The other day we buried Mary O’Connor, a woman who lived her faith every day by living out the central teaching of the Bible: to love God and neighbor seamlessly.
She lived with her eyes wide open and noticed every person. She spanned west and east Louisville, Ky., and all parts between.
Her “business card” read “Connector.” She connected people to God, to each other; she connected needs to resources and back again.
Our world is a better place because of Mary’s neighborliness. Every community of faith should cultivate Mary O’Connors.
And yet, for neighborliness to create conditions for all of God’s children to raise families in basic safety and dignity requires that we build on individuals like Mary helping individuals, or even private organizations helping groups of individuals.
Neighborliness must move through personal to public morality.
I say this as a minister, not a mathematician or a politician, but the needs and numbers simply don’t paint a picture of a healthy world through personal morality alone. There must be a partnership of foundational public mutuality, that is, national funding for the common good.
The church I serve is becoming increasingly aware of its responsibility to help individuals move toward both spiritual and economic viability.
We increased collected funds and energies in this direction, but as we delve deeper into the complexities of families, we recognize the need for more funds for basic physical and mental health, education, housing and job opportunities beyond minimum wage.
National health will not happen even if charitable giving and Mary O’Connors double or triple, if at the same time national funding for the common good decreases.
I say this as someone who returns to the Bible daily to seek not only solace but solutions. The Bible’s unequivocal call to neighborliness may begin with individuals, but ultimately speaks to institutional work as well.
For Jews, the central story of Scripture is the Exodus – God calling Moses to tell Pharoah, who represented a government indifferent to human needs, “let my people go.”
Once free, Israel created laws that model God, “who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing” (Deuteronomy 10:17-18).
Obedience today will require adaptation. We can’t feed our poor by the instruction, “When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow” (Deuteronomy 24:21). But the need, and the command, remain: care for all.
Over time Israel opted for a king like other nations. When these kings ignored the statutes (“power corrupts” is an old story), prophets and truth-speakers like Isaiah, Amos, Daniel and Ezekiel called the nation back to its core – love God and neighbor seamlessly; create systems of equity; guard the weak from the powerful.
“Doom to you who legislate evil, who make laws that make victims – laws that make misery for the poor, that rob my destitute people of dignity, exploiting defenseless widows, taking advantage of homeless children.” (Isaiah 10:1-2, The Message)
Even eunuchs (sexual minorities) and aliens are included. “Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD say, ‘The LORD will surely separate me from his people; and do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree’ … Thus says the Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered” (Isaiah 56:3,8).
The Bible tells me: as then, so now.
Luke portrays Jesus as a champion of the poor:
· Mary responds to news of her pregnancy (“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” in Luke 1:52-53).
· Jesus inaugurates his ministry by quoting Isaiah (“The Spirit of the Lord … anointed me to bring good news to the poor … release to the captives … recovery of sight to the blind … to let the oppressed go free … to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” in Luke 4:18-19).
· Jesus defends his ministry (“Go and tell John what you have seen and heard … the poor have good news preached to them” in Luke 7:22).
· Jesus tells the familiar Good Samaritan parable in Luke 10 (told to a lawyer, surely to affect not only his personal practices but his interpretation of law as well).
Jesus challenged the commingled powers of empire and religion to return to God’s intentions.
During Easter, Christians relived the central story of the New Testament: Jesus’ execution on a cross by a toxic brew of the institutions of his day: the Roman Empire and its collaborators in the Temple priesthood because everything he stood for threatened their misuse of power. On Easter, the church declares his vindication.
How does this square with majority religion today?
Most of us were raised on the adage “politics and religion don’t mix.” Agreed: There is no place for partisan politics in our pulpits. And agreed: Bad politics and bad religion create ugly offspring. And there is a point where prophets and preachers should leave it to policy wonks and professional practitioners to hammer out details.
But those who love the Bible cannot abdicate supporting its teachings in our national policies and budgets. Failing to do so is a failure of nerve and a form of denying our faith.
We can surely agree that “thou shalt not steal” does not mesh with robbing our children of a viable future because of an ominous national debt.
But can we also echo the prophets that our national checkbook must prioritize how the weakest among us can live with dignity and the pursuit of happiness? Can the neighborliness of a Mary O’Connor shape our public discourse?
Our nation recently completed the 2010 census, an attempt to count every person.
Every person does count.
The Bible tells us so.
A minister in Louisville, Kentucky, for 21 years as pastor of Highland Baptist Church, Phelps is now Justice Coordinator for Earth and Spirit Center. He leads, along with Kevin Cosby, EmpowerWest, a black-white clergy coalition calling for recognition, repentance, and repair of injustices to black Louisvillians.