Saturday, May 23, 2009

Serving the Poor: A Cultural or Biblical Understanding?

“Most churches are a one-sided disaster,” says Ronald Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action, in his book Good News and Good Works: A Theology of the Whole Gospel. I laughed out loud as I read the statement, amused that Sider has the guts to summarize the situation so bluntly. He is a qualified writer who has made it his life goal to see more Christians live with an equal zeal for evangelism and social action.

I’ve never thought of the suburban church I grew up in as a one-sided disaster, but Sider has a point. Politics and denominational distinctions have polarized Christians when it comes to serving the poor. To over-simplify the situation, liberals focus on social action while negating evangelism, and conservatives do the opposite. In the following paragraphs I speak to fellow conservatives, arguing that we must learn to see past mutually exclusive, man-made structures in order to rightly understand Scripture and live out Christ’s call.

The Social Gospel is a good starting point. This movement at the beginning of the twentieth century was a response to the massive poverty that accompanied industrialization. According to John Atherton, Canon Theologian of Manchester Cathedral, the orthodox theology of traditional American Protestantism did not provide answers to problems like the exploitation of factory workers. Those who were sensitive to this reality, such as William Gladden and Walter Rauschenbusch, reached into emerging liberal theology to fuel the movement of the Social Gospel.

Unfortunately, in doing so, they wed the biblical mandate of solidarity with the oppressed to heretical theology that frowned upon doctrines like substitutionary atonement. They claimed such doctrines only internalize faith and render it useless for a society.

In 1910 the Presbyterian General Assembly reacted by establishing five fundamentals of Christianity. According to Kenneth Collins in his book The Evangelical Movement, this statement was re-enforced by a twelve-volume series called The Fundamentals, written by leading conservative scholars of the day. Christians needed this reaction in order to guard orthodox teachings such as the virgin birth and Christ’s bodily resurrection; however, the Fundamentalist movement fostered a school of thought that downplays social action because of its association with liberal theology.

To this day, people at places like Moody Bible Institute (where I attended undergrad) look suspiciously at social action because they automatically label it as liberal.

For example, during Moody’s 2008 mission conference, I attend Bread for the World’s workshop. The representative, a woman who looked to be in her late 20s, spoke briefly about her background as a social researcher in Africa. Then she presented loads of information about poverty and hunger in Africa and how we could help solve it by promoting legislation to ease world hunger. At the end she passed out forms to send to our congressmen in order to encourage the government to take action.

One student raised his hand and said, “This is a cool idea and everything, but I’m not sure if I can participate because I’m conservative and this seems kind of liberal.” Everyone chuckled at the student’s apprehension, but it is living evidence of a serious and deeply rooted problem with the way many people think within mainstream Christianity.

I am not saying that Christians need to abandon theological concerns in order to devote all their energy to making the world a better place by serving the disadvantaged. The desire for greater unity among confessing Christians has its place, but because we swim in the water of pluralism and tolerance it can also be dangerous. Kevin DeYoung, co-author of Why We’re Not Emergent, gave a powerful reminder in a recent message I heard. He said that we abandon the cross if we make the ethical teachings of Jesus the supreme call of Christianity.

Along with DeYoung and the long-deceased writers of The Fundamentals, I agree that followers of Jesus must never loose sight of the gospel as a message of historical assertions calling for belief that leads to transformed lives. In maintaining that belief however, conservatives must admit their tendency to label some things liberal that are actually biblical, especially when it comes to serving the poor.

What we are left to ask ourselves, then, is not which political camp we belong to or what movement we identify ourselves with. We are left to look at the Scriptures and our lives before God and ask; “Am I modeling God’s concern for the poor and bearing verbal witness to the death and resurrection of his Son?”

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Why the Hood is Good

This is something I wrote during my internship with Innerchange in New Orleans last summer.

I've always heard people talk about encountering Jesus in the poor, and now I've experienced it for myself. There was no physical manifestation of the Christ in a cardboard shelter under a bridge, no divine message from a dirty man warming his hands over a burning trash can. I simply realized after talking to a homeless man that, through the poor, Jesus speaks to us like he spoke to those he encountered while on earth. For example, by drawing a line in the sand, he revealed the inward sin of each person in a blood-thirsty crowd. By telling a young man to sell all he owns and give the money to the poor, Jesus disclosed his disabling selfishness. By telling a story over a meal, he brought attention to a Pharisee's self-denied neediness and guilt.

To put it plainly, Jesus leads people to truth by challenging the way they look at themselves and at the world. Provided that we don't ignore the poor, Jesus speaks through them to us in the same way. If we have ears to hear, the Lord will use people who are marginalized and overlooked to challenge us, disarm us, and leave us with brooding questions that lead to truth. The following paragraphs tell a story that illuminates this process.

Calvin is a homeless man with a beard growing white. He was holding a cane in one hand and shaking a plastic cup of change in the other when I met him in front of the Marriot on Canal Street one evening. He was trying to get seven more dollars in an hour so he could get into a shelter before it closed. If he made it, he could stay there for a week. Otherwise he'd be staying again in tent city underneath I-10. Calvin was playing the "friendly neighborhood homeless man" routine—standing on the sidewalk cracking jokes at businessmen and tourists and making off-color comments at women. Some smiled, and some looked away. A few put money in his cup, but most ignored him.

