This week was a pretty big week for God in the news.
Well, OK. Maybe God wasn’t the hot topic. But religion certainly was. There were two very big stories that seemed to have little in common, but both can teach us some important lessons about religion if we look closely enough.
The first was the saga of Kim Davis. The Kentucky clerk refused to do her job and sign marriage certificates for same-sex couples in the name of “conscience” and in doing so, she became a national symbol for anyone who opposes marriage equality on religious grounds.
According to Davis — who spent five days in jail and was greeted at her release by presidential candidate Mike Huckabee and hundreds of cheering, cross-waving supporters — it was her faith and her religious conviction that made her do it.
Contrast that with the second time that religion took center stage this week: Pope Francis encouraged every single Catholic parish in Europe to “take in one migrant family.” The call to the region’s approximately 120,000 parishes was made in response to the continent’s ongoing refugee crisis, which has hit record levels and finally shocked the world into paying attention.
Why should we look at those two stories together? For sure, there are plenty of legal, political, and theological debates that can be had about both Kim Davis and Pope Francis.
But to me, the most interesting part of these two stories — and what connects them — is what they both can teach us about faith.
Strong faith can be a tremendous force for good in the world. It has helped provide education and basic needs for millions of people and has been a foundational component of civil and human rights efforts all around the world, the most famous of which is the 1960s American civil rights movement.
But we also know that faith can be very dangerous. It has been used to justify things like slavery, the oppression of women, and most recently, the killing of gays all over the world.
How can something so good do such bad? Or, if you’re not a person of faith, maybe you’re wondering how something so bad can do such good.
Here’s my theory.
I think of faith as the ideas and beliefs that people have about God. But religion is the tricky part — the rules and practices that humans created to figure out how to actually connect with their god.
In all the major world religions, the practices and rules were created in a very specific cultural context (like, for example, 2,000 years ago in “Bible times”). But when cultures change, which they’re guaranteed to do, things get tough for religion.
The kind of faith that relies most heavily on religious rules often focuses on what I call the don’ts:
Don’t legalize alcohol. Don’t teach sex education. Don’t legalize abortions. Don’t be gay. Don’t legalize marijuana. Don’t let people get married. Don’t [fill-in-the-blank].
When people of faith make their primary agenda item a don’t in order to maintain the cultural status quo, it can:
Oppress people and violate rights.
Cause very real pain and harm in people’s lives.
Repel millions of people away from the idea of faith and God altogether.
Faith used in this way ultimately always loses. (See again slavery, prohibition, oppression of women, legalizing abortion, gay marriage, etc.)
That is the kind of faith we saw on display in Kentucky this week.
But when faith focuses on the do’s — working to solve problems, meet needs, and serve others — it ultimately wins.
The do’s are actions and principles like these:
Do love your neighbor. Do feed the hungry. Do heal the sick. (Free health care anyone?) Do seek justice. Do practice humility. Do give more than you receive. Do take in thousands of refugee families.
Faith used in this way can:
Remind us of the simple truths hiding beneath complex issues.
Empower us to take concrete action in response to pain and injustice.
Connect and draw people together across all divides.
The do’s are where the magic happens. The do’s are what we saw from the Pope this week. It’s the do’s that are currently behind the Moral Mondays movement for economic justice and the religious leadership in the Black Lives Matter movement, not to mention the thousands of organizations working to take care of the earth, provide for the homeless, and support women and families.
Kim Davis didn’t save a life this week. The Pope just may have helped save thousands.
This tale of two acts of faith teaches an important lesson, not just for those of us who identify as Christian or religious, but for anyone looking for ways to use what they believe to make a difference. The world becomes measurably, tangibly, and practically better with the do’s of faith. That, to me, sounds like a major win that all people — religious and not — can get behind.