Greg Garrett: God Commands Compassion, Not Evangelism

Recently, I attended a Southern Baptist church in America's heartland. The service was typical: about half an hour of praise music, a lengthy sermon, an altar call, and an offertory. The choir and musicians were skilled and enthusiastic. The sermon, drawn from Psalms, centered on our call to praise God at all times, not just on Sunday morning. During the hour and a half service, a charitable appeal was made in connection with the 200-bed vacation cabin the church wants to build at the state youth camp. The price tag for this state of the art facility, I was informed, was seven million dollars, cheap for a building that will help bring youth to Christ.

I am convinced that these good people cared about the souls of others, but nowhere in the service or in the bulletin were there charitable appeals to help feed the hungry, house the homeless, or care for the sick.

Meanwhile, as Marketplace notes, millions of Americans are dealing with the loss of their jobs, economic security, community, even their homes; one in four young American children are living in poverty; and according to the World Health Organization, millions of people across the globe are dying of preventable diseases.

It occurs to me that seven million dollars-or the slightest bit of interest in justice on the part of these and other similar American Christians-could have an impact on these issues. Yet some of those who willingly dig deep to find money to evangelize their children, or preach to the larger world, seem to have little or no interest in helping the Children of God through the trials of their lives.

I'm speaking at a Theology on Tap event tonight at Austin's great BookPeople bookstore, and our topic is why justice is a gospel imperative. I plan to argue it may be the gospel imperative.

I've been in many churches, both as worshipper and speaker, and I accept that Christianity looks and feels different from denomination to denomination, church to church. That's not what I'm talking about when I take some traditions to task.

Julie Clawson, author of the fine book [Everyday Justice](, is on the panel with me tonight; she is evangelical and emerging, I am an Episcopalian.

But both of us would agree that Christian faith calls us to do more than just make more Christians.

In my book The Other Jesus, I talk about how Christians are called to do more than praise God, although I believe we are called to do that. We are called to do more than tell people what God has done and is doing in our lives, although I believe we are called to do that. We are called to do more than invite other people to be in relationship with that loving God, although I believe we are called to do that.

The larger message of the Bible is about participating in the reality that God wants to bring into being to replace the sinful mess we have made, and a large part of that participation is about reaching out to those who are in need. God's advocacy for the downtrodden against the powerful is clear throughout the Hebrew Testament. A wonderful way to read the Old Testament's sections on the patriarchs, the subjection of their ancestors in Egypt, and their deliverance in Palestine is through the lens of God's choice of the poor, the outcast, and the unexpected to be the recipients of His love and grace. Youngest children (not the oldest sons, expected to inherit everything), women (of no social value), and exiles (not even part of a society) are chosen by God for special roles.

The Hebrew prophets, later, call out to the established nation of Israel to care for the widow, the orphan, and the alien. Amos and Jeremiah both say that you can praise God in regular worship and still be ungodly, because you ignore God's command of love and compassion, God's call for the formation of a more justice and equitable society. On my Southern Baptist Sunday morning, I didn't have my staff or hairshirt handy, but there was a part of me that wanted to open the pew Bible to Jeremiah 7, stand up in my pew, and proclaim

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place.

Do not trust in these deceptive words: "This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD."

For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever. (Jer. 7:3-7, NRSV)

The life of Jesus, through both his words and actions, shows that he totally believed what he had received from these scriptures, totally assimilated this call to justice and compassion. In Matthew 25 (in the closing teaching section of a gospel where Jesus repeatedly reminds people that action, not belief, defines someone as a disciple), Jesus tells a parable of judgment, and reinforces that those who feed the sick, care for those in need, visit those in prison (in other words, those who demonstrate compassion for all at the margins of society that we are so prone to step around and ignore) will be those he chooses as his own.

Christianity is not about praying in a certain way, or believing a certain thing, or making converts, or building a nice cabin at church camp.

Or, I argue, it shouldn't be.

Some American Christians talk about winning the world for Christ so that everyone can go to Heaven. But as N. T. Wright observes in [Surprised by Hope](, there is little or no talk about "going to Heaven" in the Bible. In fact, the overall narrative of the scriptures (not to mention the example of the life of Christ, and the compelling witness of individual Christians such as Francis of Assisi and Mother Teresa) stands in stark opposition to this single objective of evangelism.

The larger message of the Christian tradition, as I wrote in [The Other Jesus](, was demonstrated by the outpouring of love and assistance following Katrina a few years ago:

After Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast and all but destroyed New Orleans, the response from the U.S. government was, shall we say, lackluster. But the response from people of faith was monumental and ongoing. Christians from the mainline Protestant traditions that had always believed in the importance of such work were joined by Catholics, who have a long tradition of peace-and-justice work, and by members of evangelical congregations-all intent on serving those who suffered. Together they showed the world that Christian faith in action, modeling the compassion of Christ, can make a difference in the world.

Our call as followers is to try to walk in the world with the compassion of Christ, to demonstrate God's love with action, not words. And when we do this, it will have larger implications for how we treat others, particularly those who suffer, hunger, or are in need.

Reposted by the author's permission from his blog at Garrett's column, "Faithful Citizenship," is published every Thursday on the Progressive Christian portal. Subscribe via email or RSS.

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