You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
-Matthew 5:13-16 (NIV)
This past week, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed a bill - SB 1062/HB 2153 - that would have allowed business owners with religious objections to homosexuality to refuse to serve homosexual customers. While the bill was much more broadly worded than that (and its broadness was one of the factors its opponents used against it), the bill came about to shore up existing state law after a New Mexico case in which courts found against a photographer who refused to take pictures at a homosexual wedding. The bill was largely an attempt to prevent business owners or employees from being forced by government to compromise religious principles in the course of their work unless the government had “compelling interest” to do so.
As observers pointed out, however, if passed the bill would have also had the effect of allowing a Muslim taxi driver to refuse service to a woman traveling alone.
Predictably, the political fallout from the veto is loud and chaotic. Those on the left tend to see it as a victory for justice and equality, while those on the right tend to see it as yet another governmental restriction on personal liberty. Which is, you know, exactly the same struggle that the United States - along with democracies all around the world - has dealt with since our forefathers threw the first crate of tea into Boston Harbor: is it the role of government to protect personal liberty, or legislate for the greater good of society at large?
Those of us who claim biblical values have to be careful here, because biblical values can also cut against us. The prophets called Israel’s leaders to justice and righteousness; note, for example, Ezekiel’s shepherd parable, where Israel’s “shepherds” are especially to be concerned about the weak, sick, injured, and straying sheep. They aren’t to simply sit back and let the strong overwhelm the weak in some Darwinian, Lord of the Flies free-for-all. There’s an entire flock to be concerned about, says Ezekiel, and it’s the responsibility of Israel’s shepherds to ensure that the well-being of the flock isn’t sacrificed to fatten a few individual sheep.
We’re not Israel, but if that parable says anything about God’s priorities for government, we’d do well to listen.
But I suspect that in this case, some Christians would see themselves as the weaker sheep in the flock, sheep who need the shepherds to step in and protect them.
I suspect that’s because, over the last several decades, we Christians have seen some of our values and priorities fall out of favor with the world around us. We’re increasingly seeing ourselves as a bit out of step with a society that used to affirm our faith. At one time, there was a “civil religion” in American society that assumed some of our world view and made it easy for us to practice our faith. When, rarely, someone would suggest that maybe this constituted favoritism for Christians, we could usually count on the courts or the legislature to squash the objection.
Some of that’s changed over the last few decades, and it’s caused some of us to be kind of disoriented, and defensive, and sometimes - let’s admit it, OK? - to lash out in fear and anger at those who raise other perspectives. That’s why some of us want a constitutional amendment to define marriage, or to pass bills like SB1062/HB2153. We’re afraid that, in the constant clash in American society between individual liberty and the good of the society at large, our government might continue to lean in favor of points of view that differ from ours, and (in our eyes) make the practice of our faith more difficult.
But do we have it that bad? Talk to a Christian in a country run by fundamentalist Muslims, and you might see our struggles in a whole new light. Talk to a believer who lived through Stalin’s pogroms, or tried to practice her faith in the Soviet Union, or under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and you’d likely start to think that being on the minority in public debate might not be what they’d call persecution. That’s not intended to minimize the struggle of a person who finds his faith and his public life don’t coexist peacefully sometimes; we’ve all been there, and know how hard that can be. It’s to perhaps provide a bit of perspective; there’s still a pretty long way to go from a governor failing to protect the (dubious?) right of a business owner to discriminate between customers based on sexual orientation to a government rounding up practicing Christians.
Let me be clear: I’m a Christian who believes the Bible has something to say about sexual relationships being confined to marriage between a man and woman. But I also know that there are a lot of people in the world who choose not to live that way, and that even some of us in the church, so I hear, struggle now and then with sexual temptation of various kinds. Those folks are not my enemies, because they weren’t Jesus’ enemies. They are, like all of us, in need of grace, looking for love, and deserving of respect and dignity as human beings.
Therein lies the problem, I think. Some of us - Christians, I mean - seem interested in making our churches and our homes into metaphorical gated communities, safe from the evil “out there.” We want to huddle behind the battlements, untouched by the bad stuff. We want to build a shining city on a hill, but lock its gates to all but those few who know the password. We say we want our lights to shine, but we run for cover when someone complains that we’re about to set the drapes on fire. We know we’re supposed to be salt in the world, but sometimes think that’s the same thing as rubbing salt into the wounds of those who, like us, bear the marks of life in a fallen world.
But Jesus was clear, wasn’t he, about what it means to be salt and light? He didn’t say it had anything to do with getting legislation passed, or winning court cases, or electing officials that check all the right boxes. Maybe there’s some value in that, from time to time. But it can also be a way to sidestep our personal responsibilities to those who are lost, hurting, injured, and forgotten - as lost, hurting, injured, and forgotten as we would be without Jesus. “Good deeds,” he said; “let your light shine before others that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
Let legislatures and governors and courts decide what they will. Let politicians consolidate power around issues - issues that they use to ensure their own reelections. Our faith isn’t about the issue du jour, whatever that might be. Evil isn’t just “out there.” And the only way for us to be salt and light is to allow Jesus to live in us and shine out of us; to comfort us in our brokenness, challenge us in our pride, and then burst out of us in words and actions that lift up God to the world. None of that changed this week because a governor vetoed a bill. We still follow the one who made God’s love for the world concrete by living among us, healing the sick and feeding the hungry, comforting the mourning, encouraging the poor, and preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God.
May our lives look more and more like his.
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