On Sanctuary, Social Justice and Advent

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religion-and-politicsOver the years I have been told many times that the Church should not engage in politics. However, having read scripture and come to understand our Presbyterian tradition more deeply, I have a hard time understanding how the Church cannot be involved in politics. To be involved in “politics” (from the Greek word polis, which means “city”) is to be involved in the shaping and reshaping of the social structures—formal and informal—that govern how we live together in community. It’s as simple as deciding on which side of the road we will drive, and as complicated as who do we include in the term “community.”

Throughout scripture the community of faith and political leaders are deeply enmeshed, and often the same. The leaders and kings of the Hebrew scriptures listened carefully to the prophets who spoke of God’s truth as they understood it. In the Christian Gospels, Jesus’ whole ministry was at odds with both the Roman and Jewish leadership who continually enforced policies and social structures that oppressed certain groups of people.

My denomination’s (the Presbyterian Church, USA) Book of Order (part II of its constitution) calls on its members to live “responsibly in personal, family, vocational, political, cultural, and social relationships of life,” as we work “in the world for peace, justice, freedom, and human fulfillment” (emphasis added). These things and others listed in G-1.0304 call on members to engage in the social and political realms and are based on the principles and teachings shared throughout scripture, especially by Jesus.

Our session voted to offer sanctuary to an undocumented man who was fearful of being deported based on the determination that the laws that call him an “illegal alien” are unjust and not in keeping with our values as Christians and as citizens of the United States. It was not unanimous, and the opinions of our congregation are varied. While there seems to be overwhelming support for session’s decision, we believe that our elders are elected based on their ability to discern God’s call on us as a community. Sometimes their decisions are popular and even unanimously supported, and sometimes they are not. Having moderated the discussions that led to session’s decision, I know this decision was not entered into lightly. In fact, I would say it was done prayerfully and with a mind toward God’s sometimes costly call on our lives. It was not an easy decision.

It is easy to sit back from a distance and rally for justice, or even criticize decisions made by others. We can show up at rallies and even hold signs. We can sign petitions distributed on Facebook. We can feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick. But God, through Christ, calls us to much more than that. When Jesus called his disciples to “follow me,” he was calling them into a way of life that emulates Jesus’ willingness to go to some of the darkest, loneliest, and scariest places of suffering, marginalization, and oppression the world knows—think Birmingham during the 1960s; think Ferguson, Missouri; think of my friend the Rev. Leslie Vogel, Presbyterian mission co-worker in Guatemala, and thousands of other mission co-workers around the world; think medical workers in ebola-ravaged west Africa. In other words, God is calling on us to go deeper, pray harder, and get dirtier than we might otherwise consider on our own.

The season of Advent is a season of waiting, but not sitting idly by. It is a season of engagement. It is a season of deep and prayerful discernment. It is a season of seeking to understand what it really means to be faithful to God as we listen for ancient and contemporary prophets remind us of God’s breaking into our lives daily. As we celebrate the gift of God’s breaking into the world through Jesus, we enter this season knowing that Jesus’ Way put him on a cross as an “enemy of the state.” The cross under Roman rule was saved for those who were deemed a threat to the empire. Our call as Christians is to speak truth to the “powers that be” when those powers overstep our understanding of compassionate and redemptive justice. It is not a path easily taken, but, in the great reversal of God’s ways, it is a path that ultimately leads to life, as revealed through Jesus’ resurrection.

Whether the issue is immigration, LGBT equality, gender equality, taking care of the poor and hungry, access to health care (especially for those on the margins), fair and decent wages, or racial prejudice, our call is the same: go to where the suffering is, stand with and advocate for God’s oft forgotten children, and be willing to make the sacrifices necessary to lift up the truth that all people are God’s children and, therefore, deserving of love, compassion, and respect.

The last several weeks I have been preaching from chapters 23 to 25 of Matthew’s gospel. It is Jesus’ great departure speech and the climax of his life and teachings. It is a call to action. Jesus teaches about a kingdom of God that is right in front of us, where people are being teased and oppressed for being born in another country (even legal U.S. residents and naturalized citizens); where women are being subjugated by lower wages, threat of rape, and sold into prostitution; where gay people are still being fired for being gay, not allowed to marry who they love, and being deprived of their rights to equal protection. Jesus calls God’s children to find strength in humility.

Through Christ, the Church is once again being called upon to unite in one voice to once again speak truth to power on behalf of those struggling to survive, so that they might have the same chance to thrive. As in Jesus’ time, when the laws themselves subjugate people, as people of faith we must openly question the justness of the laws. When our society seeks to keep some people out just because of who they are, we must openly fight for their inclusion. When faced with danger, we must be willing to risk even our own subjugation for the sake of those whom Jesus sought out. This is not a choice, my friends. It is a commandment, a teaching. And in seeking to live out this call I truly believe we will begin to understand more deeply what it means to truly live in the kingdom of God ushered in by an infant, whose own life was in danger, born in a cattle stall and placed in a feeding trough. Once again, the great reversal!

Peace and blessings this Thanksgiving.

This article was first published in the newsletter of the University Presbyterian Church in Tempe, Arizona, where I serve as pastor.

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