I’ve been discussing Christian “habits of the heart,” ways of approaching life that are commended on the pages of the Bible. These habits were observed by the French social commentator Alexis de Tocqueville when he came to the United States in the 1830s. The faith of Americans, he concluded, militated against their being so consumed with their freedom that they ignored the rights and needs of others.
In his classic, Democracy in America, de Tocqueville writes: “...equality, which brings great benefits into the world, nevertheless...tends to isolate [people] from each other, to concentrate every man’s attention upon himself...The greatest advantage of religion is to inspire diametrically contrary principles...Religious nations are therefore naturally strong on the very point on which democratic nations are weak, which shows of what importance it is for men [sic] to preserve their religion as their conditions become more equal.”
By the time of de Tocqueville’s visit to this country, Americans had undergone what historians call a “great awakening.” A religiously indifferent people had come to enthusiastic faith in Jesus Christ. This, de Tocqueville saw, was among the important reasons that American democracy was working.
In my last column, I mentioned two “habits of the heart” that God calls Christians to adopt which, when lived out, can help make democracy work. They were confident humility and love of neighbor. Here, I discuss another one: a commitment to justice, to fair treatment of all people, no matter what their station, rank, ethnicity, or life style.
In the Old Testament book of Micah, we’re reminded, “He [God] has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8) God wants us to treat others with kindness and fairness.
In fact, it appears that God actually expects us to give preference to the outcasts of society. The man we Christians say was God-in-the-flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, drove this point home many times. Once at a dinner party put on by an important man, Jesus upbraided the host and his “good” friends for only inviting the “right” people to their gatherings. “When you give a luncheon or a dinner,” He said, “do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your rich neighbors...invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind...you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.” (Luke 14:12-14)
Jesus even showed that you don’t have to approve people’s sins to give them just treatment. Once, Jesus prevented a group of men who wanted to stone an adulterous woman to death. “Let the stones fly,” He told them, “if you have no sin.” They dropped their stones. Jesus neither condoned the woman’s lifestyle or condemned her. He simply told her to “go and sin no more.”
God’s justice is different from our justice. It doesn’t always give us what we deserve, but what we need.
In this sinful world, we certainly need laws and punishments. God’s Word, the Bible, acknowledges that.
But if we Christians would adopt the commitment to justice which the Bible says is to be a habit of our hearts, we could positively effect the atmosphere of our society one person at a time.
Personally, I’m a sinner who deserves eternity in hell. But, through Jesus and my faith in Him, God has given this repentant sinner not what I deserve, but what I need: forgiveness and the power to live a changed life.
That’s why, however imperfectly, I want to make giving justice to my neighbor a habit of my heart, a part of my life.
Next column: another important habit of the heart that can help make democracy work.
[You can find a complete text of the Bible here.]