Thursday, February 7, 2013

A One-Issue Man

I know a lot of one-issue Christians, people who care about one cause or issue more than anything and advocate for that cause or issue almost exclusively.  A lot of times it’s the result of a recognition that they are only one person with limited time and limited resources, and so instead of spreading  their energy among several worthy issues or causes, they have decided to pick one that they care deeply about and concentrate everything they have in order to really make an impact.  But often there is something very personal about the issue—something that has happened in their past to them or someone they are close to that causes them to feel very deeply that no one else should have to ever experience that again, or, conversely, it was so good and so beneficial that everyone should experience it.  The former recognize that other people pursuing other causes are legitimately following Jesus and expressing their unique calling in the Body of Christ, but all too often people in the latter category treat their issue or cause as a sort of litmus test to determine who is really following Jesus.  The issue may be moral, like abortion or gay marriage, or it may be church related, like attendance at worship or participation in a discipleship group, or it may be a doctrinal issue, like women pastors or the literal interpretation of Scripture, but one issue is singled out so as to become the basis for an ultimate discriminating judgment, a litmus test, as to whether someone else is worthy of religious and moral respect. 
Now, it’s good to be passionate about things, as long as you realize that not every one will feel as passionately as you do, or even that everyone will agree with you.  Failure to recognize such leads to the deep polarization we see in our county in which we fail to listen to one another and refuse to have actual conversations and discussions with those with different viewpoints, instead engaging in caustic debates that, as the old saw goes, generate a lot of heat but little light.  I don't want to talk right now, however, about the level of discourse in our society; I have done so before and will do so again.  But here’s what I want to know: are we passionate about the things (or thing) that Jesus himself was passionate about?  Christians often do a good job of drawing Jesus into their debates and arguing that he supports their position, but do we do as good as job of looking at what issue or cause Jesus was most interested in and allowing ourselves to be drawn into that?  I'm not so sure.
Of course, that assumes that Jesus was a one-issue guy, but was he?  I believe so, although we have to recognize that each writer in the New Testament presents it in his own unique way.  But I think it is most clearly stated by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew.  At its center lies this challenge: Can you love an enemy? Can you truly forgive someone who has hurt you? Can you bless someone who has cursed you? Can you be good to those who have done you harm? Can you forgive a murderer?
This challenge is what sets Jesus' moral teaching apart from others and gives it its unique character - and its real teeth. This is meant to be the distinguishing mark of a follower of Jesus: he or she can love and forgive an enemy.  If the Gospel of Matthew, or perhaps the New Testament as a whole, gives us a litmus test for discipleship, this might be its one-line formulation: Can you love and forgive an enemy?   Luke nuances the same idea  in the form of a compassionate father who loves in equal measure a prodigal son and an angry, self-righteous son , and in the form of a Samaritan man who goes to great lengths to care for a man who is of a class of people who despise Samaritans.  Other examples abound, not just in the Gospels but in Paul and the other New Testament writers.
Christians need to get this right, and until we do—until we make Jesus’ one issue our issue—we will love our issues more than we love people.  But when we get this issue down, we will find that we can pursue these other things will fervor and passion while still being respectful, forgiving, and loving.

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