When pure religion is the enemy of good religion

August 24, 2015

The psalmist in this Sunday’s readings reminds us “One who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.” It is a very encouraging statement for those of us who measure our Christian worth based upon the things that we do in service of the Kingdom of God. In “Social Justice Christian” circles, there is even a mild sort of elitism that we carry around because we know confidently that God’s presence is not a concept to be believed in but rather an experience to be submitted to. We carry around a more sophisticated sense of what we believe constitutes a pure religion. We would also readily quote James who states, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” We dedicate ourselves, almost compulsively to the corporal works of mercy and consequently we avoid contact with Christians who are hearers of the word of God and not doers. We carry around a false sense of uniqueness, believing that our more pure, more progressive religion of justice could not really be comprehended by average Christians with more traditional or conservative beliefs or a less extensive justice resume. We have seen enough of what they do so we judge the injustice of their eating habits, we laugh at the hypocrisy of their political beliefs, lambast the privilege that they exploit (and, of course, we renounce) and gradually we stop associating with them altogether.  We give up on changing hearts and we focus instead on laws, systems, and the allocation of resources. The tragic thing is that we justify our avoidance by suggesting that it will keep us unstained from the world when in reality, our avoidance is no more than a type of cultural anxiety. Anyone who listens to us can sense our anxiety because we talk obsessively about is this or that conspiracy being perpetrated by some group of people that we continue to choose not to associate with (and by all accounts no longer know anything about). Gradually we start to structure our lives in such a way that we become insular, avoiding “those people” more and more, we maintain a daily justice work routine, we stop looking at the world with fresh eyes and soon the presence of God begins to escapes our lives. It is then that our life of “Justice” becomes a path away from God.

By resituating the source of evil within our self in Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus begs the interior question “Are we abiding in the presence of God, or have we instead embraced the obsessive thoughts and compulsive actions of a Pharisee?” It is important to recognize that when the Pharisees began deviating from Moses’ instruction in the passage from Deuteronomy (i.e. not to add or subtract from God’s commandments) that they thought they were forming a progressive political movement, a second temple superior to the previous one. we consider what kind of movement building that needs to happen if we are really going to shift the political compass on the issues of most concern to the poor, it has been my experience that it is the internal struggles that are the most grueling. The biggest internal obstacle to progressive movement building is the false sense of uniqueness that arises when we insulate ourselves from the stains of the external world. Sometimes, instead, we need to step back from our pioneering attitudes and focus on molding consensus internally. Nowhere is that more important than within ourselves. Truly it is our own inconsistencies and hypocrisies that we recognize least and undermine our efforts most. We cannot convince another person to accept the truth of our point of view until we have integrated that truth into our own lives. Our world needs living martyrs who will enter into relationship with those whose lives diverge from their own; this is the subtle appeal of Pope Francis. However, integration requires embracing uncertainty and confronting what may be a lifelong history of disappointment with the inadequacy of other people.  Mostly however, it requires us to confront the inadequacy experienced by our own little ego. That is the truly false sense of uniqueness that we Christians somehow exist as pure individuals disconnected from a larger Body of Christ. We are not alone, and we need to stop acting as if we are if progress is ever going to be attainable.

Rhett Engelking, FAN Director of Franciscan Earth Corps