FAITH: a contribution to public life

A reflection comes to this site that gives weight to the understanding that faith is a contribution to public life and that ‘none of us can be fully human, until all are human’:-

It is certainly true that no man can bear the burden of another before God’s judgment. That does not, however, absolve each of us from our individual responsibility to God and to our fellows. It is reported in your accounts of the Gospel, that Jesus was asked about God’s commandments and which was the most important. He said: Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God. The Lord is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is similar to it: You shall love you neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law [Torah] and the Prophets [nevi’im or prophetic books].

Our neighbour is anyone with whom we are in contact, whether it is our near neighbour or someone in a faraway land who becomes known to us. Jesus tells us that we must feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty and visit the prisoner. Such acts of love are considered by Jesus to be acts of love toward him. And failure to do such acts is an injury to him.

The scriptures are full of exhortations to charity:
• To do good, and to distribute, forget not; for with such sacrifices God is well pleased. Heb. xiii. 16.
• Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive. Acts xx. 35.
• While we have time, let us do good unto all men; and especially unto them that are of the household of faith. Gal. vi. 10.

It is clear here that the commandment to help others goes beyond those who are members of the Church.
Whoso hath this world’s goods, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him’? 1 St. John iii 17. “Brother” here is not limited to our biological brother or our faith brother, but to all members of the human family.

A collect that I still remember from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer reminds us that:
Almighty God “hast made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on the face of the whole earth.”

While our responsibility is individual, we cannot simply ignore the social, political and religious context in which we live. We must find practical ways to fulfil our individual responsibility and that often means working with and through communities, groups, institutions, governments, etc. As for not being “yoked with the unbelievers” who are under the sway of the “Prince of this world”. Jesus was well aware of that attitude and he condemned it by an example of the unlimited scope of his own works, in a parable from the Gospel accounts:

And, behold, a woman of Canaan [i.e. a non-Israelite] came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil.
But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us.
But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me.
But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs.
And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.
Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour. (Matthew 15:22-28)

If an individual who could have acted does nothing and as a result lays up for himself increased wealth at the expense and to the detriment of his brothers and sisters (whether near or far), he will, as an individual, stand before the Eternal Judge and be called to account for his selfishness and sins of inaction. As individuals, we have given over our governance to collective entities and we have collectively created means for the distribution of wealth. In that context, we are obliged to do all that we can to be sure the social institutions that act in our stead do the right thing. I cannot go to Darfur and care for a victim of the violence. But I can contribute money to groups that are there (whether faith groups or other NGOs) and I can speak out to encourage my government or my church to do something useful. If I do nothing, I will have failed to keep the second greatest commandment: to love my neighbour as myself. The fact that my responsibility before God is always individual and not collective does not negate the fact that we are social beings. We group ourselves into families, villages, nations, and many other collectives. We have an individual social responsibility for what goes on in the social groups that make up the world.

While the “systems of this world”, as you put it, may be the “domain of the Prince of this world”, they are not necessarily his exclusive dominion. Simple abandoning dominion to him is an act of blasphemy since God has made us stewards of his creation. We, not Satan, are the God’s vicars on earth for the responsible use of the earth’s bounty.

Charity (almsgiving) is an act of worship, as the offertory sentence makes plain:
All things come from you O Lord and from your own have we given you.
What we individuals do with our wealth, whether individually or through collective means, is an act of worship and a necessary link between God’s justice and His mercy. If we neglect to use the means at hand to distribute the world’s riches, we commit a grave sin–even if the only means available or collective and imperfect.

Rev Peter Challen

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