Faith Speech Run Amok

This morning I caught up on news I had missed during the past week without internet. One item immediately caught my attention. I discovered that there is a huge public conversation involving Christians and Jews over this question: if an atheist is diagnosed with cancer and he begins treatment for it, should we pray for him to get well?

What? I don’t know enough about Jewish theology to converse about their attitudes, but I have been a Christian for a long time, so I feel completely prepared to discuss this question as regards Christians. What I don’t understand is this: why is this even a question?

One day someone asked Jesus what was the greatest law. The obvious intent was to have him prioritize among the many laws Pharisees tried to observe and enforce. The questioner almost certainly expected to get additional guidance about the way God evaluated obedience to more important or less important laws. Instead, Jesus ended the discussion by saying this: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40) In summary, love God and love your neighbor. That is the law. That is all there is. Forget that list you think you need. God’s law is about giving yourself completely to God and then loving everyone.

The person who asked this question was just like the people who wonder if we should pray for the healing of an atheist. He thought that God had rules that separated the “good” people from the “bad” people. Everybody engaged in this debate about praying for an atheist has the same mind set. This debate has nothing to do with God at all. It is entirely about human attitudes and it is completely motivated by Satan’s constant desire to build walls between us and God and between each of us and all the rest of us. This debate has nothing to do with the will of God; it is all about the will of the Self that sits on the throne of each human heart, the Self that is its own little god in its own little empire that has no room for anyone else.

So I ask: why is this even a question? The answer is that when someone does not love God with all his heart, soul and mind, he cannot even begin to love his neighbor. The answer is that if someone does love God with all his heart, soul, and mind, he will absolutely love his neighbor, because God loves his neighbor. So I ask, if an atheist is diagnosed with cancer and he begins treatment for it, should we pray for him to get well? I answer, Yes, indeed we should.

We should not, however, pray that he be healed simply with a view to the possibility of using his healing to make a convert out of him. We should not pray for him in order to show God how good we are. We should not pray for him in order to show the world that Christians are post-partisan. We should pray for him, as we would pray for any neighbor, because God loves him and wants the best for him. Whether a person is an atheist, a Buddhist, a Communist, a Presbyterian or a Shinto priest, God created that person out of God’s love for him. God created each of us and gifted each of us and yearns for fellowship with us. God loves each individual even if that individual is spitting in his eye.

If you doubt this to be true, just look at Christ on the cross. He had been whipped and tortured for hours before he dragged his own cross to the hill of Golgotha where Roman soldiers nailed him to that cross where he hung, on public display, for hours. Jeering crowds surrounded him, daring him to prove he was God’s Son by jumping off the cross and saving himself. His response was to ask his heavenly Father for forgiveness for everyone. Then he died for everyone, because he loved everyone. If Christ died for this atheist, then Christ loves this atheist, and that is why we should pray for his healing.

It is not possible to pray lovingly that this man be healed of his cancer and not pray also that the Holy Spirit will work in his heart to give him the gift of faith and the gift of life in Christ. We pray that prayer for the world, and we pray that prayer for individuals, but that is the natural outgrowth of love for people.

It is impossible for me to understand how this debate ever got started. If anyone had approached me to ask what I thought, my answer would be, “When I see Jesus on the cross, I know that he died for everyone, including this atheist. May God grant this man healing in both body and soul, in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Amen.”

The Social Justice God Wants

I hear politicians talk about social injustice all the time. They always bring it up in the context of an explanation for higher taxes and more programs. Right this minute, our president is asking for $50 billion to stimulate the economy. Sometimes it is about money for unemployment benefits or food stamps or other things. The stimulus program is supposedly justified by a crisis in our financial sector that had its roots in a government requirement to lend money to people who could not pay it back so they could buy houses they could not afford. Our country does a lot of things supposedly in the name of social justice.

My church friends mostly believe that the government ought to do these things. I must confess that there are times when I think the government does a good job of helping people with temporary problems. Where I truly diverge from most of my friends is that I do not believe that the church should advocate for social programs to be underwritten by the government. I also do not believe that the church, or any faith-based group, should apply for government money to fund their social programs.

I have two fundamental reasons for my position:

1. God created people free to choose to do good or evil. He did not create robots who can do nothing against his will. He created human beings who are so free that they can, if they dare, spit in God’s eye. There are consequences to their choices, but God never hampers their right to choose.

