Thursday, May 19, 2011

Justice, Grace and Bow Ties

Last Thursday evening, I had the privilege of attending a benefit dinner in Washington, DC hosted by a fantastic group of religious freedom advocates. Just your typical Thursday evening in Georgetown, right? Hardly. Black bow tie and tuxedo aside, I knew when my table card placed me between a respected Arizona congressman and a foreign religious leader, this was an occasion to put my best foot forward.

Simple enough, I thought as I went through the normal protocol in my mind. Be on your best behavior. Don’t spill wine on your shirt. Know the difference between a salad fork and dinner fork (salad fork is shorter). Stick to safe, appropriate dinner conversation. Don’t bring up religion or politics. That is unless, of course, the dinner is ABOUT religion and politics. Then you are stuck.

But I guess I should back up a little and explain why I was in this situation to begin with. Over the past 10 months, I have worked with a team of people on a documentary about the global church, specifically those Christians who have faced severe persecution because of their faith. These experiences, and a few new partnerships along the way, landed me a seat at table number five last week. It is no small coincidence that the official film trailer was released online while I was in an airport. With the amount of travel we have all done recently, nothing could be more poetic.

My journey during this project has caused me to rethink how followers of Jesus should interact in the political realm. First off, I believe we are always called to prayer and should give financially to those in need when appropriate. Those things should always be part of the church’s trademark presence in the world. But I now also believe that we are called to be advocates and voices for the voiceless. And that includes being political.

Don’t talk about religion or politics? Hardly. Especially here. Certainly now. Flashback to the dinner. The organization was honoring an author named Eric Metaxas, who recently wrote a thick – and compelling – biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As a German pastor living during World War II, Bonhoeffer was extremely outspoken against Hitler’s plot against the Jews. He would be sent to a concentration camp, and eventually killed, when the Nazis discovered he had been aiding Jewish refugees.

As Metaxas explained last week, Bonhoeffer was abnormally aggressive against evil. For him, there came a time that idly opposing a philosophy wasn’t good enough. His story tells us that sometimes Christians must point out the missteps of those in power. I’m personally not one who claims the church’s goal is to create a Christian state. However, I am convinced that a faithful presence (to borrow the phrase from James D. Hunter) requires action.

Though an extreme example, Bonhoeffer reminds us that Christians cannot be silent in the public arena. Not just for the sake of legislative morality, which I suppose there is a time for, but more importantly, we must speak on behalf of those who have been silenced.

When the state is off track, or ignores evil, the church must demand justice for the sex-trafficked woman and the tenured professor, fired because she holds an intelligent design perspective. We must take in the homosexual teenager, abandoned by his family. And as we discussed over dinner last week, we must be a voice for the Christian minorities in the Middle East. We may not live in Nazi Germany, but that doesn’t mean we are off the hook.

Take the Coptic Christians in Egypt for example. The media has covered the events leading to the revolution in this ancient country for months. However, we aren’t hearing that militant groups are trying to exterminate the Christians in the country. To name names, an extremist Islamic group, known as Salafists, is set on establishing an Islamic state, free of Christians. The Supreme Council of Armed Forces has turned a blind eye to these events. Those of us in the West who have a voice (and care) must act.

This isn’t the first time God’s people have been in danger in Egypt. Once again, mothers hide their children against this timeless desert backdrop. But there is hope. You don’t need a burning bush to tell you that God still remembers his promises. I believe that he still rescues captives in Egypt. But who will ask the new Egyptian rulers to let God’s people go?

Yet it doesn't stop there.

I recognize the call to promote justice is nothing new. You’re not surprised, are you? Social justice is somewhat of a buzz-phrase among Christian circles today. But all too often, we have robbed justice of its functionality. It is either too abstract, we tell people to be advocates of justice but don’t equip them to do so, or it is reduced to clicking “like” on a profile page. We can do better. We have to do better. I hate to break it to you but it’s hard to start a revolution while playing Farmville.

What we need is a clear picture of how normal people can promote justice. I’m not so sure I’m the guy for the job and doubt I have the credentials. All I’m trying to do is start the conversation. We need to know what justice looks like, played out practically, in real life. Which leads me to another coincidence.

I read Tim Keller’s Generous Justice on the plane to DC. Keller does a great job at connecting justice to grace. Essentially, he states that the depth of your understanding of grace determines your ability to participate in justice. It’s a lot easier to help the (physically) broken if you have a sense of (spiritual) desperation.

Additionally, Keller reminded me that justice is not just a thing we do. It’s not an event. Nothing changes by adding justice to your list of interests in between woodworking and listening to Ke$ha (two hobbies that are obviously inseparable). And shame on me if it is just a blogging topic. The internet doesn’t need one more blogging philosopher.

Justice is a way of life. Should we write letters to our senators? Of course. But never in place of everyday action. Routine justice is reflected in the way you treat the scruffy veteran under the overpass, the single mom at the pharmacy and the disabled woman paying with food stamps at the grocery store. Not because we’re better but because we are also broken. When grace overflows from within, we discover that there isn’t a time or place that we shouldn’t proclaim God’s desire for wrongs to be corrected.

Which means it’s more than okay to talk religion and politics over dinner.

Just don’t eat your salad with the wrong fork.

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