This past weekend during worship, I opened space in the sermon for a time of question and answer with the congregation. Although I don’t do this every week, I do find it fruitful, first because people arrive at church with questions, and this gives them a chance to hear a message that connects to their questions. Second because it teaches me more about the spiritual needs of those attending worship Sunday mornings.
The questions were diverse. How can I gain forgiveness from my neighbor? Why did people in Genesis live so long? In an inter-religious world, what does it mean to say that Jesus is the savior?
A significant number of the questions, however, seemed to be chasing after a common theme. The theme was focus, of prioritizing the right things. In the modern world, how can I know that I’m focusing my religious energies in the right direction? In a complicated world, how do I know my political or social commitments are truly focused on love of neighbor?
Lots of us are chasing after these kinds of questions, and at certain moments in history, this kind of question has found particular poignancy. For example, you have that great question asked of Jesus: What is the greatest commandment? And his response: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. A simple and memorable answer, but one that takes a lifetime and more to live into.
Søren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher and great Lutheran theologian, put it another way: Purity of heart is to will one thing. That’s easy to say, and difficult to live. Nevertheless, even if it is difficult, it is worth spending a lifetime pursuing, to invest a life in purifying the heart in order to will the one thing worth willing.
Another great Danish thinker, NFS Grundtvig, a pastor and educational reformer who I admire, had a motto: Human first, then Christian. As important as liturgy and sacraments and religious life were to Grundtvig, he believed as a person committed to the humanities and the good of all people, that the commitment to be human and humane together always took precedent over specific Christian commitments.
I believe, in fact, that Grundtvig would have argued that anything we think is Christian that doesn’t treat the human as human is actually not Christian. These two cannot be at odds. Christian faith, if it is anything at all, is faith in the One who arrives as the fully human one Jesus Christ, in order to make humanity even more human.
I believe this singularity of focus can assist all of us, at any time, as we go about our daily work, engage in political discourse, play games, make art, consume culture, raise families, act as neighbors. In every instance, we can test what we do, what we believe, how we vote, against the fundamental dictum: Human first, then…
As a Christian, I happen to think there is an aspect of discerning the truly human that has a religious component. Another famous Christian, Augustine, summarized the Great Commandment of Jesus Christ in even shorter fashion. Augustine said: Love God, and do what you will. Augustine believed that a person who rightly loves God will then automatically find themselves doing that which fulfills the rest of the great commandment, to love the neighbor.
I think this is right. Inasmuch as we get our relationship right with the ultimate, with God, we are more likely to be rightly disposed towards our neighbors, and love them.
On the other hand, if your political or religious commitments have you dehumanizing someone, say by writing them off because they are an immigrant, then not only are your ethics distorted—your faith is distorted also. People are not first of all citizens of any particular nation, we are not separated by the countries in which we were born. These are rather arbitrary designations associated with the kinds of papers we received at our birth.
No, first of all we are human. Human first, then Mexican, or Canadian, or a citizen of the United States. We share one planet, and are all part of a shared humanity. Human first.
This is also why I find something like the #sayhername Twitter hashtag campaign so compelling. In a world that has hyper-politicized our life together, it is a call from, in particular, women of color, to remind us, these are real people, real women, with real names, with families, human beings made in the image of God who have died, often in tragic situations, because of dehumanizing systems.
Our shared work, if we are willing to accept it, is to live into the great humanist motto of Grundtvig: Human first, then… Easy to say, but a commitment of a lifetime.