Jesus made it clear that the commandments to love were the standards by which values and actions must be judged. They are not commandments that sound good in theory but short on practical application. They are commandments from God, not sentimental bumper stickers or wall hangings. To paraphrase the letter of James, don’t tell me you’ve been washed in the blood of Christ, show me by your words and deeds that you are at least trying to follow in Jesus’ way of love.
That brings up the third subject in this brief series of columns about values and actions. Has God said anything definitive about social and economic politics? The answer is a loud yes and found most clearly stated in the ethical prophets writing about 800 years before Christ. My favorite is Amos, whom I’ve drawn on for several columns over the years. Amos was a farmer called by God to go to the king of Israel and explain why devastation was on its way if he and his people didn’t change their ways. While he was at it God, speaking through Amos, had a few things to say to each of the nations surrounding Israel. It added up to a condemnation of social and economic injustices that had tested God’s patience. They are the same problems nations, including our own, face today. To be clear, God never expresses an opinion about the form of government a nation should have, but sets firm standards for how it governs and the kind of societies it creates.
What were the things that raised God’s ire? Putting God’s words as recorded by Amos into contemporary English, they include these:
Destroyihg an enemy’s food supply
Inciting civil violence
Disrespecting legitimate civil authority
Manipulating the poor into bondage
Cheating the poor out of the necessities of life
Preferential justice for the rich and powerful
Showing contempt for the poor
Elaborate but meaningless worship practices
Presumption of God’s favor for one’s self while oppressing others
Excessive income inequality
Lack of compassion for the suffering of others
There are more, but these are the highlights. They speak not only to personal behavior, but even more to the public policies established and enforced by the government. The nexus of religion and politics is not a private matter. It’s a very public matter. Those who claim to follow in the way of love cannot avoid making their voices heard, as Amos did, when governments and public behavior fall dreadfully short of God’s standards that put the greatest emphasis on issues of justice and equity.
What justice and equity mean has changed dramatically, not only in the light of Jesus’ commandments to love, but also in our ability to understanding what God is saying now in the conditions of the world we live in. The fundamental questions Christians are obligated to ask in the political arena are how best to make the society more just and equitable for all people. Answers may be hotly debated, but they can never be in the form of clever ways to self righteously suppress and oppress.
Christians cannot expect centers of power and the general population to hear, understand, and respond. Nevertheless, like Amos, they must declare in voice and deed what God has commanded. It’s a slow march toward greater justice, but it cannot falter.