Sunday, September 27, 2009

What's Next, Non-Believers in the Pews?

Here's this week's On Faith question from WashingtonPost:
Dozens of major religious groups and denominations are urging Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. to renounce a Bush-era memo that allows faith-based charities that receive federal funding to discriminate in hiring. SHOULD RELIGIOUS CHARITIES THAT RECEIVE FEDERAL GRANT MONEY BE ALLOWED TO DISCRIMINATE IN HIRING?

What’s next, non-believers in the pews?

As a pastoral intern, I have been subjected to countless committee meetings that almost always got around to one question: How do we reach the unchurched and non-believers in our communities? As a seminary student, I repeatedly find myself party to debate and concern over the decline in membership of mainline protestant denominations.

My experience as a future religious leader of my church leaves me somewhat baffled at not only the legality but the common sense of discriminatory hiring practices by faith-based organizations. At a time when evangelism committees and whole church bodies wrestle and struggle to attract new members, it doesn’t make sense for churches to be in the business of turning people away. It makes even less sense when the people in question are offering to devote their professional lives towards the mission and hope of the faith based institution, more than a weekly offering and scattered worship attendance. Envelopes dropped in church offering plates are rarely marked return to sender, so it makes little sense why an offering of the work of one’s life would be rejected. How can churches hope to get new and different faces sitting in the pews, when they are barred from the offices of the church’s charities?

This Bush-era memo is certainly unconstitutional; it denies individuals the right of religious liberty. But Jesus also weighed in on the issue in a scene from the gospel of Mark. The disciples found someone casting out demons. And they excitedly tell Jesus that they stopped the man because he wasn’t following them. To this group of disciples (who it turns out aren’t that great at following either) Jesus replies, “Do not stop him; Whoever is not against us is for us.”

If a faith based charity has faith in their work, in their deeds of power, let both the believer and the non-believer work and strive together to feed the hungry, to serve the poor, and to prevent juvenile delinquency. To do so requires faith. It requires faith in a God who is big, big enough to work and bring social change through the hands of the both the believer and the non-believer alike. And it requires faith that is bold enough to consider the possibility that faith can be voiced just as clearly through the work of one’s life in the world.

It is when these disparate voices are mixed together towards a common cause that faith movements are enriched not broken down. Dialogue between people of different faiths but of a common cause and heart gives rise to self-reflection, clearer articulation of faith, and renewed motivation for the work of the organization.

Besides, the world needs all hands on deck. Poverty, hunger, and violence issues at the heart of humanitarian aid are pressing enough that they demand as many hands and as much work as is possible. And it is with this looming background of need that we must remember; all who are not against justice, sustenance, and peace are for us.

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