For Peace and Mutual Upbuilding

For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit; he who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. – Romans 14:7-19

Upon encountering this reading in Morning Prayer, I could not help but reflect upon Paul’s statement and its implication for social justice and how it makes so clear that actively working for social justice is not only proper to the service of God, but is in fact necessary if we are to consider ourselves to be a friend of God.

That Paul discusses a kingdom at all makes clear that he has in mind a society. A society is made up of people, and a kingdom is a society ruled by a king – in this case, God Himself, the one King fit to bear the title. Therefore, since Paul is speaking of God’s Kingdom and is speaking of it not in terms of the Kingdom of Heaven – the Kingdom that is to come – but of God’s Kingdom before us here on earth – the Kingdom in which we live today – it is clear that Paul is writing of a society. He does not have in mind our heavenly reward but is in fact speaking of attitudes and actions that we are to adopt today.

God’s kingdom is “righteousness and peace and joy,” Paul tells us. Certainly, righteousness, peace and joy are all central to the mission of social justice. In fact, without righteousness there can be no justice. Without peace there can be no justice. In a state of justice, all can attain the joy that advances both peace and righteousness. Thus when we say that the Kingdom of God here on earth is righteousness and peace and joy, we are talking in terms of social justice and should do so with the understanding that if we are not actively working for social justice then we are working against the Kingdom of God.

To feed the hungry is a work of peace and righteousness; it brings joy to the starving. To give water to the thirsty is a work of peace and righteousness; it brings joy to the parched. To clothe the naked is a work of peace and righteousness; it brings joy to the cold. To shelter the harborless is a work of peace and righteousness; it brings joy to the homeless. To visit the sick is a work of peace and righteousness; it brings joy to the dying. To ransom the captive is a work of peace and righteousness; it brings joy to the slave. To bury the dead is a work of peace and righteousness; it brings joy to those who mourn.

To instruct the ignorant is a work of peace and righteousness; it brings joy to those who are in darkness. To counsel the doubtful is a work of peace and righteousness; it brings joy to those who are in despair. To admonish sinners is a work of peace and righteousness; it brings joy to those who are redeemed. To comfort the afflicted is a work of peace and righteousness; it brings joy to those who are suffering. To bear wrongs patiently is a work of peace and righteousness; it brings joy to ourselves and advances the cause of peace and righteousness. To forgive wrongs willingly is a work of peace and righteousness; it brings joy to ourselves and advances the cause of peace and righteousness.

To pray for the living and the dead is a work of peace and righteousness; it reminds us of our dependence on each other, but most of all on God, from whom all blessings flow. It puts us in the presence of God, without Whom there can be no real or lasting joy.

Paul instructs that these things we should do in the Holy Spirit – we should do them because we are called to do them. There is no greater reason than this. Further, in doing these things and in all tasks that are at the service of social justice, we are acting in a way that serves Christ and is acceptable to God.

Let us then pursue what leads to peace and mutual upbuilding. Let us work for social justice.

True Story

I’ve been a little under the weather here lately, and I really needed to get a good night sleep Tuesday so I took some Nyquil before going to bed. Wednesday, I was teaching from a Gospel passage at RCIA, and I wanted to be rested and as ready as possible.

Anyway, I dreamed about the Biblical passage on which I would be teaching – it’s a very famous passage, and I’m sure everyone knows it; it’s the one where the Apostles James and Bartholomew are trying to load the Bengal tiger into the back seat of an old, beat-up, beige-on-brown Honda (because as everyone knows the Apostles shared one Accord) so that they could use the tiger to preach the Gospel. This must have been the laziest Bengal tiger in the Holy Land, because it was just dead weight and purring as the Apostles struggled to get it into the car. (It did whack Bartholomew with its tail once, but that was about it as far as effort on the tiger’s part.)

I woke up in a panic, absolutely convinced that this was really in the Bible and that I had to unpack the deep, theological meaning from it for a room full of people. It took me a few minutes of Nyquil-induced stupor to realize that, no, this was just a cold-medicine dream and that I was actually talking about the themes of spiritual blindness, the sin of pride, and seeing all that Jesus offers in the context of the Blind Man presented in the ninth chapter of the Gospel of John. (Whew!)

