“How does your church practice social responsibility?” a student from Drew Theological School asked me at an online seminar last Friday. The topic of discussion was the Wesleyan commitment to scriptural holiness, encompassing both inward and outward holiness of heart and life. The student’s question was a response to Wesley’s lines, often quoted among Methodist circles: “The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness. Faith working by love, is the length and breadth and depth and height of Christian perfection.” I gave examples of our ministries for peace and justice, and how social responsibility is preached in our sermons. But the question lingered in my mind all day. Are we really walking the talk, living by faith that works through love, in holiness of heart and life?
Criticisms of the church are coming from all sides these days. My ongoing stance has been, “All churches are not the same. Yes, there are problems but that’s why we need renewal and reform.” It sure does feel like talking into thin air sometimes. It’s clear that now is not the right time for lame excuses and explanations. A tree is recognized by its fruit: Churches have been bearing fruits that are evil and corrupt. By God’s grace a dying tree must be brought back to life, and churches bear the responsibility to accept the prescription and bring repentance into action to start the healing process.
While reflecting on our responsibility to live out the faith that works through love, I remembered one meeting that left an impregnable impression on my life. Some thirty years ago, Korea Times Chicago published a controversial front-page story that really didn’t do me justice. Friends and supporters helped me to set up an appointment with a constitutional law attorney based in New York. The lawyer said, “You do have a case. You can file a lawsuit against the news agency. But at the end of the day, you are a pastor; and you are not the first social justice-minded pastor who faced opposition. Think about the lives of Martin Luther King Jr., or Archbishop Câmara of Brazil. Even in a storm of criticism, they preserved honor through life and love in action.” The lawyer himself was a pastor. Hearing him mention the names of two giants of faith that I’ve always admired, I decided to stop pursuing the legal action. His words echo in my heart to this day: “Are not pastors called to preserve honor through life?”
People say don’t judge a book by its cover, but will always form an opinion about the church by its outward appearance. That’s why we have an important role to play. It matters how we walk and talk, because we are the salt and light of the world according to Jesus – not only to maintain personal holiness, but also to touch the lives of everyone around us. Salt, to be effective, must be in contact with what it is to preserve. Light, to be effective, must be involved where people live and work. Every week I see people lining up for our Food Pantry, four hours before the curbside pickup is available. It takes much heart and hard work to keep up – nothing is easy. But God has used the coronavirus pandemic in such a way to open our church for our neighbors in times of need. Being present as the salt and light also means being vocal about peace and justice when the time calls for it. A week ago, Joe Biden’s Campaign team offered to hear the requests of the Korean American community so I took the chance and spoke up. Create a legal system for undocumented immigrants to receive a path to citizenship; enact a law to eliminate anti-Asian discrimination and hate crimes (supported by Congresswoman Grace Maeng, H.RES. 908); and replace “Armistice Agreement” with “Peace Agreement” to strengthen the peace process in the Korean Peninsula (Divided Families Reunification Act, H.R. 1771). Recently, I’ve been asked to be part of the “Racial/ Ethnic Justice and Equity Task Force,” and join efforts to ensure the rights of the racial and ethnic minorities in the newly forming Methodist Church after denominational separation. These efforts, at least in part, are examples of our struggle to be present as the salt and light of the world.
Many of the comments that I receive boil down to two contrasting ideas. One side calls for ‘spiritual nourishment’ – preach only what’s spiritual, they say. The other side thinks I should focus less on local church and more on a ‘big task’ of social justice and peace. But for me, pastoring a local church is the biggest thing in the world. What is social holiness and social responsibility without living out the heart of Jesus and building others up to be more Christ-like, starting right here where we are? And what is spirituality, without taking to heart and life Jesus’ words to be the salt and light of the world?
“You walk the tightrope,” someone said to me the other day, “to not be easily swayed to the right or to the left.” I followed the call to ministry as a very young man with no connections and my early pursuits for scriptural holiness, for peace and justice-minded ministry was met with all sorts of opposition and misunderstanding. Then for the past twenty-something years, I heard criticisms of another nature for being a large church pastor. At the end of the day, however, what I really need is not words in my defense, but the evidence of Christ living and loving through me. And that’s not easy; I guess that’s why the Apostle Paul claimed he was the worst of all sinners. So thanks be to God for the grace that comes before us, sustains us, and sanctifies us every step of the way on this narrow path. Yes, we’ve fallen short but we can still hope and try again. God who first began a good work in us will carry it on to completion, and our part is to be inspired, empowered, and responsibly follow as the Spirit leads us.