I have been praying (and looking) for signs of a wider unity in the PC (USA) than the division our sharp, destructive conflicts over sexuality and abortion reveal. Of course, a wider unity must be grounded biblically, theologically, and confessionally. We Presbyterians never saw a theological debate we didn’t want to decorate, preach about, or organize a committee around. That’s a positive quality so long as it does not imperil action and genuine confession.
I do not claim to know that unity, but I believe there is promise in the combined evangelical, mainline, Roman Catholic, and Jewish assault on hunger and poverty — led by Jim Wallis and others. At a conference brought together around this theme in New York some weeks ago, an evangelical held up a Bible from which he had cut all references to the poor for whom God cares, for whom God holds rulers of the earth accountable, and to whom Jesus (Luke 4) said he would preach the good news. There were precious few pages remaining. He then said that if you cut out the references to sex in similar fashion, the Bible would remain intact.
That is encouraging, and it would be of further encouragement to millions of Bible-believing Christians in all churches and denominations if we could come together in our witness to God’s concern for the poor — not only in the USA, see Cliff Kirkpatrick’s statement about the 2006 budget. We could also come together by encouraging our government do all it can, right now, to help prevent the death of 25,000 children per day worldwide from preventable causes. That’s more than nine million children, enough to people a city the size of New York.
Here’s another encouraging sign. William J. Stuntz teaches at Harvard Law School and has for 20 years belonged to evangelical congregations. He wrote near the end of last year (see “Faculty Clubs and Church Pews” (at www.techcentralstation.com ) about living in two worlds that deeply distrust each other. He works in a blue state and worships in a red state, yet he believes that these communities share common values of which they are ignorant. One of those values is helping the poor. Stuntz believes that red state/blue state polarization (mirrored in the church by our red/blue positions) would change if different menus were on the table. “Imagine a presidential campaign in which the two candidates seriously debated how a loving society should treat its poorest members.” He believes that liberals and evangelicals would find common ground if poverty were on the table.
That may be true for Presbyterians. If the church press and national lobbies within the Presbyterian Church did not demand all the air time over matters certain to polarize and punish; if we changed the menu, we would be worrying, not only about how a “loving society would treat its members,” but also about God holding us accountable for how our elected rulers treat the poor.
Beginning with our Confessions, we see that in the duties required by the eighth commandment (Thou Shalt not Steal), The Larger Catechism lists “justice in contracts between man and man … moderation of our … wills and affections concerning worldly goods … frugality … and an endeavor by all just and lawful means to procure, preserve, and further the wealth and outward estate of others, as well as our own (emphasis added). In C-67, “the reconciliation of man through Jesus Christ makes it plain that enslaving poverty in a world of abundance is an intolerable violation of God’s good creation. Because Jesus identified himself with the needy and exploited, the cause of the world’s poor is the cause of his disciples.”
Most congregations I know are up to their armpits in service to the poor, a salutary and radical change from 40 years ago when such outreach was controversial. Now we live under a government that indulges the rich with tax cuts, and by its policies, is beginning to impoverish the needy. At the same time, with the complicity of an ignorant, greedy media, they distract the disciples of Jesus in every congregation from that for which God will judge us harshly. What do you think? Will we find the leadership to call us together around what really matters to God: loving mercy, doing justly, and walking humbly with the One who made us, and not we ourselves?