We live in an age of finger-pointing. Some of this finger-pointing is regrettable, I think. One expression of it is inspirational, I believe. And one dimension of it is now essential, I'm convinced. I'd like to reflect with you on all three of these senses of "finger-pointing," because each of them bears upon the ministry of Christians in a time when the role of religion in American life is again on the front burner.
First, let me speak of the regrettable kind of finger-pointing. You can hear it in the tone of the comments made by presidential candidates voicing their contempt for the other side. You can hear it in the tone of the fight gearing up between Democrats and Republicans over who will fill the now-vacant seat on that same Supreme Court. The tone is largely one of finger-jabbing, a finger full of anger, fear, and pride.
On one side are those who love to point their finger at the Left. They claim them to be precisely what is wrong with America today. The Left, they say, is bent on cutting off our nation's life from its spiritual foundations and tilting our culture toward moral collapse. They are trying to erase our national heritage! The Left is devoted to divorcing America from the God of the Bible so they can do whatever they want. "God save America from these godless humanists," they say.
On the other extreme are those who love to point their finger at the Right. They portray them as the most dangerous influence in America at present. The Right just wants to control the minds and behaviors of others. They want to destroy, by federal fiat, that most precious liberty on which America was built: the freedom to worship as one chooses (or not at all). The Right thinks everyone but themselves are wrong. "Please, somebody save America from these fanatic fundamentalists," they cry.
This finger-pointing, of course, serves its purpose. It makes its adherents feel very righteous. It provides great fodder for talk radio and TV. It offers the fireworks needed for the fundraising efforts of this organization or that. But there is a downside. As long as this tone of anger, fear, and pride dominates the moral and political discourse—as long as this notion prevails that there is a vast Left- or Right-wing conspiracy afoot, and those who don't see life as we do or vote as we do are either ignorant or malevolent—we will be these United States in name only. We will see citizens, politicians, and churches alike increasingly polarized into stone-throwing camps on the Right or the Left. We will lack the common cause and combined intelligence required to make lasting progress on the great issues that are of vital concern to both humanity and God.
For this reason, I draw your attention today to a second kind of finger pointing, one that comes literally from the center of our nation's life. In the middle of our nation's capital, an inspirational finger rises 555 feet into the sky and points not to the Right or Left, but toward the heavens. The Washington Monument is known the world over, but some of its aspects have been lost to human sight.
You may not know, for example, that when its cornerstone was set on July 4, 1848, a copy of the Holy Bible was put inside of it. President James Polk had the Bible placed there as a sign of the role that the Word of God originally played as the cornerstone of this nation's vision and in the lives of leaders like George Washington himself.
If you could get a helicopter to set you down atop this obelisk today, you would also be able to discern the original city plan of the designer, Pierre Charles L'Enfant. You would notice four other major landmarks laid out on straight lines, like compass points off the monument's center—the White House to the north, the Jefferson Memorial to the south, the Capitol Building to the east, and the Lincoln Memorial to the west. Seen from the sky, they form an unmistakable, perfectly proportioned cross.
You might think this a coincidence but for the fact of what you would be standing or sitting on. On the aluminum cap atop the Washington Monument are engraved two words no tourist ever sees. The words are the Latin phrase laus deo. They are the last words of Psalm 68.
Laus deo literally translates, "Praise be to God!"
The Washington Monument—the tallest and most luminous symbol of American life—stands as a reminder that there was a time when at least some clear-thinking Americans saw themselves as living for the praise of God above self, or party, or political action committee, or even above this nation's flag. What I want to ask you today is: what would it look like for more of us to do so in our time? How would it change the way we entered into the political and spiritual debates of our day if we could avoid the temptation to be finger-pointers and instead live as fingers pointing to the praise of God?
Living as fingers pointing
Let me be so bold as to suggest the Bible gives us a framework for doing just this. I'm going to give you an outline to spark discussion about these things, but I think the outline is provocative just the same. We find it in the words of the prophet Micah: "[God] has shown you, O [people], what is good. / And what does the Lord require of you? / To act justly and to love mercy / and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8).
