“This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
Since hearing the president at the National Prayer Breakfast last week, the words of Jesus from Matthew 15:8 has been in my heart and mind.
At the annual event President Obama said:
“Today, we profess the principles we know to be true. We believe that each of us is ‘wonderfully made’ in the image of God. We, therefore, believe in the inherent dignity of every human being – dignity that no earthly power can take away. And central to that dignity is freedom of religion – the right of every person to practice their faith how they choose, to change their faith if they choose, or to practice no faith at all, and to do this free from persecution and fear.”
Words are exceedingly powerful. And if you were to do a Google search on “National Prayer Breakfast” today, you’d be greeted with several articles that extol the President’s comments on “religious freedom.” If you didn’t know any better, you’d be proud – proud to be a part of a nation that “believes in the inherent dignity of every human being – dignity that no earthly power can take away.” Yet these words are devoid of meaning. They describe marvelous intentions, to be sure, but truthful words based in reality they are not.
We simply cannot say that our nation believes that each of us is “wonderfully made” as the Psalmist writes in Psalm 139 if we allow abortion to devastate women, men, and children alike – even though the president acknowledged that “the killing of the innocent is never fulfilling God’s will; in fact, it’s the ultimate betrayal of God’s will.” We cannot say that we believe that no earthly power can take away the inherent dignity of every human being as we perpetuate systems that leave the poor vulnerable and alone and stuck in poverty. Earlier this month, the attorney general announced that the government would seek the death penalty against the Boston bombing suspect – where is the suspects’ inherent dignity? We cannot say that every person has the right to practice their faith how they choose if we allow legislation that restricts – at a fundamental level – the rights of faithful people to practice their beliefs.
We cannot say these things, not only because they are glaringly untrue, but because they are dangerous. If we continue to accept these euphemisms, this doublespeak, we dilute our ability to see truth and goodness. We are rapidly appointing a dangerous moment – a moment in which we no longer simply espouse a culture of death, but we espouse a culture of death that is cloaked in a culture of apparent goodness. As the adage goes, the greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing the world that he didn’t exist. If we convince the world that yes, we believe that every human being has dignity and that we must protect that dignity at all costs, but we do not defend the unborn, the poor, the weak, the elderly, the disabled, the marginalized – well, maybe that will be the second greatest trick ever played. The weakest among us – those who have no one to speak for them – will be undefended and we will be a people devoid of mercy and justice.
So what can we say in response to the president’s seemingly empty words? When Christ was misunderstood – as he frequently was – he simply kept on proclaiming the Good News. Sometimes he would move on to another town. Sometimes he would stay put. But always he continued to live among the poor, to heal the sick, to defend those who were persecuted. Like the story of the woman caught in adultery, Jesus would call out the injustice, name the sin, and then proclaim, “Your faith has saved you. Go forth and sin no more.” He did all of this with love and with compassion, never with judgment, and he urged his followers to do the same. May we have the courage to truly, to radically follow the example of Jesus – to be a people of action, not merely of empty words, with hearts filled with love and compassion and dependence on the One who has wonderfully made us.