A Reorientation of the Heart

At church last week, the pastor was preaching about James 5:1-6.  In that passage, James criticizes the rich people who hoarded their wealth, lived in luxury while depriving their workers of pay, and condemned the just one to death.

The pastor addressed a lot of issues, but I want to focus on one.  In the course of his sermon, the pastor was criticizing companies that shipped jobs overseas for the bottom line.  The pastor was beginning to sound like Bernie Sanders when he lamented the decline of America’s middle class!

This church is an interesting mix, politically-speaking.  Of course, the pastor and the church do not endorse or oppose candidates, but the pastor does voice his opinions about the issues of the day.  The church started out as an African-American church, but it became more multi-ethnic over the years; my guess, based on my observation when there, is that more than half of those who attend this particular church are African-American.  Plus, the pastor himself is African-American.  The church is rather conservative on social and cultural issues, such as school prayer and abortion.  This is not too much of a surprise to me.  What is more of a surprise to me is that the pastor is critical of the “Black Lives Matters” movement, as he says that “All lives matter.”  And last Sunday, and on other Sundays, the pastor criticized companies that ship jobs overseas.

The pastor was saying that, when we go to work on Monday, we should not tell our company that our pastor was criticizing its policies!  The pastor said that our greatest weapon is prayer.

I identified with this, but I would like to explain when and why that sort of spiel has turned me off in the past.  A lot of times, I have seen Christian conservatives say that we should pray that more people become Christians, and that will take care of the country’s problems, or at least improve the country’s situation.  The idea is that, if more people have new and changed hearts, then they will be less prone to commit the sins that harm other people.

My understanding is that this spiel was often used against the social Gospel, or any idea that the government should take a proactive role in tackling poverty.  Such a spiel was also used against the Civil Rights movement: you can’t legislate morality from the top down, some Christians said, but we should pray that more people will be converted, and then the different races will get along.  Ironically, many Christian conservatives still support using government power when it accords with their own religious, cultural, or moral agenda: on what marriages to recognize, on pornography, or on the promotion of religion in public schools.  Sometimes they want to legislate morality, and sometimes they do not.

This spiel has been abused, and yet there is some wisdom and merit to it, which is not to endorse all of the baggage that has accompanied this sentiment throughout history.  Legislation or decrees from the top down are not sufficient to tackle the country’s problems.  That is not to say that legislation or just enforcement of the law should not exist.  But it is to say that, as long as greed is a paramount factor in the decisions that people make, legislation will not cut it.  Health insurance companies will leave the Obamacare exchanges.  Corporations will pass on higher taxes to their consumers, resulting in higher prices.

What I believe I should pray is that people will become less greedy, that people will have a social conscience and concern for other people rather than thinking solely about their profits, and that they will repent over the damage that they are doing.  Does this entail praying that they will become Christians?  Well, perhaps a changed heart would be an asset.  A heart that is more like Christ will coincide with love of neighbor, concern for the poor, and trust in God, which may obviate whatever feelings of financial insecurity drive their greed.

But I am less-than-optimistic that them becoming Christians will necessarily make them less greedy or increase their social conscience, for there are plenty of Christians who compartmentalize their religion, or whose religion does not lead them to be less greedy.  Churches and religious people have managed to co-exist with societies that have massive problems, and there have been many times when they have ignored or even perpetuated these problems.

I will pray that people will have changed hearts in this area, either flowing from a Christian commitment or from good moral sense, or even a practical recognition that the current path is unsustainable.  In praying, I am assuming that God can bring this about, that God can enlighten people by changing their heart through God’s Spirit, or through experiences.  A re-orientation within people’s hearts is important for things to improve in this country.

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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