The most famous Old Testament phrase about how we are to act toward others is "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18b). Perhaps the most famous New Testament phrase is "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress ..." (James 1:27a).
That doesn't sound too hard. Neighbors live next door to us. Widows are women whose husbands have died. Orphans are children whose parents have died. Easy to know our obligations ... right?
Not so fast. When a lawyer Y2K ago wanted to limit his responsibility, he asked Jesus, "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus in response told of the priest and the Levite passing by the mugged traveler, and the Samaritan helping. Jesus then asked, "Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?" The chastened lawyer responded, "The one who had mercy on him," and Christ commanded, "Go and do likewise."
OK, so the definition of neighbor is broader than our common comfort zone. What about widows? The letter of the law is clear there, is it not?
Yes, but what about the spirit of the law? The pro-life movement made a leap 20 years ago when volunteers took into account the way many women, in the name of feminism, had embraced the male desire for sex outside of marriage. Young women had tossed aside biblical virtue and assumed that, because their boyfriends professed love, they were virtually married. But those who thought a marriage license unimportant found out differently when they become pregnant and their boyfriends abandoned them.
The pro-life movement began treating the mothers of unborn children not as villains but as virtual widows. A stretch, yes. But in the spirit of the biblical injunction? I believe so, as long as we neither minimize sin nor excuse responsibility for sin, but emphasize the biblical way to respond to sin: not with new government welfare programs, but with person-to-person compassion.
Now let me propose another stretch. AIDS in this country is still tightly connected to homosexual practice (or intravenous drug use). Last month I visited a training session for Christian volunteers who want to help spiritually and physically those likely to die of AIDS sooner or later. I asked the question: Why, knowing how dangerous it is, do some men persist in practices that mean they will almost always get AIDS in what by now is the old-fashioned way?
Certainly, gross sin is involved. The sin, however, goes well beyond these particular sinners. Ray Highfield, director of His Touch Ministries (Pasadena, Texas), notes that young men who become homosexuals generally have three elements in their background. The three: an absent father, a domineering mother, and early sexual encounters with a pederast-often a teacher, uncle, or some other adult they should have been able to trust.
In answering one key question-"Who is a widow?"-crisis pregnancy centers two decades ago began learning to go by the spirit rather than the letter of the definition. Now, Christians should ask another question: Does the absence of a father and the presence of a mother who does not act with motherlike compassion make a young man akin to an orphan?
That is also a stretch, but as long as it does not lead us to overlook sin or stop fighting an aggressive, determined homosexual lobby, it can help us widen our response. Just as the pro-life movement developed a legal/political arm but also a compassionate services arm, so we need a comprehensive strategy. We need to stand up politically against the gay lobby's aggression reported in WORLD this week, but we also need groups like His Touch, which in the Houston area has homes, care teams, and weekly support groups for HIV-infected men, women, and teens.
Chapter 1 of Romans presents us with the facts of judgment: "Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion." But Romans 2 gives us the facts of grace: "the riches of His kindness, tolerance, and patience" lead us toward repentance, and we never know who will be next on the great train of redemption.
Let's remember both chapters as we build two kinds of compassionate groups, those ready to lobby and those ready to love.