Do Not Stand Idly By: The Public Domain of Faith

Do Not Stand Idly By: The Public Domain of Faith February 4, 2016


Yesterday, in a DC suburb, I had another one of those profound religious/spiritual moments in the presence of an ecumenical group of clergy members, professional organizers, and community activists while we worked together on the Metro IAF Do Not Stand Idly By campaign for responsible gun manufacturing, distribution, and use. I have so many beautiful stories to tell from this shared work, including the tremendous persistence and courage that resulted in President Obama’s recent executive order on guns and the boldness of many friends who confronted negligent gun sellers on this past Tuesday in both Ohio and DC. (Notably, one of the targeted businesses had the dubious distinction of having one of eight of its firearms sold landing in criminal hands!)

Gathered with these friends and tireless workers, we prayed corporately, encouraged each other, had individual or relational meetings where we shared personal struggles and goals, and continued the imaginative collaboration of future action. This was profoundly faithful and religious to me. But, I understand that the religiosity of the moment is an assertion that needs to be defended in the present cultural moment.

As the Presidential campaign accelerates into mind-numbing overdrive, there has been already incessant conversations on the faith or absence thereof of various candidates. Much of this often comic ‘I know Jesus better than you’ wrangling is easily reduced to electorate pandering or differences in opinion on what it actually means ‘to know Jesus.’ Aside from the obvious Christian privilege and Evangelical privilege that earmarks many of these conversations (I can only imagine how frightening this dialogue is to persons of other faiths and worldviews), I am commonly dismayed by how often the media misunderstands the public and political nature of faith. This morning’s CNN commentary on the previous evening’s Democratic Town Hall is an excellent case in point.

In the town hall, both Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders responded to questions that gave them an opportunity to discuss faith. To a rabbi’s question about maintaining necessary ego and humility to lead, Clinton described the role of gratitude in this challenge referencing Henri Nouwen’s brilliant book, The Return of the Prodigal Son. At this point, Clinton is on familiar ground of faith and religiosity. She is speaking in a common dialect about the faith terrain both conservatives and liberal readily recognize, individual faith supporting the personal domain.  This is one of the great values of belief and hope.

But when Sanders described his personal Jewish faith, he moved beyond the boundary of the private to the public by mentioning the interconnectedness of all our lives, saying that the pain one person experiences impacts us all. He added that he was mystified by faith expressions that minimize systemic issues, the deep wounds of others, and the connected nature of all lives. CNN’s commentary in response was fascinating, and a bit tragic. One commentator pronounced that he had dodged the question entirely. Paraphrasing, this person said that he ducked the question entirely “by going straight to policy” — assuming, without challenge, that policy, ideology, and the public sphere are entirely divorced from theology and faith. A second commentator, taking a slightly different tack, affirmed his personal statement of Jewish faith and then remarked that this declaration of faith was unique for “a secular, socialist guy”. Once again, having a public ideology, especially “socialism”, must imply a secularism bifurcated from faith.

The binary between the public and private in faith is contrived in our cult of individualism that eviscerates democracy such that we burn incense on the altar of personal liberty and regularly ignore liberty’s sibling, equality. But the Christian gospel is exceedingly public. Jesus challenged economic systems and political thrones. He announced his coming as the advent of a social reorganization and an economic redistribution. Those who ignored the “least of these” did so at the greatest of peril. We can only imagine what words he would have uttered for those who demonized the poor and vulnerable, though I imagine his “brood of vipers” speech gives us some indication of what his invective would have been. Jesus’ politic did not just magically appear. Instead it is entirely rooted in the Jewish theological constructions of Jubilee, hospitality, shalom (peace), and creative rest. And I believe this perspective is not unique to the Judeo-Christian heritage.

The wonderful populist, agrarian, poet, humorist, and Lorax of our generation, Wendell Berry, lays bare the horror of a logic that separates public life from faith: “That logic explains why our cars and our clothes are shoddily made, why our “wastes” are toxic, and why our “defensive” weapons are suicidal; it explains why it is so difficult for us to draw a line between “free enterprise” and crime. If our economic ideal is maximum profit with minimum responsibility, why should we be surprised to find our corporations so frequently in court and robbery on the increase?”

Berry follow this critique with a wonderful vision with what he calls “the great economy.” Christians might know this term also as “God’s economy” or even “the Kingdom of God.”  On this great economy, he implores:  “We see that we cannot afford maximum profit or power with minimum responsibility because, in the Great Economy, the loser’s losses finally afflict the winner. Now the ideal must be ‘the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption,’ which both defines and requires neighborly love. Competitiveness cannot be the ruling principle, for the Great Economy is not a ‘side’ that we can join nor are there such ‘sides’ within it. Thus, it is not the ‘sum of its parts’ but a membership of parts inextricably joined to each other, indebted to each other, receiving significance and worth from each other and from the whole. One is obliged to ‘consider the lilies of the field,’ not because they are lilies or because they are exemplary, but because they are fellow members and because, as fellow members, we and the lilies are in certain critical ways alike.”

Vibrant faith, whether it be theist or non-theist, does not stand idly by to injustice, violence, or the violation of the creation, the vulnerable or the different. Instead, it understands that every expression of these horrors is an assault upon us all. We rupture faith from the public, corporate, created realm at the gravest peril of all. And in God’s economy, “all” really means “all.”

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