One of the trends in Christian activism of late seems to be focused on telling others what to do. It isn’t a pattern characteristic of one end of the theological spectrum. Both ends indulge an unhealthy interest in the failings and fate of others. The only variable seems to be the focus of the advice offered. To generalize — only a little bit — the only real question is whether the failing is personal or social.
Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series, for example, focuses on the failures and fortunes of those who don’t believe quite the way that he believes. Nowhere in his fictional tableau are those who reflect on the demands that the Gospel makes of them. Countless writers on the left, by contrast, reflect on the sins of the 1%. They almost never reflect on the implications of the fact that they are wildly wealthy by global standards.
There are, of course, defenses that both groups could mount — and no doubt would — for being obsessed with what others do. Writers on the left could and do appeal to the prophetic task. Writers on the right could and do appeal to the importance of theological orthodoxy. And there is certainly a case to be made for attention to both concerns.
But ground zero for the judgment of God lies with each of us. Whether one thinks of the prophets, who noted that judgment begins with “the household of God,” or one thinks of Jesus, who noted, “Let the one without sin cast the first stone,” it is clear that the demands of the Gospel lie first with each of us. In other words, Jesus never, anywhere, ever said, “Go make others do things.” And even if they did those things (whatever that might be), we would not be off the hook spiritually.
Although Jesus doesn’t offer an extended defense for this emphasis, there are ample reasons for this orientation to the will of God:
One, we do not and cannot control the lives of others. Anyone who has ever parented a child knows this and simple observation ought to be enough for everyone else. If we take the individual autonomy of others seriously, it goes without saying that apart from statutes that proscribe certain kinds of conduct, we can do little to shape the lives of people in a positive direction, barring their own cooperation.
Two, even if we could force our understanding of God’s will on others, coercion never yields vital spiritual growth. Real transformation takes place from the inside out and neither legislation nor tyranny ever creates deep, lasting change. Civil rights legislation, for example, as important as it has been, cannot guarantee interior transformation or the end of prejudice. The influence of legislation is limited to shaping the larger cultural environment in which we live.
Three, a preoccupation with the faithfulness of others is too easily used as a means of evading the demands of the Gospel on our own lives. The story about “the woman taken in adultery” (Pericope Adulterae) was permanently labeled as such, not by John’s Gospel, but by a later editor, who was – in all likelihood – a man. But the passage should have entitled, “Men are reminded they are sinners.” None of us, if we are honest about it, grow spiritually or embrace more of the Gospel’s demands when we are fixated on the sins of others. We may reassure ourselves that we are morally upright or “on the right side of history” — and in all likelihood we are neither. We may add pride and self-righteousness to the list of sins of which we are all guilty – and that is more likely. But we are hardly closer to God.
Does this mean that we should stand for nothing and advocate for nothing? No. I have heard people claim that Jesus had no expectations, and I have never heard anything quite so absurd. No matter how many critical filters you use in parsing the Gospels, Jesus plainly had expectations and named them.
In the crucible of life under the domination of the Roman Empire, ancient Israel faced the question, What does it mean to be God’s chosen people?
Drawing on traditions that were over two centuries old and can be detected in the Book of Daniel, the Pharisees focused on spiritual practice and purity. The Zealots focused on liberation from Roman domination. A Jew among Jews, Jesus envisioned the reign of God as a way of life that did not prioritize the spiritual practice and emphasis on purity that lay at the heart of Pharisaic practice and he rejected the priority that the Zealots placed upon political independence. He taught this vision of the Kingdom of God without rejecting Torah or God’s call on Israel. As one of my mentors often observed, the differences between Jesus and his contemporaries was so intense, because they shared so much in common.
In that context three things were true about the demands that Jesus made that remain true today:
One, the demands of his vision fall equally on all of us as Christians.
Two, as important as communities of faithful observance may be, our individual capacity to respond to those demands begins and ends with each of us.
Three, only by attending to the demands that message makes on each one of us, will we ever come close to recognizing the depths of transformation that are possible.
Those three realities lie at the heart of the message that Jesus taught and issue from the differences that he had with his contemporaries. It is also why he never, anywhere, ever said, “Go make others do things.”