And while I look forward to this study with the other ladies in the group, they may not feel the same way about me after tomorrow morning's meeting. Why? Because the session is all about the role of the church in addressing poverty and injustice. And that's an issue about which I can sometimes be a little, well, intense.
Don't get me wrong--I'm excited to discuss what it means for our faith to intersect with social justice. This issue has been at the forefront of my academic and faith development for the last several years. It's an issue through which I have wrestled and wept and been paralyzed and ignited. It's just that what typically happens in small group settings is that I wind up sounding overly passionate, preachy and soap box-y...or I stay quiet and feel wracked by the inner turmoil of wanting to convey my passion in a way that will be beneficial and edifying and productive for everyone involved.
Hey, at least I know this about myself.
So in the interest of not bottling up everything I have to say and vomiting it all onto these unsuspecting ladies tomorrow, I thought it might be prudent to write about it.
I grew up knowing that it was important to help the poor. I knew the passage where Jesus says that "whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me." Yet evangelical church culture made it easy to believe that you could fully meet Scripture's mandate for caring for the poor by doing any combination of the following: donating canned goods to a food bank, sponsoring a child in the developing world, occasionally volunteering at a soup kitchen, participating in programs like Operation Christmas Child, and/or giving money to faith-based charity organizations (not people on the street, since *obviously* they would use the money for drugs or alcohol. Don't even get me started on this.)
There also seemed to be this insidious idea floating around that these acts of charity were important insofar as they provided a gateway for sharing the gospel. In other words, you should provide for a person's physical needs in order that they might listen to your spiritual message.
Now, to be clear, there is nothing wrong with donating to a food bank or volunteering at a soup kitchen, and I am a huge proponent of the child sponsorship programs of Compassion and World Vision. What I would like to suggest about the framework described above, however, is that it's far too limited. When we stop with mere charity, we sell ourselves short, miss the true breadth of our calling, and sometimes even wind up hurting the marginalized more than helping them.
For one thing, mere charity does very little to dismantle the wall between "us" and them, the privileged and underprivileged. At best, it merely keeps the boundary lines intact. At worst, it flat out objectifies the poor, using them as a prop to help us "remember how fortunate we are" or to teach us to "be more thankful for what we have." This mentality does nothing to foster solidarity with the poor, which is vital for many reasons--not the least of which is that as the Body of Christ, we are called to unity. And just like the population worldwide, the Body of Christ worldwide is made up mostly of the poor.
I remember the shocking mix of conviction and ephiphany I experienced when I first read Shane Claiborne's words in The Irresistible Revolution several years ago:
"...the great tragedy in the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor but that rich Christians do not know the poor."
I hope to raise my son in a way that he does not see the poor as being "other," and that this informs his theology from the get-go. This does not happen by default for most of us, my family included. Our daily routines at work, in our neighborhoods, at the grocery store, the gym, and even church rarely bring us in proximity with the very poor. We have to seek the poor, we have to be intentional.
In my family, we are working out what this looks like, and I assure you, we have not arrived. Not even close. We are shamefully far from it.
Another way that mere charity fails to fulfill our true calling is that it doesn't challenge systems of injustice. It might help alleviate symptoms, but it doesn't snuff out the problem at its root. We give, and then think we've done enough, absolving ourselves of any blame and continuing (sometimes unknowingly) to prop up unjust systems that leave the receipents of our charity trapped. (One example that immediately springs to mind: our consumption of chocolate.)
Can I admit the embarrassing truth that I didn't understand this, really understand this, until I was getting a master's degree in social work?
Why did it take until then for me to recognize the ways in which the poor, the marginalized, and the "other" of society are often stripped of power and voice through structures that I participate in upholding?
Why did it take until then for me to recognize that the church should care deeply about this?
And maybe most hauntingly of all, Why did it take so long for it to dawn on me that we take care of the poor and the oppressed not so that we can "give them Jesus, too" but rather, because He is already among them and is waiting on us to rise up and be agents of His Kingdom on earth?
I think the rising generation sees this. That's not to say that previous generations did not, nor is it an indictment against them. In every generation, there are those in the church who rise to fight injustice. William Wilberforce, Dorothy Day, and Martin Luther King, Jr are the first, most obvious examples that spring to mind, though there are countless others whose names are not known who have acted with the same fire in their bones.
But it seems as though the inextricable link of faith to social justice is becoming a hallmark of the rising generation's faith.
I see this in the Passion movement's devotion to end human trafficking, and in the proliferation of new monastic communities and grassroots operations like Hill Country Tribers.
I see it in the way that many are recognizing war and education and capital punishment and healthcare and poverty itself as Kingdom issues, alongside the old-reliables of faith-motivated political debates like abortion.
And that's exciting, but also overwhelming, because again: I don't walk the walk. I struggle daily with how to connect my life to what's happening to the "least of these." But it is a fire that has caught in my bones, and despite my failures, I will continue to seek ways to bring about the Kingdom that Jesus came to usher in.
A few recommended reads on this topic-
The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical by Shane Claiborne
God's Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get it by Jim Wallis (Disclaimer: When I read this in 2008, many of the examples drawn from the 2004 election year were already slightly dated . This does not, however, diminish the relevence of the principles and themes of the book.)
When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor...or Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert
Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of our Everyday Choices by Julie Clawson- great for practical ways that we can "do justice" even in our everyday lives
A Place at the Table: 40 Days of Solidarity with the Poor by Chris Seay