Love comes first
The role of faith-based values in today’s society
By Susanne Janssen
“Our culture has accepted two lies: that if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle you must hate them or are afraid of them, and that to love someone means that you must agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense,” says Rick Warren, an evangelical pastor from Lake Forest, California.
This phrase struck me as I thought about the values that I hold on to, shaped by my family, my friends, my faith, my culture, and how they are called into play by recent stories that I have read or seen in the news. How can you dialogue with people who make very different choices than you? And how can you respond to a child who asks, “Why does my classmate Andy have two dads?” without being either polarizing or confusing?
Our multicultural society seems less driven than before by traditional values that are linked to the Christian faith tradition and other religious traditions in areas such as end of life issues, abortion, divorce, birth control, same sex marriage, to name a few. According to a study published in the Journal of Family Psychology (February 2014), up to 70% of all couples in the U.S. live together before getting married. A Pew Research poll shows that almost the same percentage of U.S. Americans are in favor of birth control. And now 57% are in favor of same sex marriage, while in 2001 57% were against it.
The moral values on sexuality expressed in the teaching of the Catholic Church nowadays are often the opinion of a minority. Those who believe in the indissolubility of the marriage bond, or that forming a traditional family or welcoming children even if they are disabled are guidelines for a fulfilled life, are often challenged for their viewpoints.
One possible conclusion we could draw is that the world is heading for the worst. This fear is not new, though. Throughout the centuries, parents feared that future generations would water down their values, shy away from hard work and be disobedient. This comment attributed to Socrates, however (“The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise …”), might actually have never even been said by him.
A second possible conclusion is that this new situation is a call to action, to a change in attitude: recognizing that none of us would be able to “throw the first stone” (c.f. Jn 8:7), that no one sees what is inside someone else’s heart and that the best reaction is to live out the values of one’s faith with more determination.
How can one face these challenges? What does it mean for Christians to be “in the world, but not of the world” (cf. Rom 12:2)?
Aiming at living the Focolare spirituality of unity, three points seem important today’s society.
1. Focus on love of neighbor
God gave human beings the freedom to choose. We are free to choose what, in the end, won’t make us happy and isn’t for our benefit, but God’s freedom has no limits. He is even able to bless the messes that we create. One example from the book of Genesis, when Abram listened more to his wife Sar’ai than to God. He doubted that God would find a way to make His promise come true — that Abram’s descendants should be as countless as the stars (cf. Gen 15:5-6), and went with his wife’s proposal to take her slave Hagar. While the people of Israel came from Isaac, the son Abram and Sar’ai later had, the son born to Hagar, Ishmael, was nevertheless blessed by God (Gen 21:13).
As Christians, we are invited to focus on “love of neighbor” (Mk 12:31). The response of Pope Francis that made headlines everywhere (“Who am I to judge?”) refers exactly to this. Who knows how God sees things? In the Bible, God appreciates more the repenting prayer of the tax collector than the proud words of the Pharisee (Lk 18:9-14), meaning that deeds count more than words.
2.This doesn’t mean “anything goes”
Our society has always grappled with diversity: with those who come from different cultures; with those who think, speak and act differently; with those who live and worship according to different faith traditions. However, accepting differences begins right there… Nobody should be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation, choice of gender or choice of family configurations.
However, this freedom of opinion also means that anybody who expresses that he or she is in favor of a traditional family should not be accused of being narrow-minded.
My personal religious values cannot be imposed on others. However, if one is raised in a certain faith tradition, and has decided to adhere to it, the question is slightly different. God might ask something different from you. If someone is Catholic for example, a decision that thousands of people make every day — like cohabitating before marriage or using the pill — might be a decision that distances one from his or her faith (even if God does not distance himself from them).
We cannot judge, but that doesn’t mean that we have to remain silent. Maybe you are in the unique position to lovingly raise a certain concern or doubt in the right moment, which can give strength to someone who deep down has that same doubt in front of a decision to be made.
A new culture of dialogue is needed, not only about our beliefs but how these eventually get translated into our lives, where we can respectfully listen to one another and strengthen each other in seeking the truth, even or especially with those whose views might seem opposed to ours.
3. Discover your role as a person of faith in a multicultural society
In a society where the separation of church and state is fundamental, the state cannot promote one specific religion. So how can a person of faith talk about values?
Today, many people are more guided by their feelings than by common courtesies or moral authorities when they are making decisions. If one’s conscience were formed based on values like the Golden Rule — “Do to others what you would have them do to you” — which can be found in all the world religions, it would become a valuable compass in life decisions.
To open a dialogue about values with people who don’t share my faith, I need to make the effort to put my convictions into words that are more universally understandable. In this way, they could initiate an honest exchange.
For example, a blog in Huffington Post dealing with the question whether moving in with your “significant other” is helpful or not for a longtime marriage, started with these two statements: “It’s crazy to marry someone without living with them first. You need to test out the relationship!” — “If you want to marry him, don’t even think about moving in. He’ll have no reason to propose!” It said that young people are discovering that “trying things out” might not be the best way to reach a long-term relationship and may be open to hearing more about what it takes to find someone for life.
In the end, what strikes people are authentic witnesses of faith, which always reminds me that I need to love the others without the expectation that they might change their mind. If people are touched by a couple who have been faithful for decades, if they know young people who are capable of saving sex for marriage, or if they meet someone who has given their life to God and is filled with joy, perhaps these encounters can make a difference in their lives.
With Emilie Christy