I feel a disconnect between my own faith and the public discussion of faith in our country.

This was recently highlighted by the public reaction to what my denomination did on a national level. The ELCA, as a denominational body, voted to become a sanctuary denomination. This is a statement about the humanitarian needs and the twisting of justice that has arisen around the way the U.S. government processes asylum, refugee and other resident applications from non-citizens.

There were both positive and negative responses. The positive responses were along the lines, “Finally, a church is practicing what it preaches.”

This is the heart of the disconnect. The message of radical love, forgiveness, resurrection and hope does not seem to be getting to most people in the country. Or, rather, it has gotten to the people, but when they look for the marks of that message in Christians, they do not see them.

American Christians have seceded their public voice to those who would elevate political issues to the level of Biblical authority. These issues become the litmus test for whether you are or are not Christian. They are a creed of sorts, a statement that Christians believe in the Triune God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), Jesus Crucified and Risen for the Forgiveness of Sin, and have this stance on these political and social issues.

Richard Rohr wrote, “If you accept a punitive notion of God, who punished or even eternally tortures those who do not love him, then you have an absurd universe where most people on this earth end up being more loving than God!”

When you elevate politics as American Christians have done, the punitive God comes forth in the political misfortune of those who are not standing with you. From this vantage point, American Christianity feels that God is on their side, when, in fact, they have claimed the idolatrous high ground of God’s judgement seat.

Just as true faith desires to reflect the attributes of God, an idolatrous faith desires that all others reflect the opinions of American Christianity as divine truth. The message now becomes, “be like me and you’ll spend eternity with people like me.” For many Americans who profess faith, this works more like a deterrent.

The response to the ELCA becoming a sanctuary denomination was not heard this way. Its reception highlighted the incarnational reality of God, present in the story of Jesus. Followers of the one who died for others are putting themselves at risk to help those who need assistance beyond their means. This move to enter into the suffering of others, rather than hold themselves apart, is what spoke to the power of Christ’s death and resurrection in a way that other public, Christian witness has not.

This incarnational ministry is a church practicing what it preaches.

In many ways, it is a more radical application of the core issues that bring politics and religion together. If life is sacred, how much more should life in all situations be protected? If God has a model for our society to follow, how much more should our behavior build others up, rather than tear them down? If we believe that God has played a role in establishing civil government, how much more should that government’s application of justice be fair and hold all peoples to the same standard? If every human being is made in the image of God, how much more can we honor that image in those whose outward appearance differs from ours?

This relational, incarnational ministry of sanctuary does the messy work of building relationships regardless of cost. As ministries go, it is rather inefficient, but it is powerful, because you show another person just how much you are willing to give that they may have life. You embody the understanding of Philippians 2, where one’s own standing in relationship with God should not be exploited, but set aside for the lives of others, just as Jesus did on the cross.

This is what the ELCA pointed to in their sanctuary vote. This is what American Christians often fail to point to when they place adherence to law as a condition, or proof, of the Gospel’s effectiveness. Will the vote cause trouble for the ELCA? Probably, but then again the cross wasn’t easy for Christ either, but it was trouble worth getting into.

The Rev. Justin Smoot is pastor of Mt. Zion Lutheran Church, LaGrange. Contact him at justin.h.smoot@gmail.com.

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