The Church and Social Issues
In a recent survey about sermons, we asked what subjects you’d like for us to explore in upcoming sermons. The responses tended to cluster around three main themes. First were questions about the Christian faith (we explored some of those during the last several weeks). The second grouping had to do with questions about how to apply faith to living daily life we will deal with those in August and September). The third group that we will talk about in the next several weeks had to do with the church and social issues such as racism, LGBTQ+ rights, homelessness, and our divided society.
I enter this series with considerable trepidation. Although most of the survey responses requested, we to cover these topics, there was a handful expressing the sentiment, “Whatever you do, don’t talk about social issues.” I understand the reticence. Things are so heated in our climate. We are inundated with hyperventilating pundits and social media adept at triggering hostility and disdain for those who think differently than they do. Everything is viewed through the lens of partisan political divides–even how to get through a pandemic. The aim of this series is not to give you more of the same but to look at important issues through the lens of faith.
God’s Word to a Deeply Divided Society
The divisions are so deep, that it seems as if anything one says is going to infuriate somebody to the point of breaking relationships and it feels like the best option is to keep your mouth shut around anyone who might disagree with you.
We’ve all heard about people (and maybe it has happened with you) who have severed relationships, even with family members because of political differences. More than ever, there is a tendency to demonize or call ignorant or naive, or racist anyone who holds a differing opinion. Like you, I’m worried about how toxic things have become and the trajectory of where we are headed.
So why even stick a toe into these waters? Surely, the easier path would be to steer as far away as possible from anything that could be controversial and upset anyone. We are going in this direction for a few weeks because 1) you asked me to talk about these topics 2) I believe we can have healthy conversations about the resources our faith tradition brings to bear on the critical issues of our time and 3) We distort the biblical tradition when we act as if faith has nothing to contribute to conversations about the pressing issues of our time.
The Bible and Social Issues
Today we read from the prophet Amos 5 in a segment where he is calling for justice. He described an unfair system for what were essentially taxes. He talks of justice inside the gates. It’s how their legal system was set up and justice went to the highest bidder. He intervenes against systems that grossly exploited the poor.
We find this in scripture–a lot. Last summer we had a series on the prophets and we saw how nearly every biblical prophet offered scathing critiques against the government leaders and the elites because they created systems weighted against poor people and marginalized communities. The prophets reminded leaders of God’s mandate that they look out for the less fortunate, not create a system where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
According to Sojourners Magazine, the Bible talks about compassion and making things right for the poor and most vulnerable over 2,000 times. We can’t ignore that. Authentic faith cannot and must not hide its head in the sand and avoid the injustices that keep people in poverty and misery. The Bible talks about our need for charitable contributions to poor people and it offers critiques of unfair economic systems that led to disparities. A major biblical theme is challenging leaders to make systems fairer.
Jesus, in Matthew 25, Jesus indicates that God judges the nations into sheep and goats; the sheep nations are those that took care of the least and lost in their societies.
I love what Martin Luther King Jr. said, “A religion true to its nature must also be concerned about man’s social conditions….Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion.”
I don’t know about you, but I don’t have time for dry-as-dust religion and neither do the hurting people around us. We have a mandate to live out our spirituality in a way that engages the wrongs of society.
Church History and Social Issues
This is a mandate we need to exercise with care because, throughout history, a lot of good and bad things have come about when the church delved into social issues. On the bad side, it tries to legislate morality in individual lives. Churches justified slavery and violence toward non-believers. The church loses its way when it cozies up to the powerful and when it stays silent in the face of horrible abuses. It’s gone wrong when it has been a voice of intolerance, or belittling people, barring the door when it should have been opening its arms.
On the good side, the abolitionist movement, reforms in child labor laws, labor laws, and civil rights were birthed by the church. Many of the non-profit organizations that benefit so many people were inspired by and rooted in the Christian faith and the rise of the social gospel movement in the 20th century.
So, how will we approach these issues at Bay Shore Church? First, let me remind you of my philosophy of preaching that my voice is never intended to be the definitive, authoritative, or final word about a subject. Preaching should be the opening of a conversation. I’m often wrong and had many about-faces in my opinions about matters. So, these will be openings to conversations you can have with each other. The idea isn’t to view things through the political prism but to see where elements of our faith tradition can help you think about where you stand.
Second, the goal isn’t for you to think like me. I will point out some things from scripture that you might want to consider as you formulate your opinions around these subjects. There is a lot of misinformation about what scripture has to say about these topics and I’ll try to set passages in their original context so that you can discern how you think it applies to current situations.
Third, some may worry that talking about these issues is a violation of the separation of church and state. The church can lose its tax-exempt status for endorsing political candidates but can talk about whatever issues it wants. The boundary between the separation of church and state is about how the government doesn’t impose a religion on people, not bout the right of churches to be in conversation about issues.
Often we can find some common ground on the values that can shape our conversation on various topics and have widely differing views about how to best apply those values. For example, we can say that compassion for the impoverished is a core Christian value. We don’t get to stick our heads in the sand and refuse to get involved.
But what does compassion look like when it comes to people who build a dependency on your assistance? If you are enabling bad behavior, is it really compassion? We may have differing ideas about what compassion looks like but we cannot avoid the call to frame the conversation around compassion.
Throughout this series, we will aim to lift up some core biblical principles and you figure out how they best apply to various social issues. Compassion will be the core value that shapes the series.
A Model for a Divided Society
With all of the division today I think Bay Shore is well-positioned to model something our society needs desperately. If we long to heal the divisiveness of our nation, we can model how to do that through building relationships across party lines, treating one another with kindness, respect and love.
The central feature of our congregation is our Bond of Union that was started in the 1940s at a time when everything was being funneled toward conformity and uniformity, this church developed this wonderful statement that we read when people join and at every board meeting. It says We cherish for each person the fullest liberty in the interpretation of truth, and we gladly grant others the freedom we claim for ourselves.
No one here tells you what you have to think or believe to be part of our community. Whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.
So we have this great understanding we can build on to have civil discussions about hard things. We can embrace core values of kindness and compassion and treat others as we wish to be treated.
United in Love
Back on the American frontier in the 1800s before professional sports or a multitude of entertainment options, people flocked to theological debates. One of the predecessor denominations to the UCC used to get a couple of preachers who had deeply held convictions and complete opposite points of view on theological matters such as infant baptism. They’d present their cases in impassioned ways and argue like nobody’s business. When the debate was over, they’d lock arms as brothers and sisters in Christ and go to the communion table together. We come from this great model where we don’t have to shy away from hard conversations, where we learn from others and at the end of the day we realize none of us has all the answers and we have something deeper in common than any division.
The Christian Church movement had an axiom that said, “In essentials, unity. It matters of opinion, diversity, but in all things charity and love.” I think this can be our aim as we enter into this series. May we be compassionate toward one another, may we extend it to others, and may we model for the world a better way than the toxic situation in which we find ourselves.
May justice roll like the waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream. Amen.