I often talk about faith as something that is personal, but never private. Each of us must take responsibility for the beliefs we hold and must personally wrestle with life's most fundamental questions. But once we have decided to follow Jesus, we cannot help but live out our personal beliefs in public ways. The demands of the gospel refuse us the option of a purely inward spirituality.
As anyone who has read my writings over the years will know, Matthew 25 is a text at the very core of my faith. It is the scripture that brought me back to Christ. In Jesus' call to welcome the stranger and care about the least of these, we are challenged as Christians to love those whom the world too often neglects. In a culture driven by self-interest, God call us to care about the common good and about how our public policies affect the most vulnerable. In a world where money and power bring influence, Jesus asks us to give attention to the poor, the weak, and the marginalized.
While there are times when those in power listen to the guidance of moral and religious leaders, far too often we're asked to be prophets. In the face of opposition, we pick up our crosses and lift up our voices on behalf of the disadvantaged.
In North Carolina, pastors and civil rights leaders, along with thousands of others, have been living out their personal faith in a very public way. Since late April, dozens of faith leaders and hundreds of others have been arrested at the state capitol as part of an ongoing protest called "Moral Mondays."
What would motivate these leaders to take such a strong stand at such a personal cost?
North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory and conservative majorities in both chambers of the state legislature have pushed a rigid budget agenda that has cut benefits to more than 70,000 people without jobs, restricted access to health care for low-income people, and attacked voting rights. The legislature is working on a tax cut for the wealthy and corporations while increasing the burden on struggling families.
Pastors in North Carolina are putting their faith into action because their elected officials are ignoring the views and values of the people they are supposed to be representing. As the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, a pastor in Goldsboro and the president of the NAACP in North Carolina, said, "We had to stand up as a coalition -- not liberal vs. conservative (that's too small, too limited, too tired), or Republican vs. Democrat. We had to [give] a moral challenge because these policies they were passing, in rapid-fire, were constitutionally inconsistent, morally indefensible, and economically insane."
Across our country, too many pastors from too many churches in too many towns are far too timid when it comes to following the gospel call in Matthew 25. In this passage, Jesus offers a vision of God's kingdom where caring for vulnerable people is the defining mark:
"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...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.'" (Matthew 25:35-36, 40)
God is far bigger than a single political party. There are many paths and policies for addressing poverty, reforming our broken immigration system, responding to climate change, and healing the racial divides that continue in our society. But what we cannot accept, nor allow, is for our own leaders to willfully exacerbate our problems and directly harm people who are already suffering -- to sacrifice the common good to their own ideological agendas. In such moments and times, people of faith must speak out---not for the sake of politics, but because the beauty and simplicity of the gospel demands it.
What is happening in North Carolina is remarkable and inspiring. It is also effective. The media is taking notice, and people are responding from all directions. Sadly, more than one elected leader has resorted to name-calling, with one legislator describing the protests as "Moron Mondays."
It is clear which side has the moral high ground.
A diversity of issues is at play among protestors in North Carolina. Many, including myself, may not agree with their whole agenda. But a common purpose drives them: that those elected to serve must truly be the servant of all by governing toward the common good. Until North Carolina's elected officials start listening to the faith community and change their ways, I stand with the pastors and civil rights leaders getting arrested every Monday in Raleigh. And I want to add my voice to theirs.
North Carolina's elected leaders must hear that the whole country is watching, and that we're praying for those hurt by their actions.
Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn't Learned About Serving the Common Good, is now available. Watch the Story of the Common Good HERE. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.