A Life that is A Light
By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
November 11, 2018
Romans 12: 9-21
When we had little kids, Margaret and I attended a lot of child-rearing classes and read a lot of parenting literature and listened to a lot of radio shows on raising children. I remember hearing a person interviewed who’d written a book on developing character in children. She was talking about the things we tend to say about our children, and even about each other. We talk about how they’re really good at sports; or they’re really smart; or they’re very good looking. And if we can’t say any of those things about them, we say, sort of as a throw-away, kind of a back-handed compliment, “Well, they have a nice a personality!”
And the person being interviewed said, “But isn’t ‘having a nice personality’ actually the thing we most want to pursue for our children? Isn’t it more important to raise children of character than children who are good athletes, or good students, or really good looking? But the good personality—good character—is not the thing we most value in our society today,” she concluded sadly.
Likewise, former Education Secretary Bill Bennett put together a wonderful book entitled The Book of Virtues, which compiled children’s stories through the ages and from around the world that spoke to the vital issue of shaping our children’s character. “Morality and virtues,” he wrote, are “not something to be possessed, but… a central part of human nature, not…something to have but…something to be, the most important thing to be” (Bennett, William. The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories. New York: Simon and Shuster, 1993. p. 14).
These virtues, he said, transcend the issues that dominate our cultural debate, because they are foundational. He writes:
Good people—people of character and moral literacy—can be conservative and good people can be liberal. We must not permit our disputes over thorny political questions to obscure the obligation we have to offer instruction to our young people in the area in which we have, as a society, reached a consensus: namely, on the importance of good character, and on some of its pervasive particulars (P. 13).
Twenty-five years have passed since Dr. Bennett wrote those words. A generation. And there has been a sea change in our public dialogue since then, and not a good one. I don’t need to remind you what it is: we all know it. We see it every day. And it’s filtered down from our public, so-called civic dialogue to the way we interact with one another in our daily lives. It is filtering down to us, and because of that, it’s filtering down to our children.
On this Veterans Day it’s worth noting that a movement to return to civil, respectful public dialogue and working across the aisle has started among military veterans who are running for office. It is called With Honor. Several of With Honor’s participants, Republican and Democrat, have been elected this election cycle. They have taken the following pledge:
- Integrity: I will always speak the truth and prioritize the public interest above my self-interest.
- Civility: I will respect my colleagues, focus on solving problems and work to bring civility to politics.
- Courage: I will defend the rights of all Americans and have the courage to collaborate across the aisle and find common ground. (https://www.withhonor.org/the-pledge)
This pledge is an attempt to return our nation to the qualities of good character that Dr. Bennett says ought to be our common ground.
For us Christians, Paul’s guidance in our Romans passage today is essential reading. It’s important to note that Paul is directing the readers of this letter to practice these virtues in a hostile setting. These are Roman Christians, an often persecuted and certainly discriminated against minority in the city that was the seat of empire and of emperor worship. It is in that setting that Paul believes it is vitally important to show these character traits. Listen:
“Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” Don’t believe that what you want to do is so important that you have to compromise values like respect, integrity, honesty and fairness to get your way.
“Outdo one another in showing honor.” Don’t worry about whether you are getting proper respect all the time. We should not act like a bunch of Rodney Dangerfields running around yelling , “I don’t get no respect!” Even when you feel mistreated, show the respect to others that you would want shown to yourself. Remember the Biblical Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” Luke 6:31; Matt. 7:12)
“Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.” We have become impatient and “now”-oriented. We’ve lost perspective. It’s made us cruel and condescending toward those with whom we disagree. It’s made us rude and uncompromising with people who we don’t think are moving fast enough toward whatever we consider “progress.” Our hope is in God, not in politics or getting our way. Patience and perseverance are key character traits of the Christian, because we may not have all that we want now, but we have hope—confidence in God’s future. “All things together work for good for those who love the Lord and are called to God’s purpose,” Paul says (Romans 8:28). Or as John says—John Lennon, that is: “All things will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”
“Extend hospitality to strangers.” This has always been a central Biblical value, one we seem to have lost in an age of fear and suspicion of The Other. Over two years ago, my wife Margaret and son Bennie were in Dallas when they were pinned down, along with hundreds of others, by the shooter who ultimately killed six Dallas police officers. They found safety in a hotel which was under lockdown until the next morning. An African American family from out of town invited them to share their hotel room with them, and even graciously let Bennie and Margaret use their bed while they slept on the furniture. Especially in harrowing times, hospitality is both critical and a true sign of the presence of God—because we need each other.
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” How vital it is in our public dialogue to refuse to call those with whom we disagree our enemies, and to seek the best for them!
“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” Try to understand the burdens that weigh down the lives of others, instead of simply dismissing them as overblown or somehow a threat to you. Their troubles are as real as yours; please don’t minimize them. Listen; try to understand.
“Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.” We are so divided from one another—by race, religion, socio-economic status, education. Increasingly we are moving into our own protected enclaves of those who are just like me. This is a terrible mistake. Rather than reinforcing disharmony, Jesus Christ calls us to live in harmony with those who are different from us. It’s hard work—that’s why it is godly work. That’s why it is noble work. That’s why it is the work of the Kingdom of God. “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all,” Paul says. In other words, don’t give up on living peaceably even if everyone else seems to.
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. …If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” This is somewhat humorously worded, but nonetheless it’s a point that should be obvious to Christians: Evil done to us does not justify doing evil in return: once again, as Jesus teaches, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It seems to be the case though that we see a lot of Christians believing that if they perceive an evil done to them, they must do evil in return, especially when it comes to politics and the so-called “culture war.” Really, who is our Lord: our politics? Our culture? Or Jesus Christ, who taught us: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44)?
And finally, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” This is the bottom line of Christian ethics, of ethics based upon the values of the Kingdom of God. The ends do not justify the means. If our goal is the Kingdom of God, then we can’t justify unethical, disrespectful, unloving, and cruel behavior in order to get there. We believe that good is stronger than evil and will ultimately prevail. We believe that God calls us to do the right thing, the loving thing, the humble thing, the gracious and selfless thing. That’s what we should be doing. It’s the behavior we must model for our children. It is the standard of behavior to which we are called as Christians, And if we abide by it, things will be okay in the end.