Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me–put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
Philippians 4: 9
“Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”
Today is Independence Day in the United States. On the day of this year’s celebration, countless families who have faced great hardship and danger in search of the promise of this country are imprisoned and separated from each other, for no other reason than the fears and aspirations that drove our grandparents to this same place. For those of us who have lived, perhaps far too often socially unconsciously, for many decades, the present moment seems to be one where the promise of our country, as we understood it, is imperiled as seldom before. The peril comes not from external threat but rather, more insidiously and powerfully, from within.
I awoke this morning with the words of Abraham Lincoln on my mind: “Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Consistently, almost daily, in this time we rather assent to policies that proclaim quite the opposite. What makes the words of Lincoln so filled with pathos at this moment is that, at least as a matter of policy, we are no longer dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal.
Abraham Joshua Heschel pointed out, many years ago, that the reality of Israel “rests upon two basic ideas: the idea of human rights and the idea of human obligations. In the present crisis we have learned that consciousness of our rights fades away when our sense of obligation subsides.” Perhaps for a very long time, the culture of the United States has been inexorably moving toward this “present crisis,” in which it has now become public policy that we bear no obligations to the rights of others. Having been brought to the extreme and socially sanctioned caricature we are now living, we may soon be facing the possibility that the rights of all may fade away.
In today’s reading from Philippians, Paul exhorts his listeners to put into practice what they have learned, received, and heard from him. He tells them that it is in doing so, in living in such a way, that they shall know the presence of the God of peace. The possibility of the peace of which Paul and Jesus speak today seems remote at best and impossible at worst these days. Yet, we are told by Jesus in the gospel that if we keep his word God will come to us and make a dwelling with us. What Paul reminds the Philippians is that keeping God’s word means practicing it.
Socially speaking, we practice God’s word by living out our obligations to the others. To be fair, it is not merely in the present time that the consideration of obligation to the others has been lacking in our social discourse, thinking, and acting. The policies of the United States for several decades are largely responsible for those conditions that are driving Central American refugees to seek asylum here. Last evening on the PBS Newshour, which is doing a significant report on the “civil war” in Yemen, a man being interviewed there made the comment that people being killed were being killed almost exclusively by American weapons. This has been true for years around the world, and especially in Central America. Our policies, over administrations of both political parties, have rarely been primarily influenced by our sense of obligation to others.
At Gettysburg, Lincoln spoke to the foundational aspirations of the country, a dedication to the proposition that all persons are created equal. He then spoke to the challenge of the time: “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” All moments are perhaps such a test, but it seems that this moment is exceptionally so. Perhaps the reason is that the American Civil War has never ended. For, when the nation was conceived in liberty, it was not the liberty of all. When it initially dedicated itself to the proposition that all persons are created equal, all persons were not included. An aspect of the power of Lincoln’s words is that he was redefining and expanding those founding aspirations. He was calling on his listeners and all to dedicate themselves to the proposition that truly all persons are created equal.
The crisis we face as a people is assuredly a political one, but it is, at the same time, a profoundly spiritual one. Children can be snatched from their parents and persons seeking freedom can be caged because those doing so and allowing it are not dedicated to Lincoln’s proposition. In the scriptures, the fullness of God is granted to those who give away “even the little they have.” As the widow feeds Elijah with her last measure of flour and drop of oil, as the poor widow gives away to the poor the little that she has, as the woman anoints the feet of Jesus with oil that is far beyond her means to afford, God’s love, peace, and grace pour into the emptiness their generosity has created. To truly be a follower of Jesus requires that we put the same into practice, that instead of fearing the other we trust that in our sharing with them there will be provided plenty for all.
A society where the wealthiest one percent controls almost 40% of the nation’s wealth is scapegoating immigrants and refugees, as if it is they who are causing the economic struggles of many in the country. In our capitalist and consumerist value system, there is no place for talk of our obligations on behalf of the equality of all. We spend enormous amounts of our shared wealth on the support of the rich and of corporations ,on the development of weapons, and on sports, entertainment, and other modes of escape. When it is time to create budgets we speak now of “entitlements” and not obligations to the poor, the sick, and the aged.
If we are truly to bring our faith to bear, we must rediscover our dedication to the proposition that all are created equal. If so, we cannot allow others to be unjustly imprisoned, to starve in a land of plenty, to be killed by weaponry whose sales merely enrich the wealthy. The great danger we face is not from the extremists. It is rather from the “good people” who have become so unconsciously “libertarian,’ that they no longer are grounded in the foundational obligations of which Lincoln spoke. We are approaching the line which Heschel describes: where “consciousness of rights fades away when our sense of obligation subsides.” The way back to true liberty is to practice fulfilling our obligations to each other, to be custodians of the “common-wealth.” As Lincoln also reminded us, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
At the heart of Jesus’ social teaching lies the parable of the Good Samaritan. As we persecute those who struggle to come here to find a life for themselves and their families, we should ponder the question asked of Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” True civic and social bonds are not ethereal; they are as practical as caring for each other, by putting into practice the love of neighbor to which Jesus calls us. How has it come to be that in a proudly asserted “Christian nation” that call is so absent from our shared political discourse?
This is the decision which we have to make: whether our life’s to be a pursuit of pleasure or an engagement for service. The world cannot remain a vacuum. Unless we make it an altar to God, it is invaded by demons. This is no time for neutrality. We Jews cannot remain aloof or indifferent. We, too, are either ministers of the sacred or slaves of evil. The only safeguard against constant danger is constant vigilance, constant guidance. Such guidance is given to him who lives in the reality of Israel. It is a system in which human relations rest upon two basic ideas: the idea of human rights and the idea of human obligations. In the present crisis we have learned that consciousness of our rights fades away when our sense of obligation subsides; that our duties become chains when we surrender that to which we have a just claim. There is a boundless realm of living that, if it is not to be stultified, cannot be placed under the control of either ethics or jurisprudence. How to become a master in that realm, not to curb but to shape, is a supreme challenge to intelligence
Abraham Joshua Heschel, “No Time For Neutrality,” in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, p. 75