Splitting the Great Commandment


Quote from Practical Theologian Dennis McCann, in a broader quote from Emmanuel Y. Lartey

“McCann argues that there are ‘two demons’ that plague the efforts of Christian activists, namely, on the one hand, ‘excessive spiritualization’ and, on the other, ‘politicization.’ Each of these is an evasion of the demands of Christian social witness triggered by the ‘ambiguous reality of social action.’

‘Excessive spiritualization’ does this by exchanging ambiguity for the certainties of a conventional religious righteousness– like the rich young man who went away empty when Jesus commanded him to sell all and give to the poor (Mark 10:17-31). ‘Politicization,’ evades the demands of the gospel by doing the same with an unconventional political righteousness– like the disciple who, when the woman anointed Jesus with oil of nard, protested that the perfume might have been sold and the money given to these same poor (Mark 14:3-9)

<Emmanuel Lartey in “In Living Color: An Intercultural Approach to Pastoral Care and Counseling”, p. 134-135. Referencing quote from Dennis P. McCann in “Practical Theology and Social Action: Or What can the 1980s learn from the 1960s”, 1983, p. 109>

One can look at these two failed roads as the practical splitting of the Great Commandment.

Road #1.  Excessive Spirituality (or excessive piety). This is the first half of the Great Commandment without consideration of the second half. “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.’ This could be seen as the spirituality of religious leaders of Jesus’ day (or at least those leaders that Jesus singled out for critique). These people focus excessively on the conventional standards of spirituality. It could be how often one prays, how often one congregates with fellow believers, how one gives to one’s religion, who one fasts, or otherwise.  In the New Testament, this could be seen as the “righteousness of the scribes and the pharisees” One can think of this as the HIGH ROAD.

Road #2.  Political Righteousness. This is the second half of the Great Commandment with little consideration of the first half.  ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ This is social action built on the apparent needs of the people. In the New Testament, this could be seen as the “righteousness of the zealots and the sicarii.” One can think of this as the LOW ROAD.

Today we see “religious” people who are, as the saying goes, “so heavenly minded that they are of no earthly good.” They cloister themselves in their own world of approved spiritualistic excesses. But today we see people who do simply horrible things in the name of their faith because they are trying “help the people.”

We need the MIDDLE ROAD. Not simply mixing the two but letting or devotion to God give us a heart for the people. And having a heart for the people (the loving personal creations of God) point us back to love for God. Ultimately, we need the heart and mind of Christ to bring these together.

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