Thinking Anew – The prophetic voice of Christian decency
The message of Jesus was that law had to be both just and compassionate. Photograph: iStock
With so much anger and confusion on display in political circles, it was good recently to hear the prophetic voice of Christian decency speak clearly. Washington’s Anglican Cathedral’s mission statement reads: “As the Cathedral of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, we strive to serve God and our neighbours as agents of reconciliation, a trusted voice of moral leadership and a sacred space where the country gathers during moments of national significance.” With that in mind its clergy issued a statement: “As faith leaders who serve at Washington National Cathedral – the sacred space where America gathers at moments of national significance – we feel compelled to ask: After two years of President Trump’s words and actions, when will Americans have enough? . . . We have come to accept a level of insult and abuse in political discourse that violates each person’s sacred identity as a child of God. We have come to accept as normal a steady stream of language and accusations coming from the highest office in the land that plays to racist elements in society . . . Mr Trump’s words are dangerous.”
We are told that religion and politics don’t mix but when Desmond Tutu was asked for advice about objections to what might be considered “political” sermons, the archbishop suggested that critics be asked what version of the Bible they were reading. We don’t have to look any further than tomorrow’s readings to see what he meant.
The seventh century BC prophet Jeremiah, despite his protest that he is “only a boy”, reluctantly accepts that it is his duty to speak in God’s name to the political leaders of his day: “Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant’.” The context is significant. The amoral Northern Kingdom of Israel had been crushed by Assyria and its people marched into exile. Judah, the Southern Kingdom, had somehow survived but Jeremiah foresees danger because the nation has abandoned its moral values and religious principles inspired by its relationship with God. Time was running out.
The task of religion is not to engage in party politics but rather to promote the values of kindness and civility that point to a just and compassionate society. The danger currently facing us is that as we become more secularised, we lose the guard-rails of those Christian values which, although often ignored in the past, nonetheless set standards by which we could be measured and challenged.
In the week those cathedral clergy spoke, a little girl called Magdalena Gomez Gregorio, born in the US, appeared on television, sobbing as she pleaded for her father, who had been arrested as an illegal immigrant. She said: “These Hispanic people aren’t doing nothing bad. They’re not stealing nothing. The immigrants just want jobs inside the company. Just get our dads out of there. My dad . . . is not a criminal.” A government spokesman responded to a public uproar over what happened by stating that the US is a nation of laws and that the parent had broken the law. He neglected to say that these immigrants were engaged by US businesses looking for cheap labour but that none of those businesses which had been prosecuted. So much for the law.
In tomorrow’s gospel reading, Jesus is condemned for breaking the Sabbath law by healing a woman. He rejects the argument, pointing out that people in authority break laws when convenient. His message was that law had to be both just and compassionate. St Paul wrote: “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbour. Therefore, love is the fulfilment of the law.”