Justice, Kindness, Humility

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Micah 6:1-8

“God has told you, O mortal, what is good: and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)

One morning in my eighth grade social studies class, the teacher said, “The world is one-third Christian, twenty percent Muslim, and thirteen percent Hindu.”

We thought that was the goofiest thing we had ever heard. Where I grew up in Mississippi, there were four religions—Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and heathen. Almost everyone we knew was a Christian. The small number of people who were not Christians had the decency to keep it to themselves. The idea that two-thirds of the people in the world are not Christians was hard to believe.

The statistics are not as hard to imagine as they once were. The world is getting smaller, and we are realizing that it’s bigger than we thought. When I was in high school, my friends had names like Mark, Michael, Michelle, Jenny, and John. My son’s friends include Machmud, Carlos, Ekta, Zoheb, and Anoosha.

There are Sikh communities in New York and Buddhist retreat centers in West Virginia. By one count, there are 1,650 different religious movements with at least 2,000 members in the United States. What should it mean to us that there are more than twice as many Sunni Muslims as there are Protestant Christians? We are in the minority, and the percentage of Christians gets smaller each year. We hear from a variety of religious viewpoints. Knowing how to respond is hard.

At the vacation Bible schools I attended growing up, Friday was decision day. The pastor presented the plan of salvation and invited us to be baptized. Most of us were baptized by the third grade. Some years we were invited to walk to the front. This led to kindergarten students making decisions as a group. The poor minister had to visit the homes of two dozen five-year-olds to tell their parents that their children wanted to be baptized. Many of those five-year-olds, now faced with the frightening prospect of actually being baptized, responded, “I only went because everyone else did.”

The invitation was something like this: “We are all sinners. Jesus died on the cross for our sins. If we accept Jesus’ sacrifice and pray for Jesus to come into our hearts, we will be saved and go to heaven when we die.”

Some churches had a sixth grader who thought it was his job to ask, “But what about the Native Americans? They never even heard about Jesus.”

Most pastors hate the “What about the Native Americans?” question. The hard-line response is, “The Native Americans are out of luck. They missed the boat. We’re in and they’re out.”

We can find it comforting to believe that we are in and everyone else is out, but it doesn’t seem right. Believing that God’s grace is only for a small percentage of us is insulting to God. We recognize that if we had been born in Indonesia, then we would probably be Muslims. We wouldn’t know many of the stories we’ve been taught or believe many of the truths we’ve learned.

If God is at work everywhere, then we should not dismiss the rest of the world as having nothing to say. God loves us too much to play favorites. We make a mistake when we try to divide the world into those who attend Christian churches and those who will never have a chance to know God’s love.

There is, of course, an opposite mistake. When asked, “What about the Native Americans?” some respond, “Don’t worry about the Native Americans, because deep down everyone believes the same thing.” Saying that all religions are the same is popular, as if we could combine the great traditions into one big mess of a melting pot. The people who think that all religions teach the same truths haven’t listened. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Confucianism, transcendental meditation, materialism, numerology, astrology, scientology, and jogging say different things. When religious tolerance discourages the honest evaluation of beliefs, it also discourages commitment. Tolerance by itself is apathy. To say that all religions are equal is to say that no religion makes a real difference.

How should we feel about being a minority in a world filled with different religions? First, we should recognize that we are not the first to ask the question. While religious pluralism may be a new experience for those of us who grew up in Mississippi, it was the everyday experience of the Hebrew people. The Israelites were surrounded by the thousands of gods and goddesses that belonged to their neighbors. Sometimes they responded by destroying their neighbors, and sometimes they bought some of their idols just to be safe.

Seven hundred years before Christ, Israel is in the middle of a revival. The temple is crowded. The balcony is full. Giving is over budget. They have more programs than ever, but Micah knows that something is wrong.

The prophet pictures God charging Israel with a crime and taking them to court. God calls the mountains, hills, and foundations of the earth as witnesses for the prosecution. God’s accusation is that they are selfish people who have forgotten God’s generosity. God loved Israel, brought them out of slavery, and gave them a home. God speaks in pleading tones as a parent to a child who ignores the parent’s love.

The people miss the point: “God, what more could you possibly want from us? Do you want more sacrifices, more expensive livestock? How about a thousand sheep? Just how religious can we be?”

Their idea of religion is far from God’s hopes. They think that religion consists of believing the right things and staying away from the people who believe the wrong things. Appearing religious is easier than being kind.

“What does God want?” the prophet asks.

God wants us to do justice—to be a voice for the oppressed, the widow, and the foreigner.

God wants us to love kindness—to care for the handicapped, minorities, the elderly, and the poor.

God wants us to walk humbly with God—to listen for God’s voice wherever God may be heard, learn how other people make sense of their lives, and thoughtfully examine what it means to live with faith.

We will be better Christians not if we put down every idea that is Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu but if we affirm the truth and keep searching. We should not agree with everything, but we should recognize that Christians have much to learn as well as share. We should find ways to say, “I have something I want to share with you, and you have something I hope you’ll share with me.”

Some think that hearing other viewpoints will lead us to lose our faith, but that is not true for most. We become more mature Christians when we come to see that the great religions struggle with things that matter, express a real human experience, and deserve attention for the wisdom they offer the rest of humanity.

Could it be that sometimes whether we have the right answers is less important to God than whether we show compassion? Isn’t that what Micah says?

The great enemy is the partial practice of faith. The religious tradition of which I want to be a part includes Elie Wiesel, Mahatma Gandhi, and Anwar Sadat. Do we have more in common with a person who says she is a Christian but has no real commitment or with the faithful member of another tradition who lives with God’s kindness?

Christians should cling tenaciously to what we believe comes closest to truth, hold tightly to the story we have been given, test it, doubt it, try it, believe it, share it, and celebrate it.

In a world of countless religions, what should we do? We should do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. Christ’s table is open to all who will do what is just. The Eucharist is for those who do not take themselves as seriously as they take God.

time_for_supper_cvrThis post originally appeared in Time for Supper: Invitations to Christ’s Table by Brett Younger.

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