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Our neighbor George, who is into issues of social responsibility and social justice, recently commented that Jesus never stressed individual rights but did come on strong with issues of individual responsibility toward others.

Good point, George! In what has traditionally been called the "Great Commandment," Jesus quoted the Hebrew book of Deuteronomy (6:4), which is a call to love God with your heart, soul and mind. He immediately followed these words with a quote from Leviticus: "but you shall love your neighbor as yourself." (19:18 NRSV). Jesus goes on to express deep dismay about those who oppress and even exploit those who are poor.

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The message of Jesus is closer to the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized than to those whose riches make them feel self-sufficient. The eighth-century BCE Hebrew prophet Amos wrote, "But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." (5:24)

After Cain killed his brother Abel, God confronted Cain regarding the whereabouts of his brother. Cain replied with this powerful question: "Am I my brother's keeper?"(Genesis 4:9) How you define the word "keeper" is important, but regardless we are called to have some responsibility for our sisters and brothers.

In the past, many evangelical Christians were more concerning about getting themselves into heaven than taking Jesus seriously when he called us to help bring God's heavenly kingdom to earth (Matthew 6:10). There is an interesting confrontation that Jesus had with a man (Matthew 19:16ff) where he was asked what good deed should be done to have eternal life? Jesus told him if he wished to be perfect — meaning more God-like — that he was to sell all of his possessions and give the money to the poor and then follow Jesus. In a response to the offer to be more Christ-like and also help those in need, the man goes away "grieving" because he was very rich.

George said he has always liked the quote by peace activist Medea Benjamin that "Social justice means moving towards a society where all hungry are fed, all sick cared for, the environment is treasured, and we treat each other with love and compassion. Not an easy goal, for sure, but certainly one worth giving our lives for."

Twisting the true meaning of words is a skill that many people have, including politicians. But when someone knowingly takes a powerful concept like social justice and twists it to be a form of Marxist collective doctrine that is going to take away the freedom of individuals, "watch out." God's love for the individual can never be separated from the individual's social responsibility for one another. Biblically speaking, when individual freedom is used to make society better we all benefit. A model would be in the words of the Apostle Paul when he wrote to the Christ-followers in Corinth: "If one member suffers, all suffer together with it, if one member is honored all rejoice together with it." (I Cor. 12:26).

We are called to think and act as community.

Jesus said that when you give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, give clothing to the naked and visit those in prison "just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family you did it to me." (Matthew 25:35-40)

A call for religious liberty or the freedom of religion must also be connected to religious responsibility. God-given freedom must be related to God's call to live responsibly with others.

We often sing "God bless America." It sounds very patriotic but it doesn't go far enough. God has already blessed America in many ways. When we receive a blessing as an individual or as a nation it calls us to be a blessing to others. In other words, we are blessed in order to be a blessing.

Two people watch the evening news on public television and see the disaster in Nepal. "Somebody should do something," the first person says, and then adds, "Honey, what's for supper?" The other person watches the same news broadcast and asks, "What can I do to help?"

The concept of social justice completes the concept of individual freedom. Without social justice, the concept of individual freedom becomes the gospel of individual selfishness as promoted by novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand.

Let the dialogue continue. I simply ask that you think on these things.

The Rev. Dr. Wm. Louis "Lou" Piel is pastor of Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Finksburg and can be reached at julo1@verizon.net.

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