Being Right, Doing Right: Social Justice and the Temptation of Appearance by André Forget
André Forget works with the Anglican Journal.
I have always liked knowing things. It is not only that I find my own ignorance or confusion to be frustrating, or that I appreciate understanding what is going on in the world around me; often my love of knowing things stems from a rather questionable desire to be seen as the sort of person who knows things. I like the way knowledge gives me power over the people around me, gives me confidence in my own correctness, allows me to always seem like I am on the “right side” of an issue or argument.
Fortunately, I have had a lot of friends over the years who were better read and smarter than I who taught me the value of humility (generally by consistently beating me in arguments), and who taught me that there were more important things than being smart. Like, for example, the importance of doing the right things. Still, it is something I continue to struggle with – the temptation to expend all of my energy on figuring out what the right thing to do is without ever actually doing it.
The Gospel reading for this week is all about the relationship between words and actions. Jesus is asked by the chief priests where his authority comes from – essentially, they want to know why he is worth listening to. Jesus counters by offering to tell them only if they can answer his own question, then proceeds to put them in a very difficult place by asking them to publicly take a position on the legitimacy of John the Baptist’s prophetic ministry. John, who had recently been imprisoned and executed by the government, was surely a controversial figure – as Matthew makes clear, the priests were well aware that there was no way to have a position about John without putting getting into some kind of trouble with either the people or the government. And so they respond with a safe but anaemic “we don’t know.”
But Jesus is not content to leave it at that: these are the last days of his ministry, and he wants to make very clear what his message is all about. He offers one of his simplest and most straightforward parables: a man tells his two sons to go to work; one says “no” but later goes, and the other says “yes” but doesn’t end up going. Which one did the father’s will? Obviously, the first.
Though this is a deceptively simple message – so simple it seems almost banal – it carries a very difficult teaching: appearing to obey is far less important than actually obeying.
I have always felt this struggle most acutely when it comes to social justice. Although social justice is a foundational element in the building of the kingdom, and although the struggle to embody a more active and politically engaged faith is fundamental to the Christian life, I have often confused my desire to live in a socially just world with the desire to be seen to live in a socially just way.
In our personal lives and in the life of the church, much energy is spent on work that is fundamentally about making the church (or certain expressions of the church) seem like they are on the “right side” of certain issues. We want to put distance between ourselves and our conservative brothers and sisters. There is, without a doubt, value to this. But there is also a temptation, the temptation to spend more energy cultivating the appearance of being socially just than in practicing the kind of social justice that Christ did.
The irony of Jesus’ response to the chief priests in today’s Gospel passage is that he actually does answer their question. They want to know where his authority comes from, and his round-about response is that his authority comes from his practice. It does not come from knowing what the right answer is to a doctrinal question, it does not come from being able to outwit others in an argument (though Jesus was quite good about both of those things) but from the obvious fact that Jesus work is life-giving.
I hope that one day this will be enough for me as well.