In a world that seems completely and irrevocably divorced from the teachings of Christ, where in contemporary society is there a place for the Christian voice? Politicians shamelessly use Jesus’s name to justify their authority and gain influence without bothering to unpack the full depth of theological and ethical implications of their words. Corporations are granted the rights of individuals, but some individuals are denied the resources they need in times of crisis to support their families and livelihoods. And the public debate is so full of vitriol and hyperbole that dehumanization and outright hatred of those with whom we disagree has become the norm. In light of the situation in which we find ourselves, how then should Christians behave?
While it might seem appealing to remove ourselves from secular society altogether and forsake the world in all its brokenness in favor of a uniquely Christian ethic that appeals and applies only to us, Christians have an obligation to serve as active participants in public discourse— elevating the conversation rather than abstaining from it so that we may try to live the truth and convictions of our faith.
To clarify, this obligation is not a duty or a burden placed on us by legalism or dogma. Christian action comes not out of guilt but an authentic and loving response to God.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16, NRSV).
This love and incredible grace, which we believe has been freely granted, must be actively lived and lifted up so that in working for God’s glory we may more fully appreciate and experience our faith and the promise of eternal life. Just as Christ called the first disciples, saying “Follow me and I will make you fish for people” (Mark 1:17, NRSV), we as Christians are all called to discipleship so that in following God we may open our lives and hearts to be transformed by his teachings.
Works not only grow out of faith — they are integral to it. “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17, NRSV).
Christian faith cannot be segmented and separated from the rest of our lives in a little compartment that only comes out on Sundays. In Christ, we have a picture of God that calls us to open our hearts and to fully live our lives in discipleship by saying to us, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28, NRSV).
How else are we to respond to God’s incredible blessings if not by transforming the way in which we live so that it may more fully embrace the call of discipleship to which Christ has invited us?
Why then should these works that come out of a lived response to God call us to participate in the world around us? Because it is through active engagement with others that we live out Christ’s call to love. As people who live in a world, we are all inherently participating in God’s creation here on earth, and in being called to discipleship our actions in the world must be shaped by our faith in a God that tells us: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6, NRSV).
Faith is not complete without action in the world because we, as people, cannot separate true belief in a radically loving and forgiving God from the way in which we live and act in society and in relation to others.
Some may object by claiming that the truth of Christianity can only be fully honored and appreciated in an exclusively Christian setting, as the very act of bringing this message into the secular world will inherently weaken faith in Christ that makes up the very foundation of these Christian values. Therefore, they claim that our action in the world should be divorced from public discourse and political action so that it may remain pure and untainted by secular society. This perspective, while flawed, does raise an important point.
Living in faithful response to God and his love requires that Christians always remain cognizant of the motivation for our actions — never lifting up the actions themselves as the highest good. When Christians hear the command, “You should love your neighbor as yourself,” (Mark 12:31, NRSV) we must also remember that the reason for this command is not because loving others is admirable in and of itself, but because of the truth and radical implications of the first and greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30, NRSV).
In lifting up love for one another, or any other instruction that God offers to us as followers of Christ, we must always remember that we fulfill them for no other reason than that: “We love [God] because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19, NRSV).
And so in our faith and love for a God who transcends our comprehension and in thanksgiving for the grace and promise of eternal salvation, we go forth from our churches and seminaries as people whose lives and actions are transformed through Christ. We are disciples and saints in community with one another and the world around us. We are the light of the world, and in allowing God to transform us, we carry that light and the radical message of love to others regardless of religious tradition or denomination. Christians are called to action in the world so that we may offer to others the same incredible love that we ourselves have already received, even as we know that no human love is as perfect as the love of God. In opening our lives and our works to be filled by God and his love alone, we allow ourselves to be used in the creation of a world that is also transformed through Christ, ever reaching and ever striving to fulfill the commandment to love.
Kateleigh Hewins is a Master of Divinity Candidate at Harvard Divinity School.