As I stood with Calvin, he let me in on some of his secrets. He explained that he knew which kind of people to mess around with and how to make people laugh. He bet me a dollar he could get these two businessmen to crack a smile. As they walked by he said, "Hey fellas, some change to help the homeless? I also take MasterCard, Visa, and American Express! " They passed him like he was invisible. "Alright, the Lord bless you," Calvin said, waving to their backs. My heart sank, and similar encounters occurred at least two-dozen times in the 20 minutes I stood with him.

During that time I learned a few things about Calvin. He was born and raised in New Orleans. He has no family in the city; his parents had passed years ago. He was homeless before Katrina and was evacuated to Texas for a year with several other homeless folks. While there, they stayed in boarding homes. "They packed us up like sardines," he told me. Calvin is Baptist, he but enjoys spending time at the Catholic shelter. He even taught a Bible study there for kids one time. I leaned against the wall next to him, and we watched the activities of the street while the evening deepened. He talked to me, interrupting himself to ask for change and crack jokes at passer-bys. I gave him a dollar and 15 cents because that's all I had in my wallet, then I walked on towards the Square.

When I returned after about an hour to catch the street car Calvin was still there. As I walked toward him, a guy was giving Calvin the finger as he walked away from him. I remember the look on the guy's face as he held up his middle finger over his shoulder towards Calvin. His expression said, "Screw you, you goofy old black beggar. You're a joke." and he was looking around at people like he wanted them to think the same thing. The dude looked like a typical college-aged tourist—board shorts, flip flops, a tight white T-shirt to show off his build. You know the type. He is in New Orleans to get smashed and party and go to strip clubs on Bourbon. He'll go home to his very small world with his buddies and they'll tell everyone about how sweet New Orleans is. Such disgusting ignorance! Such contemptible pride! I wanted to punch the guy's teeth out, but I knew my anger wasn't really caused by him. It was conjured up by a lot of things, and besides, who am I to cast a stone?

The hateful action this tourist showed toward Calvin was sort of the straw that broke the camel's back. After three weeks in New Orleans, we are starting to see how sin manifests itself in this city—division among churches, racism, objectification of women, materialism, faulty systems driven by selfishness, drug and alcohol abuse, political corruption. These all play their part in producing a lot of sad stories that have never been told. Most people don't listen and even fewer ask. But, for one reason or another, the Lord has put me and Lyndy here.

With a heart growing heavier, I learn these stories one at a time: the cemetery worker whose 7-year-old son was killed in a drive by shooting; the 23-year-old mother of four who gave birth to her firstborn at age 12 and offers her body to her landlord for rent because she doesn't know any other way; the high school senior who bragged to me about the guns he owns and told me he can't go too far down the street in the daylight because he'll get shot; the 70-year-old woman living in a gutted out home who calls an emergency line to ask for nothing more than a mattress so she can quit sleeping on the dirt. We lift each story to the Lord, asking Him somehow to be with people who are broken. We ask also that He will break us of our own pride. It may not be as ugly as it was in that tourist who gave Calvin the bird, but it's there, Lord! Lead me to truth and change me, that I may see myself and others with your eyes...

I don't think Calvin got his seven dollars. I talked to him again, and he was exasperated. The shelter closed its doors in a few minutes, and he was going to try until the very last second. Yet we both knew he wouldn't make it. He would spend the night sleeping on cardboard in a concrete alcove about four feet long behind a little tree. I gave him my nalgene, half-full of water, and he gulped it down. I pondered getting some cash for him from an ATM, but he handed me back the bottle and turned to keep begging. So I just walked to the street car.

Perhaps Calvin was conditioned by the welfare system to depend on handouts. Perhaps you think I should relax and remember that Jesus said we will always have the poor with us. Perhaps the dollar and 15 cents I gave Calvin will only perpetuate a cycle of hopelessness.

You can claim those ideas and use them as excuses if you want. But I know if I had walked past Calvin like everyone else did, I would have missed something crucial. My evening may have been easier had I passed by, and my summer may have been more fun if I'd spent it in the suburbs or with my friends somewhere. Instead I am encountering the Lord in new ways through the poor of New Orleans. And I spend my nights wrestling with deep questions about my own character and about what Jesus the Messiah calls me to do.

Lord, you want me to recognize and confess the same sin in myself that I condemn in shallow tourists? You want me to give to Calvin in a way that causes me to sacrifice? To recognize that poor young mother as better than myself and seek her healing? To overcome evil with good while making people aware of their sin?

These are lessons that won't be learned apart from the needy, so don't be afraid to turn aside, to give, to ask questions, and most of all, to listen. Jesus speaks through the poor.

