See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my heavenly Father.
Matthew 18: 10
Yesterday, here in the United States, we once again experienced what now has a technical description: “a mass shooting.” Ten persons are dead at a community college in Oregon and three more are critically wounded. As President Obama said in his comments following the horrible event: “We collectively are answerable to those families who lose their loved ones because of our inaction.” In a very rare experience in American public discourse in recent years, the President spoke to us all and directly and called on us to accept our responsibility for the reality that in the society in which we live gun violence against each other has become, in his word, “routine”.
In a democracy which has space for very different beliefs and perspectives, what is the responsibility to a society for a believer who hears the words of Jesus: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones . . . “? As we well know this is a topic in our time that is fraught with passion and political fervor. Yet, typically, for our country, the context of the debate is usually that of an assertion of our rights. Although the President’s words yesterday were not in a religious context, they ask us who do believe to reframe our thinking from the perspective of our rights to the nature of our responsibility. As citizens of this republic, how are we, who hear the words of Jesus today, “answerable to those families who lose their loved ones because of our inaction”? How is it that we and those we educate continue in large part not to understand the responsibility our faith imposes on us for the relational and spiritual tenor of our society?
Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, speaks to what it means to be a person of faith in a pluriform society. He says, “My belief is not a thing I own; I might say, truthfully enough, that it ‘owns’ me, that I am at its service, not that it is at mine. When I claim truth for my religious convictions, it is not a claim that my opinion or belief is superior, but a confession that I have resolved to be unreservedly at the service of the reality that has changed my world and set me free from the enslavement of struggle and rivalry.” What need most trouble us is not that what we believe is not respected enough or privileged among beliefs and perspectives, but rather that the truth of God’s love and mercy that we have come to know and experience is still so largely absent in our ways of living and working together. In the gospels, the grief of most of the disciples at Jesus’ death leads them to cower in fear and hiding. Yet, for a certain group of courageous women, their grief moved them to act, to go to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. To manifest in action belief in Jesus at that moment, to “be unreservedly at the service of the reality that has changed my world,” in the words of Rowan Williams, required tremendous courage. We continually assert in the United States the need to preserve our “Christian culture,” yet we continue to uphold an absolute ideological right to bear arms above our responsibility for the lives of our children.
The specific actions that the responsibility that comes with our faith summon us to are not easily discernible. Yet, despite the difficulty, we are called to be vigilant over our hearts, that they not harden to the sense of the responsibility for all our children to which the words of Jesus call us.
Gandhian Satyagraha is thus rooted in an attitude that, in his eyes, should be fundamental to all religious practice and belief worth the name, an attitude that relativizes the claim of the self to absolute possession or absolute control. But it does not entail –as the superficial observer might think –absolute passivity or the acceptance of injustice; as Gandhi’s witness so consistently shows, it is rather that it dictates the way in which we resist. We do not resist in such a way that we appear to be seeking the same kind of power as is now injuring or frustrating us. We do not imitate anything except the truth: our model is the divine communication of what is good. But beyond this obvious principle is the further point which Gandhi implies but does not fully state: belief itself is not a possession, something acquired by the ego that will henceforth satisfy the ego’s needs for security and control. To believe in God is to be a ‘trustee’ of God’s truth. My belief is not a thing I own; I might say, truthfully enough, that it ‘owns’ me, that I am at its service, not that it is at mine. When I claim truth for my religious convictions, it is not a claim that my opinion or belief is superior, but a confession that I have resolved to be unreservedly at the service of the reality that has changed my world and set me free from the enslavement of struggle and rivalry. To witness to this in the hope that others will share it is not an exercise in conquest, in signing up more adherents to my party, but simply the offer of a liberation and absolution that has been gratuitously offered to me. When Gandhi reminded his Johannesburg audience that a promise made in the name of God was a serious matter, he was underlining for them the fact that commitment to God in their work for justice involved them in an act of renunciation in the name of truth, the renunciation of any style of living and acting that simply reproduced the ordinary anxieties and exchanges of force that constitute the routine of human society.
Rowan Williams, Faith in the Public Square