We’ve finished reading through the Pentateuch in my Introduction to the Hebrew Bible class this semester. It’s striking how much of instruction (torah) in these books is about how to actively live out one’s faith in the context of the world in which they found themselves at the time. While many of the instructions given for that time period in that setting no longer apply to our world today (like the animal sacrifices), it does make me think about how to best re-apply the fundamental concepts of loving God and loving neighbor in the world in which I find myself today.
As I look around me, I notice that there seem to be two primary ways that people go about this intentional practicing of their faith in the real world. Both have Biblical precedent, and both seem to be common approaches throughout human history.
The approach that I grew up with involves a large focus on morality. A lot of attention was paid to living within what that tradition defined as proper morals (no dancing, no drinking, no smoking, no playing cards, etc.). Naturally, this also led to trying to coerce others into following the same moral strictures through attempts to influence legislation to require the world at large to live by those moral standards and through the use of shaming and peer pressure to “encourage” those within the local congregation to live in accordance with them. These pressures for one’s self and for others to act according to these moral rules was fueled by the belief that God blesses those that follow his laws.
This philosophy can indeed be seen through the Pentateuch, particularly in the places where the various codes of the law/instruction are covered. In the covenant structure used at the time, there were always blessings promised for obeying the code of stipulations given in the covenant and curses named for not following them. The same idea was what influenced the Pharisees of Jesus’ time to promote stricter adherence to the codes of the Torah. It’s also what has fueled various attempts to stamp out heresy and other faiths, from the Inquisition through to today’s attempts to require state and federal laws to conform with the moral codes of some religious groups.
The other approach I see is one that emphasizes social justice. There is a focus on the need for all to be treated with justice, for the least among us to have the basic necessities of life, for all humans to be treated with dignity (whether we agree with them or not), for an end to violence and oppression of all forms.
This approach to living out one’s faith is seen even in the Pentateuch where the point of the instructions given at the time were to show love for God and for one’s neighbor by taking care of the aliens, orphans, and widows in their midst. It can be seen in the messages of the prophets who repeatedly called for justice for the poor and a reduction of the gap between the haves and have-nots. It can be seen in the many philanthropic causes that religious organizations of all kinds have engaged in over the centuries, and it is a powerful theme in the progressive Christian organizations with whom I now regularly come in contact with.
I grew up convinced of the rightness of the first approach, but even before my re-engagement with the church, I have found myself gradually shifting more to the latter approach. How can we tell someone of our faith in God when they are hungry or homeless or sick or oppressed and we do nothing to meet those more immediate needs? What good does it do to tell someone that God loves them when we are advocating for systems that deny them the provision of basic human needs? Who would be interested in a God who causes his followers to treat them as less than human for any reason?
I don’t think this means that morals don’t matter. Neither does it deny the fact that sometimes kindness will be taken advantage of. But I do think that my lived faith needs to have a greater focus on justice, mercy, and kindness for those around me than on coercing them to live by whatever moral code I may choose to live by.
I fall far short on this measure all the time, but it is increasingly becoming my measure for myself of how well I am living out my faith, and it changes my perspective on so many things. In my experience, it’s been a change for the better.
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