On Kim Davis, the Good Samaritan, and Fruitful Ways to Take a Stand
Recently, I posted a comment on social media that got a high number of responses – some agreed with me, and some others did not. The post read as follows:
Millions of homeless, vulnerable refugees,
and all the attention goes to Kim Davis.
Lord have mercy.
I hope this wasn’t an arrogant or offensive thing of me to say (I suspect that some may feel it was?) If so, I apologize. I don’t at all want to disparage or minimize the perspective of those who support Kim Davis. My concern is chiefly one of comparison and contrast. Also, I don’t enjoy making controversial statements publicly, especially on social media where things can get out of hand and be so easily misunderstood. I don’t want to unnecessarily upset people.
But on that particular day, I felt a nudge to say something about what I saw to be a perplexing contrast. Some sixteen million human souls have been mercilessly driven from their homes, and are now refugees facing daily persecution, homelessness, and hunger. And nobody seemed to be talking about it. Meanwhile Kim Davis, a Kentucky clerk who, because of her Christian beliefs, could not in good conscience sign marriage certificates for same-sex couples, was the main headline on every news channel and website. I found this contrast to be a troubling commentary on the things we feel are most important and pressing.
Here, I hope to provide some food for thought – hopefully the helpful kind– about why I think the best “moral stand” we can take is the one that centers on loving our neighbors sacrificially. In the time of Jesus, sacrificial love validated the message that was being preached. It wast the main thing, second only to the Holy Spirit, that made religious seekers and skeptics want to listen to the good news about Jesus. I think that’s still true today.
Why Focus More On Loving Our Neighbors?
Last week, I wrote an entire blog post in answer to this question in relation to the Syrian refugee crisis. In addition to that post, we might add the following:
Syrian Christians and Muslims are our neighbors. And Jesus said that we must love all of our neighbors as we love ourselves. The Good Samaritan confirms this. Responding to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus described in a parable what it means to be a neighbor. The chosen hero in his parable is a Samaritan – a mortal enemy to his Jewish listeners. Samaritans were feared by the Jews in the same way that Americans might fear Al Qaeda or ISIS today. The Samaritan sees his cultural enemy, a Jewish man, lying on the side of the road near dead. Instead of attacking him as expected, the Samaritan provides food, shelter, healthcare, dignity, and follow-up to the Jewish man. Meanwhile, two religious professionals, a Priest and a Levite, pass by on the other side of the road. They do nothing help their vulnerable neighbor on the side of the road. For them, this would have been unsafe. If marauders attacked this man, what would stop them from attacking the Priest and Levite also? Best to keep a safe distance, yes?
Like the Priest and Levite, some have said that dealing with Syrian refugees would not be safe. It risks a Trojan Horse scenario, where people who want to hurt us covertly infiltrate the refugee migration. This of course is a legitimate concern, one that US and local governments will surely attend to for any refugee who crosses US and local borders. Even if we did not have such government protections, would concern for ourselves be a legitimate reason to do nothing, to pass by on the other side of the road, to tell millions of truly at-risk souls that they are, for all intents and purposes, on their own? If we feel this way, we should carefully consider what we believe Jesus meant when he told us to take up a cross daily.
Taking up a cross…the radical, self-giving love kind that Jesus spoke about…was a deadly endeavor in the Roman Empire. Eleven of Jesus’ twelve disciples died as martyrs because they took up a cross, having assumed on themselves all of the costs, risks, and inconveniences of love.
The early church also understood that love did not guarantee their safety. To the contrary, sometimes love threatened their safety. When the plague came to Rome, many Greco-Roman citizens tossed family members to the streets because of the contagion. Christians responded by going out to the streets and offering hospitality to the dying, contagious Roman souls. Many of those taken in did not believe in Jesus, but were friends of Caesar and therefore mortal enemies to Christians. And yet, it was the Christians who gave them the gift of love, care, hospitality, the gospel, and an opportunity to die with dignity. Many Christians got sick as they opened their lives and homes in this way, and many also died. Concerning this sacrificial love, Emperor Julian wrote that Christians took better care of Rome’s poor and infirm than Rome did. According to Julian, this was a threat to Rome’s sovereignty…and he was right. By the third century AD, the moral fabric of Rome was transformed by this self-sacrificing, neighbor-loving minority called the Christian Church.
Tracing back to the New Testament, we see that it is self-sacrificing love, not an in-your-face moral stance against secular culture, that melts people and draws them to Jesus.
Why Focus Less on Fighting the Morality Wars?
There are good-hearted, sincere Christians who will disagree with me on this, but I do not see evidence that the stance taken by Kim Davis (and especially those who have used her situation for political gain) has advanced the Kingdom of Jesus in a positive way. In some ways, it has reinforced a negative caricature of Christians, who are perceived as being more focused on what they are against than what they are for. This approach did not work well for the “moral majority” of the 80’s and 90’s. Since that time, western culture has grown increasingly secular and cynical toward Christianity. So, if the goal is to reach a culture with the gospel, I’m not sure why anyone would think that the same, failed approach will be effective today.
