09/11/2012 12:52 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2012

Can We Afford to Be Neutral? Christianity and Civic Engagement

Christians have an important decision to make this election season: if and how to be involved. Political discourse often turns so ugly and aggressively partisan that it is tempting for people of faith to excuse themselves from being involved altogether. But when we consider how high the stakes are for millions of Americans -- many of them our family and fellow church members -- neglecting our civic responsibility to sort through sometimes difficult issues and vote is not an option.

When asked by an "expert in the law" what our most important responsibility is before God, Jesus answered by repeating the familiar words of the Torah, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself" (Luke 10:27, CEB). This is the bedrock of Jewish and Christian faith.

Apparently looking for a loophole exempting him from having to actually do something, this "lawyer" pressed on, "But who is my neighbor?" In response Jesus told the story we know as The Good Samaritan who, seeing a man (usually assumed to be his adversary, a Jew) beaten, robbed and left for dead, cared for him, bound up his wounds and saw to his ongoing health care needs until he was well. That's the good news. The bad news is that there were two others that saw this man in desperate need that day. Religious men, in fact: a priest and a Levite. Both of them had religious duties to perform, liturgies to attend to, offerings to make, blessings to pronounce. Perhaps these religious leaders did not want to risk being ritually defiled by touching a possibly dead, and most certainly sick, man. They didn't want to get involved. The risk to themselves -- of literally getting their hands dirty -- was too great. Perhaps they reasoned that this was not their concern, that they had other, spiritual matters needing their attention back home. Or perhaps they were afraid. Is this an ambush? Better to stay out of this and remain neutral.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. has said, Jesus took an abstract question about how to fulfill the law and "placed it on a dangerous road between Jerusalem and Jericho." Today we must do the same thing. We must take abstract questions about loving God and loving our neighbor and place them against the backdrop of systemic injustice that keeps people in poverty and eliminates opportunities for human flourishing.

Only one man was neighbor to the suffering man on the road that day. It was the man who chose to engage himself in the needs of others, to reject the concern for ritual purity and the false neutrality of not getting involved. Desmond Tutu has famously said, "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality."

Jeremiah, speaking prophetically to Shallum, the son of the late King Josiah, said,

He [Josiah] defended the rights of the poor and needy;
then it went well.
Isn't that what it means to know me?
declares the Lord.
But you set your eyes and heart
on nothing but unjust gain;
you spill the blood of the innocent;
you practice cruelty;
you oppress your subjects.
--Jeremiah 22:15-16, emphasis added

Today we must not only engage in the immediate care of those left by the side of the road to die, but we must question a society that has organized itself in such a way that most people never encounter those left to die well out of our view. We have roads we call "bypasses" that literally by-pass those in need as we speed to our destinations. We must also question why this road is so dangerous and becoming more dangerous by the day. There simply aren't enough Good Samaritans to tend to all the people who are robbed and left to die.

The stakes are high in our country. Two examples will suffice to make the point. There are more people living in poverty in the United States today (42.6 million) than in the 52 years the Census Bureau has been publishing that statistic and nearly 50 million people still have no health insurance. We are failing our most vulnerable citizens.

We are called to stand in this gap and "defend the rights of the poor and needy" by raising our voices in the public discourse and making our wishes known at the ballot box. Neutrality is not an option.

To learn more about how you can put your faith into action in your community, please visit If you live in Minnesota, Florida, Ohio or California you can learn more about what's happening in your state.