The Common Good
August 2006

A Secular or Sacred Witness?

by Robert Roth | August 2006

It is natural for people of faith to ally with secular organizations and approaches. We may even see the spirit of God in movements that bring life and hope.

It is natural for people of faith to ally with secular organizations and approaches. We may even see the spirit of God in movements that bring life and hope. Nonetheless, this month’s biblical passages present traditions and truths that are clearly centered in God. They provide wisdom, vision, and hope beyond what can be found in helpful—yet limited—secular sources.

The 2 Samuel and 1 Kings readings spotlight kings who heed God’s call, listen carefully to prophetic voices, plead for forgiveness, and pay attention to holy dreams. There is nary an opinion poll or focus group to be found!

The letter to the Ephesians exalts Christ. The cosmic peace that is salvation begins with the individual receiving new life and being baptized into the church. The gospel lessons from John offer Christ as eucharistic nourishment. Would-be Solomons are told that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111) and that their best internships will be as doorkeepers (Psalm 84).

Is our social witness spiritual? These readings provide guidelines, challenges, and a vision of faithful witness in and to the world. There are qualities that make the political and cultural work of Christians different than how we would proceed sans faith. There are benchmarks of faithfulness on this path. Power and persistence are hallmarks; so is humility. Our grit and determination will fall short if we insist on going it alone. Is not the God who redeemed Israel (Psalm 13) the one who will redeem nations today?

Robert Roth is a writer and social activist in East Lansing, Michigan.

August 6

Speaking in Love

2 Samuel 11:26-12:13; Psalm 51:1-12; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35

The multiracial worship at Greater Walters AME Zion Church in Chicago last March radiated hope for all who seek what Ephesians 4:3 calls “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” As five strands of American Methodism—four predominately black and one predominately white—prayed and sang together, they rehearsed for a changed world through “humility and gentleness, with patience bearing one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2).

The turning point in a church ripped apart by racism was when the majority of United Methodists could acknowledge “lots of tears when we reflect on our own racism, our own narrowness and our own hatred,” said one worship participant. Their confession reflects the side of faith in which David sometimes stood. When he had Uriah killed and took Uriah’s wife Bathsheba as his own, he too says “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Samuel 12:13).

When “create in me a clean heart, O God” is sung with the psalmist (Psalm 51:10), dramatizing David’s confession, humbled voices are lifted that God can use. They can begin “speaking the truth in love,” according to Ephesians. Paul’s words give us all a Christ-centered way to name injustice, mindful of our own sin and guided by love for those we challenge.

Contrast “speaking the truth in love” with mocking and demonizing unjust leaders. Even as Augustine said “just war” would require the ability to love those we attack, would not “just social activism” mean loving those we confront?

Solidifying such an approach takes a community of support, like the church in Ephesus on a good week. Consuming together what John 6:35 calls “the bread of life” seasons us to confess as we confront and to maintain unity as we demand equality.

August 13

Beyond Anger

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; Psalm 130; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51

Anger kills. Sometimes it is our physical or emotional undoing as we carry it around in our hearts and stomachs. Other times it fuels riots or wars. Uncontrolled or unmediated, anger kills.

The letter to the Ephesians emerges from a particular people in a distinct time. Nonetheless, its wise and loving call—“be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Ephesians 4:26)—is evocative in a broader social context, especially in 2006. It suggests that how we conduct ourselves and promote our causes, whether in church or society, means “building up” while diminishing “bitterness and wrath and anger” (Ephesians 4:31).

Even left in its specific setting, Ephesians 4 peeks into the public square, challenging thieves to give up stealing “to have something to share with the needy.” Our tendency to be hostile toward criminals misses their fuller humanity and their potential for replacing crime with a higher calling.

Though anger and violence abound in the Hebrew scriptures, so too do moments of tender compassion and words from a God of love. Though his son Absalom tries to seize his throne, King David tells his commanders to “deal gently for my sake” with Absalom (2 Samuel 18:5). After being caught up in an oak tree by his hair (darkly humorous given the situation), Absalom is executed. The anger of others wins out, but not David’s: “Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

Psalm 130 proffers another theological mark against anger. God, the true source of lasting change, uses “steadfast love” with a “great power to redeem” (Psalm 130:7). If it is the Creator who “will redeem Israel from all its iniquities,” is it not foolish to expect that we can impact the United States without firm spiritual grounding?

Righteous indignation is appropriate when we hear that at least 12 CEOs were paid salaries of $100 million or more last year. Sure we’re mad as heck, but only until the sun goes down. The next day, we again have to find a way to model the love of God.

August 20

Holy Models

1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14; Psalm 111; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58

When I read that Solomon clearly and repeatedly hears God invite him to “ask what I should give to you” in a dream before he receives his wealth and wisdom (1 Kings 3:5), my mind turns to the thoughts of Bill Wylie-Kellermann.

The prophetic writer, editor, seminary professor, and radical peacemaker (and Sojourners contributing editor) has connected with the Creator God through worship and theological inquiry for decades. Many have seen him arrested at nuclear weapons plants, followed his unique writings—done unfailingly “in the company of the congregation” (Psalm 111:1)—and have feasted with him on “that living bread that came down from heaven” (John 6:51).

Consider what it is to gain wisdom from the Holy Spirit. It is there in Wylie-Kellermann’s seminal book Seasons of Faith and Conscience: Kairos, Confession, Liturgy, where he spells out how worship is inherently political, and how “confessional politics” have changed history.

Wylie-Kellermann penned poetic and deeply wise life-as-liturgy e-mails to friends and peacemakers during this past year’s diminishments and death of his partner, Jeanie. He reminds us in his living and writing to “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise” (Ephesians 5:15).

Solomon manifests his love for God in “a thousand burnt offerings” (1 Kings 3:4). Passages like this week’s engender a search for a kind of holy role model. Who is yours?

August 27

Standing at the Door

1 Kings 8:22-30, 41-43; Psalm 84; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69

Some of us grew up in churches where learning “memory verses” was a rare thing. It’s never too late! In a secular culture hungry for authentic spiritual benchmarks, we might begin with this one: “For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness. For the Lord God is a sun and shield, and bestows favor and honor” (Psalm 84:10-11).

It is a question of power. God alone empowers and sustains the good and lifesaving work to which we are called. As ever, we need energy-giving sacred space, communities of conscience, and a living Word to the wise and the weary. Though Enlightenment thinking lives on, we have not proven ourselves smart, creative, or even scientific enough to bring justice or peace on our own.

If this century is to get past the bloody carnage of the last and birth a more peaceful world community, we must be “doorkeepers” in the only context that will give us the stamina to confront the rulers, authorities, cosmic powers, and spiritual forces of evil (Ephesians 6:12). The stakes are too great and the powers too dominant to go out with anything less than “the whole armor of God” and shoes that will carry us “ready to proclaim the gospel of peace” (Ephesians 6:11, 15). We need the God who is in Christ. We need the church.

It is the doorkeeper in God’s house who dwells long and consistently enough to recognize “the Holy One of God” (John 6:69). So that we don’t turn our backs as the disciples did, we too have to see that “it is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless” (John 6:63), however enlightened we think we are.

Our xenophobic times demand Solomon’s instruction to invite foreigners of all kinds to God’s temple, that the whole world would find healing, hope, and spiritual power. Luxuriate in Psalm 84:2 just a bit longer: “My soul longs, indeed it faints, for the courts of the Lord.”

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