Karl Barth is reported to have advised young Christians to hold their Bible in one hand and their newspaper in the other. That is still wise advice, though these days a smartphone or iPad might be substituted for an old-fashioned paper. One of the greatest strengths of the Reformed tradition, in my opinion, is its penchant for discovering the ongoing relevance of the living Word of God for our time. The story of the Good Samaritan still speaks to today’s news of violent acts of racism and incipient disdain for the “other.” The reminder that “we were once slaves in Egypt” presses us to compassion for those currently subjected to human trafficking or fleeing oppression and violence. Current events are part of a much longer narrative of God’s attempt to redeem our broken humanity. In other words, the Bible is political – it speaks to the polis, the way we live in community.
But what if the newspaper (or its electronic equivalents) is not the only resource with which we allow the Bible to interact? What if we also picked up our diaries and journals, our family histories and professional resumes, our credit card statements and mortgage records and invited God’s Word to be in sacred conversation with our lives? For just as much as the Bible is political, the Bible is exquisitely personal – it speaks to our persona, the way we project ourselves to others; and even more, it speaks to our deepest identity, our truest and most complicated self. The psalmist’s affirmation, “You have searched me and known me,” urges us to recognize God’s profound knowledge of our best and worst selves. Jesus’ invitation, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden,” draws us to acknowledge our own limits and needs.
One of the most profound ways that Jesus upended the Pharisaic system was to move beyond the legal and theoretical realms to the intimately personal. He did not enter into a hypothetical debate about the purity code that called for the stoning of adulterers; instead, he saw a particular woman who was about to be stoned and invited her judging onlookers to assess the purity of their own lives (John 8:1-9). Jesus did not debate the Sabbath law with the Pharisees, but instead cured a man on the Sabbath, and then, when he was questioned, pressed the legalists whether they would not rescue their own child (or even ox!) if it had fallen down a well on the Sabbath (Luke 14:1-6).
Just laws undergird both faith and society. But particular stories are the places where their impact is revealed. Issues of immigration matter – and legal processes will inevitably be in place. Yet I, for one, cannot help but imagine whether I would even be alive today if the walls barring entry had been in place when my Armenian relatives came just prior to the genocide a century ago. And this, in turn, makes me wonder: Whose lives are on the line now, and what is my political responsibility to advocate for the mercy Christ calls us to embody? Issues of financial safety nets and individual responsibility matter –
and welfare will inevitably be limited. Yet I cannot help but wonder where my husband would be now had their family not received Social Security when their father died far too young. And this makes me wonder: Which families are struggling now – for food or shelter, education or health care – and what should I do to insure the justice Christ presses us to enact?
What Jesus saw that I, at least, too often forget, is this: In the end, the personal is political. And even more — all of it is a matter for our faith.