Is faith only private, or is it also public?
A common statement that is made by many is that faith is only a private matter and should have no bearing on public things.
I understand the sentiment. If faith is only private, then faith is about personal actions and a personal relationship with God. And faith, then, won’t impact anything in public. There is a healthy concern here about mixing faith and politics and impacting policy. I understand this. And I think this idea is faulty and misguided.
Telling me that faith is just a private affair is really about having your cake and eating it too. I have a hard time accepting this line of reasoning when I, a pastor, am asked to offer a prayer for an event that is completely civic oriented. If faith is only a private affair, then why have a prayer at a civic event?
To be perfectly frank, a faith that is a private only affair is weak. It says that God isn’t interested in changing the world or even impacting it in any way. Why bother offering prayers for the world then?
Tell Jesus that faith is a private affair — He was crucified by the empire who decided that what he was teaching and doing was raising a revolution against Rome. How about you tell that to John the Baptist who was beheaded by the king who didn’t like what he was teaching. Or maybe you can tell it to Peter who was crucified upside down by the empire. How about Paul who was beheaded by the empire. Or James who was killed by King Herod Agrippa with a sword. Or St. Thomas Beckett, who was murdered by assassins of King Henry II. Or pick any other martyr who died at the hands of a government leader.
Or tell it to John from Patmos who wrote the book of Revelation. Revelation isn’t some kind of distant future prediction, support of Rapture (which is really bad and dangerous theology), or a guide to how we need get ourselves into a war to set things in motion for Jesus to return. It was written in opposition to the Roman empire and everything it stood for — it’s violence, it’s use of military, it’s economic system, it’s worship of Nike the god of war, it’s theology of conquest and might makes right and the ends justify the means, it’s conquest, etc. It’s very much a political book that is designed to be faith in public in opposition to a deadly and destructive system of governance.
Or how you tell the practicing Jews who died at the hands of the governing Nazis in their concentration and death camps because of their faith. Or how about Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was put to death by the Nazis just a few days before the end of WWII because of his faith.
And that’s not counting the numerous stories of women who died for their faith either. Do a google search to see the numerous stories of women martyrs who died for their faith at the hands of governments and leaders.
Tell it to the Lithuanians who put crosses on a hill to promote their independence and express their faith, only to have the Soviets bulldoze it multiple times, and posting guards with orders to shoot anyone who tried to put up a cross.
A private faith that doesn’t have a public impact is worthless.
It is a faith that says you don’t believe God has an impact on the world. It says you don’t accept the vision of Revelation 21 — God restoring creation and making all things new again. It’s a faith that has trouble with Jesus talking about the in breaking of the Kingdom of God into the world and how that kingdom changes the world.
I’ll say it again — a faith that remains only private is worthless.
Governments and officials have used and abused faith throughout the centuries in order to manipulate and give excuses for their policies that dehumanize, divide, and subjugate people.
The most recent example, although certainly not unique for either political party, was Attorney General Jeff Sessions citing Romans 13 in defense of the administration’s immigration policy that caused children to be detained and locked up in cages for crossing the border. It was a an abuse of faith and manipulation of Scripture in order to make an excuse for a policy that goes against everything the bible states about how to treat a stranger in your land.
Don’t tell me that faith is a private only thing and then proceed to tell me what you think the government should or should not do when it comes to such issues as abortion, the death penalty, immigration, feeding people, homeless policy, health care, marriage laws, etc. Don’t tell me that faith is a private only thing and then use theological arguments on any issue the nation faces. You can’t have it both ways. Either faith is private only or it has an impact on the public sphere.
Do we believe that God intervenes in the events of history or not? If so, what does that mean and will it impact us publicly today?
What about the prophets who spoke God’s word to kings and rulers? Should they have remained silent because faith is a private matter? What about the bible telling us that God used Darius I, the king of Persia, to bring God’s people out of exile in Babylon? How is that faith remaining private only?
What about the stories of God using Daniel to speak God’s word to the kings of Babylon during the exile? Should Daniel have kept his mouth shut because his faith is only a private matter?
What about the story of Esther? Should she have kept her Jewishness quiet and only as a private affair? She didn’t. And by speaking up, she saved her people from death. If that isn’t an example of faith having a very public impact on the world, I don’t know what does. If Esther had decided to keep her faith private, the Jews would have been slaughtered.
What about the prophet Zechariah speaking about God intervening in history?
What about these stories and more? A faith that is only private is equivalent to putting restrictions on God. Why would we ever want a God that is limited in action to only our private lives? Why would we ever want a God who has nothing to say about government, policies, and leaders? Why would we ever want a God that turns a blind eye to injustice and never demands that faith be lived out in a public way?
How in the world does having a private only faith match up the idea of the unfolding of the Kingdom of God and our participation with it?
Why on earth would we want a God that doesn’t force us to examine and explain our excuses for our partisan loyalties that conflict with God’s word and God’s commands? Why would we ever want a God that will turn a blind eye on us for not following God’s commands when they conflict with our ideological beliefs?
That’s not a God I want to follow.
When we put these restrictions on God, we are claiming that our ideology is our theology, that our leaders are the messiahs we will listen to and obey, that the government is our salvation, that the laws and policies of our political preferences are the word of God, that the written and spoken words of political leaders and pundits are prophetic words of God. When we do that, we have made government and party loyalties and leaders into an idol, a god that we can control and that we get to determine how it impacts our life and what it demands of us.
Such a god as this comforts our ignorance, fear, anger, and desire to be comfortable. Such a god makes excuses for us to cast out the stranger, to dehumanize others, to use physical and verbal violence as a solution, to believe that the ends justify the means and that only the strong survive.
Such a belief has consequences. That kind of god will discard you and forget about you when you question it or when your loyalty waivers. Such a god will cast you aside when you become one of the others. Such a god is not concerned with your survival or comfort. It doesn’t proclaim a promise of hope and offers no salvation or hope of resurrection. It only demands unquestioning compliance and servitude. That is not a god I worship.
The God I worship is a God who encounters us individually and corporately. This is the God who impacts lives and history. This is the God who sits above all governments and will outlast all governments. This is a God who commissions disciples to have an impact on the world by the living out of faith.
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.
Originally published at laceduplutheran.com on September 12, 2018.