Civility or Resistance?
Practicing Jesus-centered justice
By Antonio (Tony) Aja
After the shooting of Republican Congress members by a mentally ill person on a baseball field, many of the opposite side of my political and theological worldview started to say that we need to be ‘’civil,’’ stop naming others with pejorative epithets and lower the partisan rhetoric.
I must confess that I am guilty of that. Sometimes I say things publicly and to family and friends that do not reflect the love of Jesus. I have been carrying my anger over the policies of the new administration and the changes in the nation’s moral compass on my sleeve. As a result some of my relationships with family and friends whom I love have been undermined.
This is part of a discourse going on today in Christian circles related to how Christians should behave during this time in our country and world of overt and blatant discrimination against communities of color, fear of those from other religions and further marginalization of the poor and immigrants coming from those in power, whose job as politicians should be precisely the protection of vulnerable communities.
Therefore we see millions of people reacting strongly by making statements, marching, sending letters, emails and making phone calls to legislators protesting against what we consider to be abuses of power and injustice.
Many Christian denominations, including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), have taken strong public stands, citing what we believe are Scriptural mandates to protect and care for all people.
Yes, we should do all this with the love of Christ, respecting those who do not agree with us, and even ‘’loving our enemies.’’
However, that does not mean that we stop “resisting” the injustices that we see all around us.
This passage recently gave me pause:
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
— Matthew 10:34-39
Is this the same Jesus who taught us to love our neighbor – our parents, our sisters and brother, our children, our friends – everybody!? Is this the same Jesus who befriended sinners and prostitutes and Samaritans and even the Roman conquerors? Is this the same Jesus who told us to turn the other cheek and love our enemies?
What in the world is the writer saying here? At face value these words throw a gigantic monkey wrench to our understanding of the gospel of love and peace and compassion, doesn’t it?
Jesus knows that the disciples will be persecuted; that their lives may even be in danger. Perhaps some family members will disown them. Those in power, both from the religious and political communities, would not like what they will be trying to do. In their eyes the disciples may not be very “civil.”
So we ask, as Presbyterians, what is our role in society?
Well, public theology — the church getting involved in the social and political discourse — is an intrinsic element of our faith.
The roots of public theology are found in Scripture — both from the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures and from Jesus’ statements — as well as in the confessions and other documents, including the teachings of John Calvin.
Being public Christians
Moreover, “Reformed Theology teaches that because a sovereign God is at work in all the world, the church and Christian citizens should be concerned about public policy.” (Office of Public Witness, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
“When I feed the poor, they call me a saint, but when I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist.’’
— Dom Helder Camara
The aim of social justice is not just to help the immediate needs of poor people or the immigrant or the discriminated against, but to eliminate inequality and poverty and injustices in society.
In other words, we not only need to feed the hungry and house the homeless and heal the sick — all of them great things that we need to do — but also we have to ask WHY people are hungry, homeless and unable to access health care.
That’s where advocacy comes in. Wikipedia says: “Advocacy is a political process by an individual or group which aims to influence public-policy and resource allocation decisions within political economic and social systems and institutions.”
In other words, advocacy is the attempt to change the systems that make it difficult or impossible for people to live life the way God intended them to live…
I am reminded that Martin Luther King Jr., when he tried to change the system of segregation and discrimination, was told by the white pastors in Birmingham to be “civil” and stop making trouble for them. He refused and eventually he paid dearly for it.
Dom Helder Camara, Brazil’s “archbishop of the poor,” famously said:
“When I feed the poor, they call me a saint, but when I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist.”
Will you ruffle some feathers of family and friends — and the political system — when we ask the “Why?” question and try to change systems that oppress people? I’m sure we will. Jesus did as well. That is one of the reasons why he was put to death.
Should we do it with civility? Of course!
Regardless, it will cost us.
But we should also remember these other words of Jesus:
“Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Rev. Antonio (Tony) Aja currently serves as pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He earned a Doctor of Ministry degree at McCormick Theological Seminary. A former refugee from Cuba, Tony has developed new ministries with refugees and immigrants in Florida and Kentucky. He has been a missionary, pastor, executive director of an ecumenical ministry, and staff at the PC(USA) headquarters.