To be clear, I respect Ms. Davis for following her conscience according to her understanding of Scripture. I agree with her view that Scripture reserves both sex and marriage for one man and one woman. If interested, you can read more about my perspective on this here. I also affirm Ms. Davis’ belief that it is always best to obey God instead of man when the two collide. My concern is not with Ms. Davis’ beliefs, but rather with the way that she and, even more so, those who have organized rallies around her cause, have chosen to express their beliefs in public.
When Peter said to the governing authorities, “We must obey God rather than men,” it was in a specific context. The authorities were telling Peter and the other disciples to shut up about Jesus. The issue was not Christian versus secular ethics, but fulfilling their calling to preach Christ. Whenever Jesus encountered people with an unbiblical sex or marriage ethic (the woman caught in adultery, the woman at the well who had had been with many men and had many husbands, Mary Magdalene and the Luke 7 prostitute, etc.), Jesus never scolded or took a public moral stand against their ideas or practices. Instead, he won each person over with a love more compelling than the empty love that they had been chasing prior to encountering him. When Paul wrote to Corinth about sexual immorality, he insisted that judgment must begin, and also end, with the household of God. He went on to say that it is never Christians’ business to judge people outside the church…that’s God’s job and prerogative.
Christians’ relationship with the secular world, then, should focus first on having lives that compel others to want to consider Jesus. “As far as it depends on you,” Scripture says, “live at peace with all men.” Instead of taking a moral stand against secular ethics, then, what if we focused on on embodying Jesus’ Spirit-filled, life-giving ethics beautifully and compellingly?
Until we become known for this, no moral platform will be credible to a secular culture.
Instead, the culture will just laugh at us.
For those concerned about culture’s direction on sexuality and marriage, the best case that can be made for a return to biblical marriage is not a public scolding, but to actually start having biblical marriages characterized by self-giving love and mutual submission. The best case for orthodox beliefs and ethics is to live consistently beautiful, orthodox lives.
As Madeleine L’Engle has said:
We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.
The church does best when the church tells the world about Jesus…his grace, love, forgiveness, generosity, beauty and loveliness…while also showing the world his ethics by embodying them in beautiful, compelling ways.
YOU ARE the light of the world…the salt of the earth…a city on a hill…
How many people do we know, after all, who have fallen in love with Jesus because a Christian, or an organized movement of Christians, stood publicly against secular sexual ethics? I have been a Christian for twenty-six years and an ordained minister for seventeen. I have never met one.
So this is why I, and also some others, have chosen to focus on the care of refugees instead of the Kim Davis story. Her story – and I say this with all due respect to those who disagree – fails in its tone to embody what Scripture says about being wise toward outsiders, letting all of our words be seasoned with salt and full of grace, and treating those who disagree with us with the utmost gentleness, dignity, and respect.
Hands held high in triumph in front of a camera with “Eye of the Tiger,” the theme song from Rocky III, playing in the background falls short of L’Engle’s words about showing people a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it. Using “Eye of the Tiger” as the soundtrack for a public moral stance against secular culture isn’t accomplishing the salt, light, and city on a hill dynamic that Jesus spoke of.
Those who express their moral beliefs in this fashion are no doubt sincere. But as Francis Schaeffer famously said, many who are sincere are also sincerely wrong.
The world is not responding to this kind of display by glorifying our Father in heaven. Rather, the world is becoming even more cynical toward Christianity. That, by itself, should give us pause. The early church was not known for being off-putting, but rather for enjoying the favor of all the people as the Lord added daily to the number of those who were being saved (Acts 2:42-47).
A life of love, not an in-your-face pep rally, will build credibility with a world in need of saving.
The content of our beliefs is important. Equally important is the way that we express our beliefs.
In Summary…A Possible Way Forward?
First, tell them about Jesus. As you do, let your words always be seasoned with salt, full of grace, and saturated with gentleness and respect. For this, too, is a moral command of God.
Second, focus on embodying Jesus’ ethics. Police your own morality instead of policing the morality of others. Love, don’t scold. Stay true to your conscience, making sure that your conscience is informed not only by the truth of Jesus, but also by the love and grace of Jesus. Learn what it means to disagree agreeably, to love, serve, and listen to those who don’t share your beliefs. And then serve somebody in such a way that they can see the light of God in you.
Third, remember that when Jesus took up a cross, it cost him his rights and eventually his life. As you take up yours, remember that love often includes the laying down of rights versus the demanding of rights. Love is inconvenient and costly. As CS Lewis said, “Love anything and your heart will be broken.” Love will cost you. Love might even get you killed someday. That’s certainly the case for the Christian victims of ISIS. It was also the case for Christians in the New Testament.
Fourth, pray for the Syrian refugees…for the Christian ones and the Muslim ones. Pray for Kim Davis. Pray for those who agree with you on these things. Pray also for those who disagree with you on these things. Pray for them all. And while you’re at it, would you also please pray for me?
Lastly, consider what it could look like for you to say or do something beautiful. And then go out and say or do something beautiful. See what Jesus does with it. You might be pleasantly surprised.
Thanks for listening, friends.