Monday, May 11, 2009

A Land of Heavy Timber

I read recently in a local history book that the land along the Kankakee River, as it cruves through what is now Kankakee, Bourbonnais, and Bradley, used to be covered with "heavy timber". It made me think of the following Wendell Berry passage, which is taken from The Art of the Commonplace, page 26:

In the centuries before its settlement by white men, among the most characteristic and pleasing features of the floor of this valley, and of the stream banks on its slopes, were the forests and the groves of great beech trees. With their silver bark and their light graceful foliage, turning gold in the fall, they were surely as lovely as any forests that ever grew on earth. I think so because I have seen their diminished descendants, which have returned to stand in the wasted places that we have so quickly misused and given up. But those old forests are all gone. We will never know them as they were. We have driven them beyond the reach of our minds, only a vague hint of their presence returning to haunt us, as though in dreams—a fugitive rumor of the nobility and beauty and abundance of the squandered maidenhood of our world—so that, do what will, we will never quite be satisfied ever again to be here.

I wonder also what bounty my native land displayed in prior ages. Many times I've sat on the banks of the Kankakee and soaked in its simple beauty. I've watched the easy current carry sticks and leaves westward, passing a backdrop of oak and birch trees. In the winter I’ve perched upon a rock and found solace as I looked over the motionless chunks of ice stretching between banks. If I could sit there long enough, I’ve often thought, perhaps the signals of the modern age—the hollow sound of passing cars, the distant blinking light atop a cell phone tower, the rumble of jet planes, the beer cans and candy wrappers poking through the leaves on the ground, the fishermen buzzing past in their boats—maybe these would fade away for just a moment. Then, perhaps, I would be able to see and taste, in a small way, the nobility and maidenhood of the natural order that Berry describes.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Isaiah Prayer

7:15 a.m.
Caribou on Eerie

This is what the LORD says—your Redeemer, who formed you in the womb:

“I am the LORD, who has made all things,
who alone stretched out the heavens,
who spread out the earth by myself,
who foils the signs of false prophets and makes fools of diviners,
who overthrows the learning of the wise and turns it into nonsense,
who carries out the words of his servants
and fulfills the predictions of his messengers,

who says of Jerusalem, ‘It shall be inhabited,’
of the towns of Judah, ‘They shall be built,’
and of their ruins, ‘I will restore them,’
who says to the watery deep, ‘Be dry, and I will dry up your streams,’
who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please’
he will say of Jerusalem, ‘Let it be rebuilt,’ and of the temple, “let its foundations be laid.’”

-Isa. 44:24-28

Lord, thank You for the book of Isaiah, for the promises within it. Please plant its truths deeply in my soul, and bring them to my mind hour by hour. Sometimes it’s easy to trust in your promises and sometimes it’s hard. Teach me to be faithful through the small struggles in my life, the ones that are actually quite laughable, so that I may know how to trust you when big problems come.

Powerful and loving God, I cannot comprehend your greatness! I sit in a coffee shop on the side of a spinning planet that you created, pondering my life and reading your promises. I am small, and my life is small—a mist that appears for a while and then vanishes. This is comforting, Lord. I’m not such a big deal after all, so I shouldn’t worry so much.

Lord, I ask for your renewal, for fresh faith and fresh perspective on the situations I’ve been thinking about day after day. Please help me not to get caught up in selfish thinking, but rather to entrust my worries to you minute by minute and model Jesus by looking outward to the needs of others.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

My Liberal Agenda ?

Here is another conversation with RRW. Judyw's response to this post is here.

April 26, 2009 at 4:42 pm

Along with many others who have responded to my posts on this website, Vanishing American uses the phrase “people like you.” So I want offer some personal information that hopefully will clarify who I am and point out a problem in the way that people dialog on RRW.

I work with refugees and speak up for refugees because I am motivated by my faith. I make a serious and honest effort to live out an ethic consistent with the teachings of Jesus as they relate to the Old Testament. My values include helping people who need help, honoring the risen Jesus with my words and deeds, living in purity from personal and communal sins, loving people who are not easy to love, caring for people on the fringes of society, and studying, understanding, and applying the Bible.

These are the convictions that lead me to actively care for refugees. These are the convictions that cause me to get upset when people’s loyalty to their own way of life blinds them to the human element of the refugee story. I do not have any allegiance to a liberal attack on Western values. I do what I do and say what I say because of my faith and my personal ties to refugees.

If I have to use partisan terminology to identify myself, here’s some more evidence that I am not who you think I am: I did not vote for Obama. I am pro-life. I do not support gay marriage.

What is the point of me saying all of this? I am not merely defending myself as an individual. Rather, I put myself forward as an example to show that people who work with refugees do so out of a wide range of motivations. To assume that we are all liberals with a plan to destroy conservative values is incorrect and damaging to constructive dialog. Likewise, for me to assume that Vanishing American and all who think like him/her are ignorant, prejudice rednecks would be foolish.

I don’t know the ages of all the people who contribute to this site, but my guess is that there is also a generational issue that contributes to the friction and the emotions that come through in many conversations.

Altogether, I’m doubtful about how much people can learn from each other through this medium of communicating. Too often it’s just two camps throwing words at each other and trying to prove each other wrong. But this site does have potential to lead to meaningful exchanges if people actually listen to each other and are slow to anger.

One of the results, as RRW claims to desire, should be that refugees themselves are better cared for by governments and volags and better received by communities of informed citizens.