Man seated near a crowd. His baseball cap reads, “love your neighbor.”
Photo by Nina Strehl on Unsplash
Believing the right things while doing wrong
February 23, 2023
Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born a slave in the Chesapeake Bay area of Maryland sometime in 1817 or1818. He later adopted the surname Douglass when he escaped slavery in 1838. Frederick Douglass became one of America’s most vital social reformers and abolitionists constantly advocating for the rights, freedoms, and privileges of African Americans through a career as an orator, writer, and statesman until his death in 1895.
Douglass often lamented the gaps he observed between the stated theological beliefs of his slaveholding fellow Christians and their actions. In the appendix of his 1845 memoir, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave: Written by Himself,” Douglass bemoans:
“…between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest, possible difference—so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked…I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slave holding, woman-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.”
Douglass goes on to describe slaveholding Christian men who proclaimed the importance of Christian purity but sold women into prostitution. Ministers who preached meekness on Sunday but physically abused slaves with weapons during the week. Sunday school teachers who showed the path to salvation but refused wages to slaves. Christians who proclaimed the importance of Bible reading but denied the privilege of learning to read to enslaved people. This extreme example is illustrative of how Christians in America can be guilty of emphasizing the importance of believing the right things, while being capable of doing the wrong actions.
Christianity, particularly Protestantism, can be viewed uniquely within the larger study of world religions because of our high emphasis on theological beliefs over ritual and action. One might ask, “How do you know you are a Christian?” to which your response may be, “I believe in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and his resurrection.” or “I believe in the Bible.” or perhaps, “I believe the core statements of faith as found in the Apostles Creed and Nicene Creed.” A set of theological beliefs, not our actions, is what defines the Christian uniquely from other religious persons.
A non-Christian religious person may say they are practitioners of a religious tradition because of the diets they keep, the holidays they celebrate, prayers they practice, religious codes to which they adhere, or even their ethnic or social background. Their behavior marks their definition as practitioner. Identity follows praxis.
Christians, on the other hand, emphasize belief in certain tenets about the nature of God, Jesus, Holy Spirit, Bible, world, and Church above attending church, celebrating Christmas or Easter, or reading the Bible. In fact, many go as far as to say, you can engage in all those practices and still not be a Christian if you do not believe the right things or have prayed the right prayers. Identity follows belief. This is why Christian practices and actions will vary broadly based on what theological beliefs a local community elevate most highly. Our actions should be shaped by our beliefs, but as Frederick Douglass would remind us, that is not always the case.
And therein lies the tension of following Jesus as a disciple. I think Jesus may be more concerned with our actions than our beliefs. Luke 10:25-37 is why I think so.
Following Jesus is action oriented. It is more than mere belief. You can believe all the right things and still do all the wrong things. Jesus demands that we do both well. This Lent, I challenge us all to look for the disconnect between our belief and our actions.
A young lawyer once approached Jesus with a theological conundrum. “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus is no fool and he knows a trap when he sees one. He turns the conversation around on the lawyer. “What does the law of Moses say? How do you read it?”
The lawyer responds just like Jesus, and just about every other Jewish leader of his day might. He quotes the Shema, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength,” and quickly adds Leviticus 19:18: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
This is a perfect response. It the response Jesus himself would give. This lawyer and Jesus both believe the same correct thing. Love God, love others.
Jesus applauds the lawyer’s efforts, “Right! Do this and you will live!”
Jesus does not actually answer the man’s question about eternal life. He tells him that if he loves God and loves others, he will live. As in right now, here in the everyday moments of life. Living every day correctly by loving God and others is more important to Jesus than a one-time action, prayer, or sacrifice offered so that one can ensure eternal life someday in the future.
The lawyer, attempting to justify himself, pushes the conversation forward, “Who is my neighbor?” Neighbors are to be treated well in Levitical law. The same 19th chapter with the command to love your neighbor as yourself, contains commands to treat anyone who lives in the land of Israel like they are a fellow native-born Israelite. Basically, anyone who lives in Israel is to be treated like a neighbor that is worthy of being loved.
The lawyer knows this. What he really wants to know is, “Who is NOT my neighbor?” Who am I exempt from loving?
Jesus responds, as Jesus often does, with a story. He tells the story of a man left for dead in the gutter, abused by thieves. His fellow countryman and community that should have cared for him as a neighbor leave him where they find him. A Samaritan eventually comes along and brings healing to the injured man at great expense to himself.
Jesus concludes by asking, “Now which of the three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” To which the lawyer responds correctly, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus ends with a call to discipleship, “Yes, now go and do the same.”
Jesus told this parable in response to two questions:
-What must I do to inherit eternal life?
-Who is my neighbor?
-First, your everyday life matters more than eternal life. Love God and love others…do this and you will live!
-Second, Be a neighbor. Do not worry about who is and is not your neighbor. You are to be a neighbor to anyone you meet.
Lent is a season designed to strengthen our spiritual lives. Lent is a time we reflect on our beliefs and our actions and consider where we need to repent. It is a time to confess that through thought, word, and deed we have not loved God with our whole hearts, and we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. It is a season to turn around and embrace new life by putting to death old ways.
Sometimes that means we need to examine our beliefs. What are our incorrect beliefs that might create bad theology and practice? But mostly Lent is about repenting of our anti-kingdom behavior, i.e. our sin, that creates harm for ourselves and others.
The parable of the Samaritan reminds us that our actions matter. Loving God and loving our neighbors are not beliefs, they are actions. The lawyer asking the question about eternal life, the priest and the Levite in the parable, all believed the right things. They all believed in God, the story of Israel, the Torah, the Temple system, and so many other things we would validate as true.
And yet the only thing Jesus wants to know is, “Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by the bandits?” And even if you know the correct answer that it was the one who showed mercy, Jesus doubles down on his action-oriented call to discipleship: “Now go and do the same.”
Following Jesus is action oriented. It is more than mere belief. You can believe all the right things and still do all the wrong things. Jesus demands that we do both well. This Lent, I challenge us all to look for the disconnect between our belief and our actions. Confess the gap and repent. We cannot rest solely on our theological statements and hope for heaven. We must be a people who love God by loving our neighbors. By our love the world will know we are Christians.
Rev. Dr. Greg Mamula is transitional executive minister, American Baptist Churches of Nebraska. He is author of Table Life: An Invitation to Everyday Discipleship, published by Judson Press. Visit table-life.org to learn more about his ministry and writing projects.