Christianity promises, by grace and through faith, that believers will spend eternity with God in paradise. But many of us believers have become so obsessed with who gets into heaven -- and who doesn't -- and how that we have missed a central question of the gospel: How are we to live this life, here and now?
"For a long time ... evangelicals were so focused on the return of Christ that what was happening in the real world was almost incidental," Rev. Marty Duren, a Southern Baptist pastor and blogger, told CNN earlier this year in response to Fox News Channel commentator Glenn Beck's outlandish call for Christians to leave churches that advocate for social justice.
Any careful reading of the New Testament must lead us toward working for justice for all. We not only are called to address the physical needs of the poor and the sick, we must also recognize and work to change the societal injustices that contribute to poverty, disease, and any sort of disenfranchisement.
Social justice is a virtue.
We don't talk much about virtue these days, and by virtue, I mean moral strength. In his latest book, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters, N.T. Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham, England, challenges the church -- and broader society in general -- to return to virtue and the development of character.
Virtue, Wright says, is the only path out of this nervous time we're living in with its economic collapse, wars and rumors of wars, and natural disasters exacerbated by failed social systems that leave the poorest of the poor to fend for themselves.
"Virtue, to put it bluntly, is a revolutionary idea in today's world -- and today's church. But the revolution is one we badly need," Wright says in After You Believe. "And it is right at the core of the answer to the questions with which we began. After you believe, you need to develop Christian character by practicing specifically Christian 'virtues.' To make wise moral decisions, you need not just to 'know the rules' or 'discover who you really are,' but to develop Christian virtue. And to give wise leadership in our wider society in the confusing and dangerous times we live in, we urgently need people whose characters have been formed in much the same way. We've had enough of pragmatists and self-seeking risk-takers. We need people of character."
Whether you define virtue as Aristotle did with his "cardinal" virtues of courage, justice, prudence, and temperance, or within an explicitly Christian rubric, as St. Paul did with his fruits of the spirit -- love, joy, peace, great-heartedness, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control -- virtue is the road map for answering the question, How are we to live?
"Character is a slowly forming thing," Wright says. "You can no more force character on someone than you can force a tree to produce fruit when it isn't ready to do so. The person has to choose, again and again, to develop moral muscles and skills which will shape and form the fully flourishing character."
By developing virtue within ourselves, we can change the world. Qualities such as love, joy, gentleness, generosity, courage, and self-control are infectious. Just as a little leavening can make many loaves of bread rise, the virtue of even a few can elevate the many.
Virtue is not our salvation. That comes by grace alone. But we weren't meant to pass through this lifetime twiddling our thumbs, waiting for a heavenly bus to arrive. We are Jesus' hands in this world. There is much work to be done.
Cathleen Falsani is the author of the new book The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers. She blogs at The Dude Abides. This article first appeared in the June 2010 issue of Sojourners magazine.