This past winter, on one of those arctic sub-zero days, my partner Jim and I were driving south on I-71 and stopped at a rest area somewhere near Columbus, where we encountered a young, energetic woman who approached us in the parking lot.
I figured she was asking for directions or assistance, but quickly I discovered her intent was on helping us: "Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior?" she inquired, handing us a tract outlining a four-step plan: repent, trust, believe, ask.
I didn't want to be rude, but it was cold. Dangerously cold. "Yes, I am a committed Christian," I said, smiling and accepting her small brochure, while lunging for the warmth of the car.
But for the next 30 miles or more, she was all I could think or talk about. "At our church, we have a hard time just getting people to stay for coffee hour," I said out loud, dumbfounded by what could motivate a 25-year-old woman to volunteer for that kind of thankless assignment.
I thought of her again last week when I received a letter from someone expressing anger over the United Church of Christ's preoccupation with issues of justice and equality at the seeming expense of other pressing church matters. "You spend too much time worrying about 'justice' and too little time witnessing for Jesus," he wrote.
I don't buy that. Never have. Because, for me, justice and Jesus go hand in hand.
I think we trivialize religion when we start compartmentalizing it, as if talking about our faith were one thing and living it were another. Evangelism and justice are not at opposite ends of a competing spectrum; they are interchangeable expressions of how we speak to and live out reconciliation in the world. Every time we proclaim love's victory and every time we act toward that realization, we take one step closer to that "on-earth-as-it-is-in-heaven" vision we pray for.
Guilty Christians need to get over the notion that real "witnessing" means knocking on doors or proselytizing in parking lots. That might be one approach, but I suspect there are more impactful ways that require an equal, if not greater, life-long commitment. Advocating justice and peace – as Jesus did, as Sojourner Truth did, as Cesar Chavez did, as Maya Angelou did, as everyday faithful people do – this, too, is proclaiming the urgency of resurrection.
I read recently that, since 1980, despite a decrease in violent crime, the incarceration rate in the United States has jumped 222 percent, due to mandatory minimum sentences and an increasingly for-profit prison system. I also just learned that, by current estimates, there are now 232 million people who are international migrants. That's more than 3 percent of the planet's population, crossing borders out of economic necessity into countries where they are largely unwelcomed and criminalized.
If faith doesn't speak and work to confront and change harsh realities like these, and others, it's low-calorie religion in my book. Every time you are moved to speak or act in the service of others, you are a witness to the God who liberates. Never apologize, or feel less-than, for that.
The Rev. J. Bennett Guess is the UCC's Executive Minister of Local Church Ministries.
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