The Christian “Big Tent”

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Before we get too far into Pastor Mark Labberton’s book The Dangerous Act of Loving Your Neighbor, we need to talk about the “big tent.”

Sometimes Christians think their view is the majority view in the faith, especially those Christians who belong to smaller churches where shared worldviews are very similar. But there is a problem with that; the Christian faith is a diverse collection of people with different perspectives on how life should be approached.

Everyone knows that America is a “divided” country, with people who have conservative views and people who have liberal views. The divide between the groups seems greater than ever. Nancy Gibbs writes in Time Magazine that we “have deserted the common ground.” She states the obvious: “Civil discourse suffers from the echo…and the chamber which walls us off from diverse opinion, from ideas that might disturb us in healthy ways.” Americans don’t bother to sample diverse news sources. Maybe that is due to our frantic lifestyles so we settle for a cable news snippet, a Facebook post, or a political writer on a website that makes us cozy and we stop right there. We just don’t have time to explore others’ opinions; it is so easy to stop the thinking process and call differing folks bad names.

But how does the Christian handle big topics like social injustice? Do we ignore people who suffer from the ills of our society or do we find a way to address the problem. The Methodist Church is a “big tent” church. Ok, here is an example. Hillary Clinton is a Methodist. George W. Bush is a Methodist too. People who like to label themselves as progressives also claim Christianity as their faith. People who support socially conservative policies claim Christianity as their faith too.

Laying all our differences aside, my Bible teaches me that my God is a God of justice. In fact, in Deuteronomy 32:4 it says “all His ways are justice.” The Bible supports the idea that Christians should be concerned for the plight of the poor and afflicted. It refers to the fatherless and the widow; that is people who struggle to fend for themselves because they need a support system. The entire nation of Israel was commanded by God to care for society’s less fortunate and their failure to do so led to their judgement and expulsion from the land. Jesus says we are to care for the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40). He truly meant that we as Christians should care for the outcasts of society.

Back to that Methodist “big tent.” Methodist historians point to John Wesley and his efforts to visit those in prison. After visiting prisoners, he had a tireless dedication for prison reform. English prisons in the Eighteenth Century were horrid and prisoners truly suffered. Certainly Wesley was a tireless preacher who spent his whole life trying to aid the downtrodden.

Where do Christians get it wrong?

Some Christians have a mistaken idea about economics. There have always been people who have more than others and just because there is inequality of income does not mean the wealthier people of society are inherently evil. They have not necessarily taken advantage of those less fortunate to get their wealth. Some Christians feel social programs are the way to help those less fortunate but often those social programs can create serious problems. For example, some deserving people become complacent in life after receiving benefits and they are no longer interested in seeking employment; they are content to live on whatever the social program is willing to give them.

Some Christians are mistaken and turn their eyes from people in need. They might not feel compelled to help those less fortunate [I have heard too many Christians say things like “those people are just abusing welfare dollars and boy oh boy have you seen what they buy with their food stamps at the grocery”].

As Christians, we cannot turn our eyes from people who are suffering. We are compelled to find a way to aid those who struggle. Surely we have to admit there is tension between a Christian who feels government is the only answer and wealthy people who have accumulated their wealth by exploiting the poor. They are directly opposed to the Christian who is suspicious of “government handouts” and thinks that government benefits should be tied to employment.

Let’s go back to that “big tent.” My God erected that tent and my God says we must find a way to help people who are suffering. When we begin our political debates over assisting those less fortunate we are taking a man-centered approach to social justice. We have deserted the common ground we should have a Christians. If it is giving money directly to a poor person or blessing your favorite charity with a donation, that is good. If it is inviting a neighbor over to have a hot meal when the neighbor is struggling, that is good. If it is investing some time and effort to distribute food to the hungry, that is good. A God-centered approach to love and justice is to show kindness and mercy to those less fortunate.

I suspect that my God, who erected that big tent, has something in common with you.

He’s your God too.

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