Saturday, October 07, 2006

Rev. Eric Williams on the role of churches in public policy

Rev. Eric Williams' remarks to the forum on religion in the public square, which took place at First Friday this month at First Unitarian Universalist Church in Columbus.
If you go to the web site of the United Church of Christ, you'll find that they have a whole web site on issues of justice and advocacy. And that web site opens with this statement:

Throughout its history from early engagement in the movement to abolish slavery to modern campaigns for civil rights and social justice, the United Church of Christ in every setting of the church has been engaged in ministries of compassion, advocacy and reconciliation. While there is a deep respect in the UCC for the right of every individual member to form her or his own views on these issues, there has always been a recognizable passion across our church to "make things right" - as a testament to our faith in God, our hope for God's future, our love for God's creation. In this way we seek to apply the commandment of Jesus Christ to love our neighbors as ourselves.

We turn to Proverbs 31 and read, "Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute, defend the rights of the poor and the needy". Isaiah says in Chapter 58, "Is not this the fast that I choose, to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, to break every yoke? If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness, and your bloom be like the noonday."

In my study of scriptures, two central themes can be found concerning justice. The first is God's all-encompassing love, all-encompassing concern, God's mercy for all human beings, and the second is like it: our responsibility to love God's earth. Our responsibility to care for God's people. God placed Adam and Eve in the garden, God instructed them to care for it. In the story of Cain and Abel, God sent the clear message that we are *indeed* our brother's keeper, our sister's keeper.

In the tradition of the Exodus from Egypt, we learn from God's compassionate response to misery. To oppression. To slavery. God's law not only calls for individual piety, but it also calls for a communal responsibililty for the well being of all. God never asks us to love only those whom we're intimately familiar with, but instead, God calls us to that more difficult kind of love.

Over and over, the Law instructs Israelites to remember, who? The stranger. The foreigner, the orphan, the widow, the most vulnerable to hunger and poverty. It ties this instruction to that great Exodus event. Look at Deuteronomy: "When you gather your crops and fail to bring in some of the grain that you have cut, *do not* go back for it. It is left for the foreigners, the orphans, the widows. When you have gathered your grapes, do *not* go back over the vines a second time. The grapes that are left are for the foreigners, the orphans, the widows. Never forget, that *you were slaves* in Egypt, and that is why I have given you this command.

And there are other laws, and other prophets who speak out, insisting on justice for everyone. Amos is an example. Amos denounced those who trampled on the needy, who destroyed the poor in order to gain more wealth. He railed against those who lived in luxury while the poor were being *crushed*. The prophets main judgements were leveled against idolotry, and against social injustice.

This living God insists on personal morality, *and* on social justice. The Psalms invite us to celebrate God's justice. God always keeps promises. God judges in favor of the oppressed, and gives food to the hungry. Happy are those who are concerned for the poor--the Lord will help them when they are in trouble. And we find in the Wisdom literature, if you refuse to listen to the cry of the poor, your own cry will not be heard. Speak out for those who cannot speak--for the rights of all the destitute. Defend the rights of the poor and the needy. We find in scripture, concern for the poor, concern for the hungry, concern for vulnerable people is pervasive. It flows directly from the revelation of God to the rescue that God wrought, to those enslaved people.

As a Christian, what about Jesus? The justice ethic of Jesus is built on the Hebrew scripture, and yet we as Christians, our understanding of liberation emerges from that divine act of salvation in Christ. In life, in death, in resurrection, because the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world conquered sin and death, we're forgiven. We're reconciled to God, we're born anew, we're now imitators of God. We're called to act in ways--in sacrificial ways, in loving ways for others. The example of Jesus for Christians is our guide and our inspiration. Jesus had a special sense of mission to the poor, for the oppressed. In him and *for* them, the messianic promises were being fulfilled. "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me," Jesus quoted from Isaiah, "because he has annointed me to bring good news to the poor, he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of God's favor.

The scriptures clearly, in my thinking, depict Jesus over and over again reaching out to those at the bottom of the social pyramid. The poor, women, Samaritans, lepers, children, prostitutes, tax collectors. Jesus was also eager to accept people who were well-placed, but he made it clear that *all*, regardless of social position, needed to repent. And for this reason, he invited that rich young lawyer to sell all his possessions, and give the proceeds to the poor. Clearly, in the Old Testament, in the New Testament, in the Gospels, it is the intention of God that *all* people need to be welcome to the table. And it is the responsibility of you and me and all of us together, to care for those who are most vulnerable. Those who are most kept from the table. And this intention flows from the very heart of God. The God, the Living One who reaches out and loved all of us. To those who are rich, to those who are poor, to those who are in between.

It's been my experience that churches are already doing an awful lot to take care of needy people directly through charity work. One estimate says that religious congregations give over 7 billion dollars a year, give easily 1/7 of their total income to people in need, *but*, Christians devote much less effort to influencing what the government does. God requires both charity and justice. And justice can often be achieved only through government. The view that nations as well as individuals will be judged by the way that they treat their weakest, their most vulnerable among them, is embedded in the witness of the prophets of Isaiah, of Amos. "How terrible it will be for those who write unfair laws," writes Isaiah, "and those who write laws that make life hard for people. They are not fair to the poor. They rob my people of their rights. They allow people to steal from widows and to take from orphans what really belongs to them."

We know that Jesus often criticized, and sometimes even disobeyed the law, when those laws got in the way of helping people. He healed people on the Sabbath, even though all work was prohibited on the Sabbath. In Jesus' day, religion and government were intermixed, and so Jesus was challenging the law of the land. And this threat that Jesus posed to both government and to religion, I think led to his crucifixion.

Government is not the only or always the best instrument to deal with injustice, but, it is one of the institutions--institutions created by God. Created by God as part of God's way, God's will, God's providence, if you will, to the welfare of all people. And because we live in a democracy, in a nation with a government of the people, for the people, and by the people, I believe, from my perspective, that we have a special privilege, and a responsibility, to use the power of our citizenship and our faith, to promote justice for all.

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