Let me take that last part first, because it is the ground of the next two ideas. It would be good if we could model what it looks like to walk humbly with our God in discussions of religion and politics. There are two implications of that calling. The first has to do with the way we talk to others. Now, let me be dangerously blunt: too many Christians today are modeling their style of political and religious discourse after either the "apostle" Bill O'Reilly on the Right or the "prophet" Bill Maher on the Left. It may get a rise or a laugh; but it doesn't lead to the praise of God or the transforming enlightenment of others.
We would do well to reflect the counsel the apostle Paul gave to his protégé Timothy amidst a season of great conflict in his church and culture: "Don't have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth" (2 Tim. 2:23-25).
The knowledge of the truth is the second context for humility. Please don't get me wrong: there are times when, on the strength of our reading of God's Word, we must throw our energies into a cause with great passion. The maxim is true that the only thing necessary for evil to prosper is for good people to do nothing. But the first mark of good people—in the biblical sense of "good"—is that even when acting in great conviction, they will be humble enough to ask themselves, "Do I really know the good here?" In the heat of the Civil War, an admirer said to Abraham Lincoln that she was very sure that God was on the Union side. Lincoln responded by saying, "Madam, I find it more helpful to keep asking God to show me whether I am on his side."
This, I think, is where the second part of the prophet Micah's words to us is needed today. It would be "good" if we in the Christian community would always be deeply concerned to "act justly" in the fullest sense. That takes a lot of thought, because God's view of justice defies our neat categories. God loves all people, in all nations, and because people's needs and situations are complex, God's vision of justice is also complex.
A reading of the Bible suggests that God holds some very conservative views: he demands work rather than welfare for the able-bodied (1 Thess. 4:11; 2 Thess. 3:7-13; Eph. 4:28), he sanctions capital punishment for murderers (Gen. 9:6; Ex. 21:12; Lev. 24:17; Num. 35:16-21, 29-34), he esteems the life of the unborn highly (Jer. 1:5), he justifies the forceful role of the state in maintaining law and order (Rom. 13:1-5), he confers great wealth on some people and calls this good (1 Sam. 2:7; Eccles. 5:19; Prov. 10:22), and he comes down very hard on sexual promiscuity and family-breaking of many kinds, such as incest, rape, adultery, prostitution, fornication, homosexuality, and bestiality. You can see why Republicans are ready to claim God as the source of their vision.
All of this is to say that we ought to be very careful when we suggest that God is clearly with our party's platform or that righteousness can be painted in Red or Blue. The Bible challenges us to see that God's politics are more complicated and challenging than most of us have the stomach for. That may explain why, in the end, Jesus was rejected by both the liberal zealots and the conservative Pharisees alike.
It also explains, finally, why God says through the prophet Micah that it would be "good" for us to "love mercy" more than we sometimes do. You see, when we stand before God one day, trembling in abject awe before the glory of his majesty, he will not ask, "Did you vote for this candidate or that?" He will ask, "Did you enthrone me in your life?" He will not ask, "Did you rule to post the Ten Commandments or remove them from the courthouse square?" He will ask, "Did you obey them? Were they written on your heart?" He will not ask, "Did you accurately interpret the Constitution?" He will ask, "Did you accurately live out my Word in your day-to-day practices?" God will not inquire, "Were you good Americans?" He will ask, "Did you live in such a way that I was praised among the nations?"
We need one another to discern the way of God in our time. To find the way of righteousness that winds through the jungles and deserts of this age, we need the insights and giftings of the whole political spectrum, of the whole community of faith. In a world where so many others are willing to give the finger to those with whom they disagree, it is now essential that Christians be a finger pointing toward the God who still reaches out to touch this world with that redeeming love where justice and mercy meet in the humility of Jesus Christ.
So let this prayer of George Washington be ours once again:
Almighty God; We make our earnest prayer that Thou wilt keep the United States in Thy holy protection; that Thou wilt incline the hearts of [its] citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience…[and to] entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another and for their fellow citizens…[We pray] that Thou wilt…dispose us all to do justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that charity, humility, and pacific temper of mind which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion, and without a humble imitation of whose example in these things we can never hope to be [what you've called us to be.] Grant our supplication, we beseech Thee, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Dan Meyer is pastor of Christ Church.us, a nondenominational, multisite church with locations in Oak Brook and Lombard, Illinois.