When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ (Luke 4:16-21, NRSV)
It is no accident, I think, that the first words of Jesus’ ministry are these taken from the prophet Isaiah. When confronting the powers that be, Isaiah and the other prophets of Israel were always first and foremost concerned about how Israel’s faithfulness to God shaped Israel’s compassion and love for the most vulnerable among them. For those prophets, a direct correlation exists: to love God and you must love your neighbors. To attempt to catalogue the number of references where a prophet of Israel assumed this connection would be exhausting. Let it simply be said that we cannot overestimate the import of this theme of love of God and love of neighbor. This theme’s frequency precedes, underwrites, and infuses all language about laws and salvation and eternal life and faithfulness. Jesus, himself, when asked to summarize everything about the faith draws the exact same conclusion (e.g., Matthew 22:34-39). So, we shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus begins his ministry not with a theological excurses on salvation and eternal life, not with a treatise on theodicy or eschatology, not with a debate over real or symbolic presence but with a declaration about justice. Everything else properly flows from this primary concern over justice for the marginalized, the oppressed, and the demonized.
Within the United Methodist tradition, this idea that faith and social justice directly connected lies at the heart of its doctrine and history. The Wesley’s assumed an indelible link between holy habits and a loving passion for transformation of the social order. In fact, the distinctive element of Wesleyan theology, i.e., Christian perfection, is defined by John Wesley as our being “habitually filled with love of God and neighbor.” In other words for the Wesley’s, a faith without habits of justice is no faith at all. The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church—2004, the official deposit of United Methodist doctrine, verifies the perpetuation of this tradition. The Discipline reads:
Our struggles for human dignity and social reform have been a response to God’s demand for love, mercy, and justice in the light of the Kingdom. We proclaim no personal gospel that fails to express itself in the relevant social concerns; we proclaim no social gospel that does not include the personal transformation of sinners. (The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church—2004)
Personal transformation and reordering of our social systems is at the heart of the faith.
This week, as we approach the Labor Day holiday, our attention is directed to all those who struggle because of lack of labor, under employment, and economic hardship. Their plight compels us, because of faith, to ask questions: Why are they suffering, what went wrong, and how might we prevent future suffering and the inevitable personal and social cascade of consequences spilling out from such suffering? What social institutions need to change? What social institutions need to be put in place? Unfortunately, our faith communities often seem to make the suffering of others a secondary concern or of no concern. I believe that God is far less concerned about the things we tend to bicker over in our faith communities and more concerned about how our bickering over holiness and genuine orthodoxy distracts us from caring for the poor, the marginalized, the broken, the oppressed, and the disadvantaged and, even worse, how our bickering creates more poor, more marginalized, more broken, more oppressed, and more disadvantaged.
To correct his failure, we and our communities of faith need transforming. But, what needs transforming? Our sight needs transforming. We need to see those around us and the systems of our community, country, and world differently. We need the prescription on our lenses of faith adjusted. We need to see the doctor. As luck would have it, a doctor is making a house call.
On Wednesday in chapel, Dr. Walter Kimbrough will address how faith allows us to see justice anew. I invite the entire campus to join Dr. Kimbrough in reflecting on this inexorable connection and essential outcome of faith. I invite everyone to come hear his challenging message and, in the meantime, to reflect on these words penned by the lyrists Fred Pratt Green:
If our hearts are lifted where devotion soars
high above this hungry, suffering world of ours,
Lest our hymns should drug us to forget its needs,
forge our Christian worship into Christian deeds.
See you Wednesday, if not before.