I guess the moral of this story is watch out for Nyquil. I’m still not sure how James and Bartholomew planned on preaching the Gospel with a Bengal tiger, but I’m sure they had a plan.

A King to Rule Us

There is a reading that is a good reminder to all of us about the dangers of politics; it comes from First Samuel.

All the elders of Israel came in a body to Samuel at Ramah and said to him, “Now that you are old, and your sons do not follow your example, appoint a king over us, as other nations have, to judge us.”

Samuel was displeased when they asked for a king to judge them. He prayed to the LORD, however, who said in answer: “Grant the people’s every request. It is not you they reject, they are rejecting me as their king.”

Samuel delivered the message of the LORD in full to those who were asking him for a king. He told them: “The rights of the king who will rule you will be as follows: He will take your sons and assign them to his chariots and horses, and they will run before his chariot. He will also appoint from among them his commanders of groups of a thousand and of a hundred soldiers. He will set them to do his plowing and his harvesting, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will use your daughters as ointment makers, as cooks, and as bakers. He will take the best of your fields, vineyards, and olive groves, and give them to his officials. He will tithe your crops and your vineyards, and give the revenue to his eunuchs and his slaves. He will take your male and female servants, as well as your best oxen and your asses, and use them to do his work. He will tithe your flocks and you yourselves will become his slaves. When this takes place, you will complain against the king whom you have chosen,
but on that day the LORD will not answer you.”

The people, however, refused to listen to Samuel’s warning and said, “Not so!  There must be a king over us. We too must be like other nations, with a king to rule us and to lead us in warfare and fight our battles.”

When Samuel had listened to all the people had to say, he repeated it to the LORD, who then said to him, “Grant their request and appoint a king to rule them.”

The problem here, of course, is that Israel had a king – God – and yet they somehow thought that they would do better with a human king. Instead of rejoicing in having the only king truly fit for the job, the elders of Israel demanded a human king. Instead of living in the freedom God offers and with the virtue and responsibility that God demands, Israel instead sought a human king to rule them and to lead them and to fight their battles.

Even in the face of the warnings of what such a king would bring, still the elders of Israel put their faith in man instead of in God. We know, of course, that the warnings, dire though they were, became fact; all that of which Samuel warned Israel would happen came to pass. History teaches that it always works out that way; empires are motivated by human desires, and so empires rise and empires fall. The Golden Age of Man is myth; since the Fall of our first parents, there has been no Golden Age, nor can there ever be.
Samuel’s words should be a warning today just as surely as they were a warning when he spoke them. We should all remember – regardless of political affiliation – that no government is perfect. We should all constantly demand better from the governments that rule us; we should hold them to the highest of standards not because we think they can achieve those standards, but we know that they can do better than they are doing right now. We should hold ourselves to this same standard of growth and constantly demand better from ourselves, too; otherwise, we will become hypocrites – our demands will be empty and our criticisms hollow.

It has been famously remarked that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those others that have been tried. Churchill was almost right about this; instead, perhaps he should have remarked that democracy is the worst form of human government, except for all those others that have been tried. Still, in this country, democracy, or at least a representative republic has taken us far. It should take us farther; it must take us farther.

Regardless of political affiliation, there is no sin in not being satisfied with your government… unless, perhaps, you were one of the elders of Israel demanding a human king in place of the Divine King. Every person should be vocal when he is displeased with the government – especially when he is displeased with those elected officials for whom he voted. We should all heed the warning of Samuel and remember that no human government can possibly be perfect, nor is it sacred; government will only grow in the order of perfection when such is demanded of it by its citizens.

It has also been famously remarked that in democracy people get the government that they deserve. This should serve as a warning just as clearly as Samuel’s words do; if a government will only grow in the order of perfection when such is demanded of it by its citizens, then certainly the citizens can only be in a position to demand such when they themselves are growing in the order of perfection. Without virtue, democracy will fail.