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Must We Be Silent?

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.  Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.         Proverbs 31:8-9

“People of faith feed hungry people every day through church food pantries, programs for people experiencing homelessness and meal deliveries to the elderly.  The church has a long history of caring for the needy in the local community and has begun to extend this care to poor people all across the globe.  Faithful works such as these reveal values and ethics that desperately need to be articulated in the public square.  In fact, this is God’s call to us – that we speak out and help shape our society around the things that God cares about.

The Bible teaches that nations and individuals have responsibilities to people in need.  Jesus and the prophets insisted that kings – the government of their day – had special responsibility for assuring justice for poor and vulnerable people.  In our democratic nation founded upon popular elections and freedom of speech, this responsibility for guaranteeing justice is transferred to the people.  For American citizens of faith and conscience, active participation in the public square and politics is both a precious right and a moral obligation.  Bread for the World founder Art Simon points out that failing to participate can actually perpetuate hunger: ‘Saying nothing to political leaders is saying something to them.  We usually get the kind of leadership we ask for, and if we ask for none on hunger, that is what we can expect.’

Some may worry that expressing concern for poor and hungry people by writing letters to Congress in church violates the Constitutional provision of separation of church and state.  It is precisely this document, however, which states that under the First Amendment, churches and people of faith have the right to speak out on public issues.  Historically, people of faith have exercised this right in raising their voices to help secure rights for African Americans, women and Native Americans.  Now, if we want to respond to God’s call to make a real difference for hungry people in the world, we must likewise participate in shaping the laws, policies and programs that can eliminate the root causes of hunger and poverty.

Called to be political but not partisan, the church has a duty to encourage people of faith to become informed, active, responsible citizens.  This is not a violation of separation of church and state, but rather a call to be a faithful steward of our God-given gift of citizenship.  God’s grace moves us to share his steadfast love and provision by helping other people, especially poor and vulnerable people.  We must not be silent.  Not when there is room at the table for all people, even the hungry and poor.”

I believe this concern over separation of church and state may keep many churches from speaking for those who do not have a voice in this nation.  What do you think?  Should churches seek to be a voice for justice and compassion in our society by providing opportunities for people of faith to use their gift of citizenship?

(Note: This post is a collaboration of my own thoughts combined with Bread for the World text I have come across during my internship here at Bread www.bread.org)

6 thoughts on “Must We Be Silent?

  1. I totally agree. Too often I think Christians interpret separation of church and state to mean that Christians cannot be involved in issues of policy. We forget that the original intent of folks like Roger Williams in arguing for separation of church and state was to protect the “Garden of the church” from the “wilderness” of the state. Separation of church and state keeps the church’s voice free so that it can provide a prophetic call.

  2. God does call us to speak his truth in the world. The temptation of course, as we see and hear on independent religious cable television, is to overstate our case in questionable ways. The first century church was birthed in a time when the government often showed little to no concern for the poor in its midst. The power of the church was demonstrated then in the way it cared for those that made up their community of faith. The manner in which they loved one another providing compelling evidence of the living power of the gospel message.
    In the USA we have largely relegated the task of meeting social needs to our tax dollars. And needs would be met if dollars were expended in life redeeming ways. Bush I, for what I believe were primarily political reasons (and to free up more tax dollars for nefarious uses?) talked about “points of light.” Bush II offered us his own rhetoric on the subject.
    As followers we are called upon to proclaim the gospel in word…and deed…to all the world. May it be so.

  3. “I believe this concern over separation of church and state may keep many churches from speaking for those who do not have a voice in this nation. ”

    Church-State separation is a pretty important concern to hold especially for us Baptists with an historic commitment to an uncoerced faith that demands complete religious liberty for those who believe and those who don’t.

    If a Baptist or a Fellowship Baptist in particular is under the false impression that the First Amendment requires that we separate our politics from our religion and stay out of the public square – well I’d say that Baptist has had his or her head in the sand for far too long.

    It would be hard to read the publications of moderate Baptists and follow the work of organizations such as the BJC, Texas CLC and the BWA and come away with such a silly notion.

    To paraphrase a past President of Bread for the World (James Dunn): Baptists have always argued that politics and religion will mix, must mix, and should mix. And while the mixing of politics and religion is inevitable, the merging of church and state is inexcusable.

    As a side note, I’m all for meeting social needs through tax dollars “expended in life redeeming ways” – I just don’t want my tax dollars to be given to pervasively sectarian organizations to meet those social needs.

  4. Jennifer, great post! It really gets one thinking about what our duties as believers are. My prayer is that God will continue to stir up the hearts of our churches today to get out of the comfort of our own everyday routine (which for a lot of people includes going to church) and start living like we are called.
    Great incites! I really enjoyed it.

  5. Great post. The problems of poverty and violence around the world are not new, but what is new is the radical concentration of resources in the hands of one group of people with the power to actually fix it. Never, in the history in the world, has there been such a radical concentration of wealth in one group of people as what currently exists in the US. It is within the scope of reality for the church in the US to stamp out most, if not all, of the extreme poverty in the world, both by redistribution of our own resources (from buildings and programming to helping people) and by changing the face of our politics. But we can never do either, if those of us who feel strongly about such matters are afraid to speak our minds in our congregations. Historically, the Baptist tradition has thrived on conflict, but we are so conflict-averse as a culture today, that we silence our own prophetic voices.

    But, it does seem like the times are a-changing doesn’t it? These kinds of conversations are ultimately what will be the catalyst to this kind of change, hopefully we can extend them into our individual churches. Thanks for posting this.

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