What does reconnecting with Jesus mean as we go into the world? How do we see him, recognize him, and follow him? Does reconnecting with Jesus mean reclaiming a way of life or style of life that we can look for?
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus compares following his way to being the “salt” and light” that the world so desperately needs. He says that his followers will be like salt, a preserving and stabilizing force to preserve, protect, and deepen the values and behaviors that human cultures most need to keep and enhance. Jesus said to his followers, “You are the salt of the earth,” to preserve the important things that sustain and undergird human societies. This is a quality that conservatives often admire: keeping cohesion and positive communal values intact, like the glue that often holds things together — values such as honesty, integrity, compassion, fairness, faithfulness, fidelity, and dedication to raising our children in ways that are good and right and for the sake of service to others.
The followers of Jesus will also be like light, shining into the darkness, revealing what is wrong, untrue, and a danger to human life and dignity — revealing the things that need to be changed. Jesus said to his disciples, “you are the light of the world,” revealing the things we should not let darkness cover up or make us accept. This is what liberals or progressives are often drawn to. Exposing injustice, the light helps point to and promote social, racial, and economic justice where and when it is most needed, because those commitments and goals are integral to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Only when light shines will the darkness go away. The light also serves as a beacon that others can see and be drawn to, modeling loving God and neighbor in ways that show what true love and justice look like. I think many of us who learned about the Sermon on the Mount in Sunday school may have thought of “salt of the earth” and “light of the world” as basically the same thing — I know I did.
But when one steps back to look at them, it’s clear that they are complementary but different qualities that followers of Jesus should possess. Both the values related to preserving that which we must preserve, often associated with conservatives, and the values related to illuminating that which must be changed, often associated with liberals, should be important values for any who follow Jesus.
William Matthews had an important insight about how the qualities of salt and light relate to the very nature of God in our conversation this week for the Reclaiming Jesus Now podcast on “Becoming Salt, Light, and Hope:”
I find both of those realities very much present in the sacred text and also the character and nature of God … who is the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and loves tradition and values, but also the god of the future, who is drawing and pulling humanity to this Omega Point …
I think when we step back to think about it, it’s clear that the world needs both salt and light. When we feel like the world is unraveling all around us, even progressives can feel the conservative impulse to preserve important values and relationships. On the other hand, we see people across the political spectrum, especially those of a younger generation, coming together to shine a light on injustices that have persisted for far too long. I often say that every generation has to decide what they think is no longer tolerable, no longer acceptable, and no longer inevitable. That’s what social movements do. They shine a light on things that can no longer be accepted and can be changed.
It’s worth naming some of the salt and light that we’ve seen all around us despite the turbulence and darkness of this political moment. The Parkland students continue to change the whole gun conversation. The Black Lives Matter movement, in the five years since Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, has changed the whole national conversation about fair community policing and racial equity. The young immigrant Dreamers have won over a huge percentage of the American people with their stories, and they refuse to return to the shadows despite the political setbacks and attacks under this administration. Women, with many men who love them alongside, marched in the streets after the 2017 inauguration and then many of them ran for office themselves — and won. The #MeToo movement has resulted in long overdue accountability for a growing number of powerful abusers. Young people like Greta Thunberg have made it clear that their generation will succeed where previous ones have failed in confronting the challenge of climate change with a response that’s finally commensurate to the scale of the threat.
The presence of salt and light all around us is an important source of and validation for hope. Societies and movements need hope — which is a primary contribution of the faith community. As I've always said, hope is not a feeling or a mood or a personality type. Hope is a decision. It's a choice we make because of this thing we call faith. Of course, it’s seldom easy to make that decision to hope, especially when the empirical evidence for hope is often so scarce. But when we struggle with hope, one thing we can do as a spiritual exercise is to name our “cloud of witnesses,” as Hebrews 12 so movingly names them. When we reflect on those who came before, who shaped us and made us who we are today, whether they are famous or not, it can be a powerful boost to our faith and hope. It’s often an emotional experience to reflect on and name all those whose prayers are being fulfilled in you and what you're doing right now. We need that cloud of witnesses to go forward in difficult times, to combat the cynicism and withdrawal that always tempt us in times like these. As Allison Trowbridge put it in our podcast conversation this week:
I think when we can become overwhelmed by the news of the day to be reminded of the footsteps that we walk in, in those who've gone before us, every one of them facing some matter of immense resistance, both in their personal lives and in their sociopolitical time — I think it gives us great hope and great encouragement that we're not only not alone, but that we're a part of something so much bigger.
As we gather with our loved ones this Thanksgiving week to give thanks for all of our blessings, I know that many of you are dreading conversations with families and loved ones about politics, not to mention about how following Jesus informs the values we bring to bear on public life. Many of you have relatives with whom you strongly disagree on at least one of the issues that dominates the political debates of this fearful time. But rather than avoiding discussing politics for fear of disagreement, I want to suggest that followers of Jesus have a different and higher responsibility as vessels of salt and light. We can actually use our common values as Jesus followers, our commitment to preserving that which we cannot afford to lose, and illuminating that which must be changed, to find common ground that transcends our divisions borne of political polarization. In other words, we shouldn’t avoid our disagreements but confront them directly and deliberately. And we should do so through the lens of what Jesus taught and did. Or as I’ve often put it, don’t go left, don’t go right, go deeper. Happy Thanksgiving and may God bless you all.