March 8th, 2012
Within the more than 2 billion people on the planet who fall under the very diverse umbrella of Christianity, there are a good many voices who claim to speak for the founder of the faith. What Would Jesus Do is not only a trite slogan but a question that many religious leaders seek to answer, often with “exactly what I want to do”.
But sometimes that isn’t a question without an answer. If the gospels reflect the attitudes and theological positions expressed by Jesus, then sometimes it’s really pretty clear what Jesus would do, or say, or expect. Take, for example, this small disagreement between a Methodist minister and the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento.
For decades Francis House in Sacramento has served the needy of the community. The Bee describes them thusly:
Each morning, dozens of poor people line up at Francis House, in Sacramento’s homeless services epicenter on C and 14th streets, for help with basic services such as housing and transportation. Now in its 42nd year, the organization is one of the largest homeless services agencies in the Sacramento region, serving upward of 25,000 people. It has an annual budget of about $500,000.
More than a soup kitchen or homeless shelter, Francis House is partly referral agency for address substance abuse, legal issues, and basic needs and partly an effort to provide the immediate necessities for people to become employable or safe. They do things like provide bus tokens, training in what is expected from employers, and yes get food and shelter to individuals and families in crisis. But, recognizing that while food may address hunger, it cannot change a life, a significant part of their work is counseling.
And though some of this is possible through programs funded by various levels of government, the majority is contributions from individuals and organizations. With three full time employees, three part time, and about 50 volunteers, they try to put their faith into action to change the world for those who most need change. The final paragraph in their Form 990 listing of accomplishments puts it this way:
Through God’s grace and the generous support of our community, we strive to serve the poorest among us, as worthy of His grace and His love regardless of circumstances. As we open our hearts to healing and growth we strive to assist our guests to discover a better life.
(I love the language that sees the necessity for healing and growth in the hearts of those who are not disadvantaged)
The group is not denominationally driven and receives funding from a wide variety of sources, one of which was an annual $7,000 to $10,000 contribution from the Catholic Church. But in December 2010 the director for the past 2 decades died from a heart attack and the new director just doesn’t live up to the Church’s expectations.
You see, before Rev. Faith Whitmore became the executive director, when she was still the senior pastor at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church, she expressed her personal views on some issue and her personal views are in disagreement with the declarations of the Vatican.
No, these views were not about liturgy or sacraments. They didn’t address papal infallibility, transubstantiation, or the veneration of Mary. No problem arose about catechism, form of baptism, or even whether each could consider the other a brother or sister in Christ.
But the issues about which Whitmore expressed opinion go to the heart of the differences between where the United Methodist Church and the Roman Catholic Church today: the extent to which each church believes it has a claim on the unquestioning obedience of those around them. Whitmore expressed opinions which “publicly oppose Catholic teaching” and that makes her and Francis house unacceptable. And these teachings, unlike the mystical matters of faith that purported divide denominations, are the matters which define the approach of each.
Within her own denomination, she has been a strong advocate of same-sex marriage. In 2008, during a short period in which gay marriage was legal in California, Whitmore openly defied church law by marrying same-sex couples. She has said publicly that she supports a woman’s right to obtain an abortion.
Gay marriage and abortion. These are the issues with which one MUST conform to Catholic teaching (a position that would disqualify most Catholics). And the difference is not even whether each should be a part of sacrament or even recognized as morally acceptable, the difference is what society can and should demand of its citizens and to whom it should defer.
It should be noted that Whitmore does not hold these views despite her faith. These are not matters of a secular nature, but rather are to her matters of justice and mercy situated at the heart of Christ and his message.
And so here we have two intractable positions, both integral to their faith, both established and bound by what each party believes is the will of God. Each believes that their view is the holy and righteous position.
And I can see how each came to hold their views and why they believe them to be moral. But views are not all we are discussing. And when we look at the priorities chosen and the behaviors resulting from a clenched hold to these views, I cannot see how one of these two parties can see themselves as being ambassadors of Christ.
Because one of these parties has been on a consistent path: if society will not conform to their doctrine, they will not run orphanages. Civil law must follow church law or they will not administer governmental aid programs. And now, if anyone dare differ with their beliefs, they will not feed the hungry or provide counsel for those seeking to reestablish themselves in the working world.
There are many issues on which Christian voices can claim to speak for Christ, but on this one, I’ll let Jesus speak for himself.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
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