How Should We Act?

Photograph of the Earth taken on December 7, 1972, by the crew of the Apollo 17
How we treat other people says a lot about what we believe about God, about others, and about ourselves. Most all religions teach that how we understand ourselves and God has consequences in all our human relationships. In Christianity the teaching is quite specific. We can't say we love God and hate any of our sisters and brothers (I John 4:19-21).

Unfortunately Christianity like many religions has also been used by evil people to justify cruel and hateful treatment of others. Slavery, oppression of women, racism, wars, and torture have all been justified by those in power by citing some aspect of Christian teaching usually torn away from its context. Unfortunately, We must expect that in parts of the world where Christianity is the majority philosophy or belief system that unscrupulous people will manipulate others by twisting and misusing the Bible.

Jan Jansz Wijnants, Parable of the Good Samaritan, oil on canvas, 1670, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.
Jan Jansz Wijnants, Parable of the Good Samaritan, oil on canvas, 1670, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.
Jesus' parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) is central to our understanding of who a neighbor is. Jesus constructed this story by using a member of the most hated ethnic group in the ancient Jewish world to demonstrate to his audience what it means to be a neighbor. Samaritans were not only different from Jews, they worshipped in a way most Jews considered an insulting and abominable mixture of the teachings of Moses and detestable idolatry and paganism. Jesus was teaching that it isn't proximity, shared ethnicity or religion, respectability or even apparent godliness which should determine who we consider our neighbor. Our faith teaches us to reach beyond our differences and respect and love others.

Economics, politics, medical ethics, dating relationships, even how we view our enemies in time of war will all grow out of what we believe our faith teaches us about how to relate to others. Human relationships and the values they help us develop are woven together with the inner spiritual life we value.

"In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets." (Matthew 7:1)

This passage, also called the Golden Rule, does not teach us specific laws or what we should do in specific instances, but it gives us an important tool to test whether something is fair and right. Are we treating others in ways that are ultimately for our own selfish ends or are we treating them in ways that respect their differences as we would like our differences respected.

Who Is Our God?

If we believe we belong to God, how does that understanding influence our actions? As Presbyterians we believe there are obligations we have beyond our relationship with our neighbors. Our relationship with God also carries obligations. Since our bodies and minds belong to God but are still under our control, we need to care for them and nurture them if we are to be good stewards of God's gifts to us. We are to glorify God in our work and in our play, and we believe we have an obligation to enjoy all the good gifts God has given us.

No part of our lives is to be outside of God's control. Part of the earliest commands God has given us is that we not be torn by conflicting obligations of multiple gods. Whether traditionally religious "gods" or not, (for instance our egos or our need for approval) conflicting values and needs can make life a mess and wear us out. That is not the will of our God. No other gods are allowed. And we're never to use God's name casually to justify our own actions or to demand (or forbid) the actions of others using God's name in a casual manner.

Also at the very root of God's earliest commands is the obligation to rest. God wants us to understand and value hard work, but God also orders us to take a break from time to time and remember what is really important.

For Further Study

Presbyterian 101 Articles on Social Issues