Faith, law and compassion

This past Sunday I attended services at one of my favorite, regular church stops – a small United Methodist outpost in the French Quarter of New Orleans. The woman who gave the morning’s welcome was a lay person, not overly polished but very compelling as she relayed a personal story from the past week.

The middle-aged woman had been reading a devotional that asked her (I paraphrase) ‘what blessing would be of most use to (her) at this moment.’ She told the congregation her immediate response was to win the lottery, so she could set up a charitable foundation with the first grant going to the church.

She went on to say how she then posed the same question from the devotional to other family members, and that they gave roughly the same response as she had, until she asked her younger daughter. The daughter has struggled at times with being bullied, and other issues, and simply said, “Mom, the greatest blessing for me would be that people could just be nice to each other.” The woman then spoke about how her daughter’s answer made her proud, and how she began to rethink her own answer a bit.

Then she spoke of the rest of her week, and a real-life blessing: the announcement of the SCOTUS decision upholding the Affordable Care Act.

Her story was simple, and compelling; the ACA left standing the way it was meant that three of her children, all on their own but not making a lot of money, could now keep their affordable health care. The emotion in her voice was palpable as she related what a comfort that news was to both she and her husband, let alone the children. A simple court decision with a huge impact, upholding a law that actually plays to the narrative of America being a compassionate nation. To me it seems legally logical and socially appropriate, helping millions who could truly use it – what fair, just laws should ideally strive for. I could only imagine how many households across the country had experienced similar relief.

And yet, many of my fellow Christians remain adamantly opposed to the ACA.

The woman’s story continued with a retelling of how her excitement was compounded later in the week by the second SCOTUS ruling striking down prohibitions on gay marriage. To hear the woman speak, it didn’t seem as if this particular ruling had a deeply personal impact on her, but that she was elated “for friends, for all of us.” It was, she noted, a ‘wonderful week.’

One might say extraordinary.

Many of my fellow Christians remain adamantly opposed to this second decision, and the idea of gay marriage itself, but on this issue the Chicken Little Faithful approach (proclaiming churches will be sued, forced to do things against their beliefs) goes overboard. Truth is, every Christian denomination I have ever been around has their own will/won’t marry someone in their church reasoning, and certain things that are/are not acceptable practice in that particular congregation. They have always, and will remain free to exercise those beliefs.

Fact: the Supreme Court is not now, nor have they ever been in charge of, ruling on G-d’s law. SCOTUS rules on American civil law – the U.S. Constitution. The key part of both those entities in the ‘U.S’ for United States. We are a pluralistic nation: different states, different peoples, different ideas, one country, one set of laws. Not biblical law, not Sharia law, not Talmudic law.

American civil law. The U.S. constitution.

It is striking to me that in both the case of the ACA and marriage ruling, the laws being dealt with are based in large part on not just law, but concern and consideration for all American citizens. As Christians, it seems to me that we should be rejoicing in the (sadly rare) convergence of American civil law and compassion.

Jesus calls us to be compassionate.

When discussing faith, people will sometimes get frustrated with me, as I don’t ‘cherry pick’ verses to back up my point of view, as I believe it is far too easy to take most any singular line or two of the Bible and use it in a way that fits some point we as humans are trying to make. This is mostly because people will take singular verses out of any reasonable context: the speaker, the setting, the situation at hand. Part of that is the discomfort with a lack of context is the English teacher part of me, but it is also something that disturbs me more the older and deeper into my faith I get.

My challenge to you as a Christian: grab your Bible and find a favorite verse – look for the highlighting and underlining, the pages you dog-eared. Look at where that verse lies in the chapter it is from, and see if reading the entire chapter, or passage, doesn’t at the very least give you a different perspective on what the verse you like really Finch 06 30 15says or means. Try it for three or four more verses.

You may be more than a little surprised.

Personally, I cannot boil my faith down to a solitary verse; I could when I was younger, not so much now. For the record, and for example, I try to use the book of Matthew as a life roadmap – the whole book, not just a this-verse-to-this-verse excerpt. You have to read the whole thing to get my point; there is so much more to Matthew than ‘feed my sheep.’

Hence my consternation at stray lines from the Bible used to condemn or condone much of anything. Especially the past week or so. There are a lot of strange things being said these days in the name of Christianity.

In reading and hearing all the vitriol spewed toward recent court rulings by prominent and not-so-prominent Christians, I am disquieted. As Christians, we are called to be compassionate – not called to be judgmental – that is not our job. I am trying to follow my own advice and simply point out a few things that disturb me about much of the Christian rhetoric surrounding the past week.

While not biblical, the seven deadly sins are certainly part of the Christian canon, and there are numerous takes on them, with some differences to be sure, but also with some decidedly pointed overlaps.

In Proverbs, King Solomon takes his crack at numbering and classifying sins; among the two that stand out as applicable to much of the faith-based discourse on SCOTUS and the law, Solomon’s admonitions against ‘a lying tongue’ and ‘Him that soweth discord among brethren.’ The latter is pretty obvious, as any quick perusal of a Facebook wall or various blogs will show. The former? All the nonsense about churches being forced to participate in things they don’t believe in. Again, G-d’s law, as opposed to American civil law. A number of outright lies are being told in the name of Christianity. The recent arguments from both public figures and private citizens calling themselves Christian seem rooted in one or more of the sins greed, wrath, and pride.

Not Gay pride, but Biblical, sinful pride.

Pride (hubris) as a sin is ‘believing that one is essentially better than others, failing to acknowledge the accomplishments of others, excessive admiration of personal self.’ Want to rant and rave about how you, as a Christian, are being persecuted by recent SCOTUS actions?  Think about where your pride comes into play in your viewpoint more than a specific Bible verse does. Present yourself as being above others, proclaim as a public official that you will not follow the law of the land because it is ‘against your faith’ and we can talk about where your pride fits in. Much the same goes for greed; think about what is it that makes you want to deny to others (civil rights, health care) things that you may have without question. What is it that makes you want to tell others ‘no’ besides greed. Wrath? It is hard to not see anger and rage in much of the discourse about these (and most other social and political issues). Jesus does not call us to wrath.

He calls us to compassion, with little equivocation room.

To be abundantly clear, my faith drives my political beliefs – not vice versa, and while last week’s SCOTUS rulings may not affect me directly, they did have a powerful impact on many people I know and love. It was a good week, topped off by another extraordinary event: hearing our President sing my favorite hymn at a funeral service. It was a quite a topper to a five-day stretch.

Oh, and sorry to disappoint my more conservative Christian friends here; while Mr. Obama is our president, his singing from a pulpit was not a matter of an endorsement of faith over and above anything or anyone else, he was simply exercising his faith, just in a very public setting. His personal prerogative, not a point of law.

Amazing grace, indeed.


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