2. The government is a terribly poor steward of a dollar.

The United States was founded by people who believed that God created human beings, and they believed that God gave people individual liberty. They did not always like what individuals did with their liberty, but they firmly believed in that liberty. The hallmark of American history is the individual who tamed forests, prairies, mountains and oceans with a lot of will and energy. The whole structure of the Constitution is to limit the central government and prevent it from interfering with individual liberty. The Constitution was intended to specify the very few things the federal government could do, but lest anyone get confused about the intent, the first act of the new nation under the Constitution was to pass ten amendments, the tenth of which said clearly that the federal government could only have the power defined by the Constitution. All other powers were reserved to the states and to the people.

As an American citizen, I treasure my individual freedom. As a Christian, I treasure my freedom, also. One of the greatest blessings of Christian life is the freedom to try and fail and be forgiven and try again. God is unhappy when we make bad choices, but he loves us anyway.

My freedom as an American citizen and my freedom as a baptized child of God make me cringe when I hear church leaders talk about advocating for the government to tax every citizen in order to pay for programs that do the work of bringing about social justice that Christ would want. They glibly promote the idea that Jesus wants the poor fed and clothed and housed at government expense. I dispute that allegation. If Jesus had intended to change government into the instrument of his kingdom’s work, he missed a great chance when he made his speech about “render to Caesar.” No government on earth could have benefited more from the introduction of a social conscience than the Roman government, but Jesus chose to say that we give to God what is God’s, not to Caesar. What does that mean?

I think it means that if we want God’s work done, we should do it ourselves. To ask the government to do it means that many people who have not chosen to do God’s work of feeding, clothing and sheltering the poor are nonetheless obligated to do so. When the church is successful in advocating for social programs, and the necessary taxation, the church overrules the freedom God gave people to choose to participate in those costs and services as an act of love and service to him. The church is, therefore, acting in place of God by demanding compliance from people who have no desire to serve him. God always invites, but he never compels. Taxation not only compels, but it also oppresses.

Those who disagree with me point out that the government has more power to get the money and can, therefore, get more money out of people that we can elicit by invitation. This statement is quite true. It does not, however, provide justification for overriding the liberty of each human being to be charitable in his own way. Americans have demonstrated over and over that they are very charitable people, even though it is certainly easy to identify some holdouts. The fact that more could be done, however, does not justify the church in advocating for its vision of social justice to be paid for by all citizens.

However, my second point is that the government does not use the money it collects wisely. We citizens never see an honest accounting of what the government does with taxes collected for the purpose of social programs. If we did see such a thing, we would be appalled. We actually ought to ask the government to account for its money the way private charities are expected to account for theirs. If we actually saw how much of each dollar in government hands ever actually helps a hungry or homeless person, we would be angry. This is a major reason for not letting the government take our money away from us taxes. Far too little of it ever comes back to help the people who are suffering.

When I first grew old enough to make my own money decisions, my parents taught me to look carefully at the financial record of charities. Some charities, it turns out, squander money as if they were government agencies. Money donated to those charities turns into huge executive salaries, elaborate and expensive buildings, and nebulous benefit programs for the employees of the charities. Very little of their money ever feeds a hungry child.

On the other hand, some charities are excellent stewards of the donations they receive, putting more than 90% of the money into services and benefits for the people they serve. The Heifer Project is a prime example. The Lutheran World Hunger Project is another. Both of these charities operate on less than 10% of their donations. The rest of the money actually helps not only to feed people, but also to provide people the means to feed themselves into the future. No government program has ever demonstrated either the level of stewardship or the degree of benefit these programs provide. They do it without the use of force, i.e. the power of taxation, and they do it to the very great benefit of a lot of people.

There is one more thing to consider about using government money to achieve the church’s agenda. If the government pays the bill, the government runs the show. In a homeless shelter that operates without government money, a church can ask people to say grace before meals or invite them to a Bible study without apology. It is what churches do. If the government pays for the food or for the building, then the government can attach conditions to its money. The government might say that in the interest of separation of church and state, no prayers before meals and no Bible study in this building. We can protest all we want, but this is the government’s right if it pays the bills. Look at all the strings it attaches to federal highway money or school lunch programs. The government is quite assertive about the price recipients pay for government money. We may get that money without undesirable strings today, but those strings can become quite knotted by tomorrow.

I believe that God’s way of doing business is to call and empower and motivate and guide individuals who commit themselves to his work. I do not believe that it is God’s way to impose the power of the Christian agenda on people who disagree with it. It bothers me for my church leaders to be aggressive in this area. However, even if I thought it was a theologically sound idea, I would object because of the stewardship. If I give a dollar to feed hungry people, I don’t like the idea that the hungry only get a dime. That is the government way, not the way of Christian stewardship. If I give a dollar to feed the hungry, I am much happier when they receive at least 90 cents of it.

With the Holy Spirit as the wind in your sails, you may look tilted to contemporary culture.

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