by David Phelps
“Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” – Mother Teresa
Late last year, the founder of a well-known political movement spoke out against the United Methodist Church, saying he wished it would disappear. I rarely talk about politics in Person-2-Person but—as someone who has been a United Methodist for longer than I care to think about—“Them’s fightin’ words.” Two of our last three US Presidents, from both parties, have been United Methodists. Which one would this guy reject? Or would he reject both? I have a fair idea but we’ll leave that for another discussion.
He took particular exception to the church’s emphasis on “social justice,” claiming that the church was on the wrong side of various political issues (in other words, we don’t agree with him). The United Methodist Church’s stance on social issues is spelled out in its Social Principles: “The Social Principles are a prayerful and thoughtful effort on the part of the General Conference to speak to the human issues in the contemporary world from a sound biblical and theological foundation as historically demonstrated in United Methodist traditions.” (http://archives.umc.org/interior.asp?mid=1686).
Justice—both social and personal—was a foundation of the Old Testament: “Do not take advantage of a hired man who is poor and needy, whether he is a brother Israelite or an alien living in one of your towns. . . . Do not deprive the alien or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge.” (Deut. 24:14, 17 NIV).
The prophets, such as Ezekiel, Hosea and Amos, repeatedly emphasized the importance of justice: “But you must return to your God; maintain love and justice, and wait for your God always.” (Hos. 12:6 NIV). Isaiah went beyond the others and made it political: “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.” (Isa. 10:1-2 NIV). He challenged the people who made the rules and made them for their own benefit. Righteousness is not merely personal, it is collective. It comes from below (personal, individual) and from above (society, government).
When Jeremiah looked forward to the coming of the messiah, he wrote about one who “. . . will do what is just and right in the land.” (Jer. 33:15b NIV). He recognized that the people needed not only salvation (personal righteousness) but justice (social righteousness).
It’s the prophet Micah who puts it in perspective for me: “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Mic. 6:8 NIV). God’s requirements include both justice and mercy (some translations, such as the RSV, use the word “kindness” instead of mercy). Yes, God requires justice, but it must be justice tempered by mercy and kindness. Justice isn’t simply punishing wrong but establishing fairness. Everyone—people who disagree with us, people who hate us, even people who wish we would simply disappear—deserves to be treated fairly. We don’t need to transform our church into a political action committee with a steeple but we are called to speak out for those who have no other voice.
How we live, how we treat others, embodies our witness. It is spoken—and sometimes shouted—in the things we say and do and in the stands we take. It is spoken especially clearly in what we say and do toward people who oppose us, whether they are political or personal opponents. If we are fair and just in our dealings and in our speech, we can be witnesses for what Christians—and Methodists—stand for.
“‘You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?’” (Matt. 5:43-46a NIV.)