“And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation: “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”Revelation 3:14-22, NRSV
Several years ago, as the political scene unfolded, people began questioning the direction this country was heading. In particular, some people were concerned about the racial rhetoric spouted off by candidates who were holding the line with the sitting administration. In their minds, we were seeing a repeat of history, and were concerned that the United States would fall into fascism and relish in racism. At the time, there was no small amount of ink (digital or otherwise) spilled in the warning messages about the future destruction of our country.
At the time, I had just read one of these articles about the United States’ quick devolution into fascism and I had this momentary thought about the horrors of racism and fascism:
“I am a white male, and I fit into none of the categories that anyone would persecute if this country came to what this article describes.”
And I sat with that for a moment.
I could literally do nothing different, I could make no changes in my life, I could continue on as if nothing mattered – and I would still be okay in the coming apocalypse that people feared.
I could be morally outraged, I could be indignant at how some people were treated, I could be righteously angry about the injustices some people faced, yet do nothing.
And I would be perfectly safe, free from persecution or ridicule, free from harm.
But friends and family would not.
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.Edmund Burke
I could do nothing, or I could do something.
Then came the inevitable question: “What exactly could I do?”
Because I have some friends who are willing to call me out on my own biases, or point out elements of my privilege as a white male that I had always taken for granted, I had already become aware that some people face unconscious biases that I will never need to face. And so the revelation of myself sitting safe and pretty in an otherworldly apocalypse had less to do with what I felt I needed to learn, and much, much more to do with the fact that I had just been slapped in the face with the realization of my own inaction.
I had not been speaking up as much as I could have. I had not been pointing out oppression wherever and whenever I saw it. I had not been drawing people’s attention toward the persecution of others. Mostly because it’s just too easy for us to forget about things that don’t affect us directly.
I have been involved in ministry most of my adult life, and have been preaching for at least the last twenty years, in some capacity or other – sometimes regularly, sometimes only when requested, at other times, not for several years. One of the pastors that I worked with loved to take the quote from the fictional character Mr. Dooley about the newspapers/media and make it applicable to those of us who work in ministry: “The job of the pastor is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” It is the job of the pastor and preacher to call out those injustices that other people face, and to draw people’s attention to the hurt of others; it is the job of the preacher to make us aware of our inaction, especially when action is needed. It is the job of the pastor to love those unloved by society, and to spur others to do the same.
Since that day a few years ago, I have attempted to be more pointed and direct in my preaching and conversations about injustice and oppression, because remaining silent is the epitome of inaction. And so, I have made it a point not to shy away from the uncomfortable conversations or topics.
Sometimes, it is easy to draw people’s attention to the injustices in the world, because others are out there protesting those injustices. Sometimes we can draw images and examples from history. Sometimes the scripture allows us to draw out an abstract concept of injustice, and preach in generalities.
What is surprising to me is that any time that I have preached on injustice and oppression – even when only speaking in generalities or from a historical context – there has always been at least one person who has taken offense at the sermon because it reminds them of a concrete example in their own lives, and they feel that the sermon has singled them out. Most of these complaints are easily resolved with a discussion about the offending words or phrases, or a conversation about the theology behind the words. In most cases, the complaints have led to a rich discussion and a deeper understanding of the Gospel message for all of us involved.
I say most cases, because there is one type of conversation that never seems to be resolved, no matter how many times I’ve had the discussion. Some people will tell you that they are upset with your sermon, tell you why, and then finish off with, “Pastor, here’s what you need to preach on,” and rattle off a list of topics that are sure not to offend anyone. And as is to be expected, the sermon topics always include “Love.”
But this assumes that demanding that Christians stand up against injustice is somehow not related to Love.
People love to hear sermons about how God loves them. People love to hear sermons about how those who love God are blessed. People love to hear about how God’s love covers over their multitude of sins. People love hearing sermons about love as long as that love relates to them. But people hate to hear sermons that demand that they follow through on loving their neighbor, because others can just be so difficult to love sometimes.
I say “people” like I’m referring to others, but I fall right into that category. It is human nature to relish in the good that we do and can have, and to avoid seeing ourselves in a negative light. I hate it when others call me out and tell me where I have failed to live up to my own ideals, or have called me out for something I have said or done that is insensitive. I hate it when people let me know that even my failure to understand and empathize with their experience is something they consider oppressive. I hate being told that I am not loving.
And yet, I need to hear these things. I need to be confronted with things that are difficult to hear, and I need to be reminded when I am doing things that are harmful to others, or failing to do those things that are beneficial.
But in the politically charged atmosphere of today, it seems that saying anything that makes people uncomfortable and goes against their notions of what they want to hear is considered political, and as we all know, we are to steer clear of politics when preaching or teaching.
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.2 Timothy 4:1-5, NRSV
Yet just because something makes people uncomfortable does not mean that it is political. Political means to support a particular candidate or party, but it does not mean supporting what should be basic human rights, and basic human decency. It is not being political when we remind ourselves and others that we need to stand on the side of justice, on the side of equality, and on the side of love.
When a lawyer asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus asked him what the law said, and the man answered “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Then Jesus told him, “Do this, and you will live.” But, it says, the man, wishing to justify himself, tried to find out who his neighbor was. And Jesus responded with the story of the Good Samaritan. Most people know the story, and what the Samaritan did for a Jewish traveler. The Jews hated the Samaritans the most, and asking this lawyer to love someone so completely unlovable would most certainly have the affect of making this lawyer uncomfortable. It would be the same as if we asked Jesus who our neighbor is, and who we should show God’s love to, and Jesus responded by telling us that we are to love our neighbor, the foreign terrorist. I guarantee that we would be shocked and dismayed, and no small bit uncomfortable.
But that is the depth at which we are to love.
It may not be that aspect of love that tells us we are wonderful, beautiful children of God. It may not be that aspect of love that tells us that we are completely forgiven and full of grace. It may not even be the aspect of love that reminds us of all our blessings.
But that is the depth at which we are to love, uncomfortable as it may be.
It is at this intersection of our own discomfort, and our call to love our neighbor that we may find ourselves indulging in inaction. It is easy to forget who our neighbor is, because we do not understand their lives. It is easy to forget who our neighbor is, because we see their experiences and priorities as contrary to our own, or because their experiences do not directly affect us.
And when we forget, we fail to act.
Mike is a jack of all trades, master of none. He’s a data analyst, programmer, and loves to cook. If he doesn’t have his face buried in a book or is staring blankly at a computer screen, you can find him on a motorcycle, enjoying the ride.
Mike holds a Masters of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary.