender spectrums. We’re struggling with our own feelings of fear and prejudice. We are afraid — afraid of the conversations, and the slide, and getting this wrong. Please forgive us for waging war against one another. Here we are, gathered together at the Table, choosing to hear you first and then one another, in an act of obedience to you. Open our ears. Clean us. Lead us. Use us. ’
Those stone statues with their vulnerably bared chests are a powerful metaphor for the call of God upon the Church. Placed here in the midst of a humanity that is aching for home, we are to be the living, breathing, beating heart of the embodied Sanctuary — the very place where the justice of God and the shalom of God welcome the Other to the Table.
He who has ears, let him hear.Jesus of Nazareth