Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Conversation: On Social Justice

“We heard this guy talk tonight,” Mike was saying, “about doing ministry at a Gay Pride parade, one of the biggest parades in the country.” We were sitting at Rock Bottom. His friend, Nick, from England was in for the weekend. They’d been out to a church gathering. Now, he had to experience an American brewery. “They were simply handing out water bottles to the men in the parade. So this guy’s telling this story about one guy who comes up, dressed in almost nothing, big as a bodybuilder, for a drink. ‘Why you guys doing this?’ the Body asked this guy. And he responded, ‘Because Jesus loves you and so do we.’ And then he says the Body just lit into him, telling him how Christians are just judgmental hypocrites and all this. And the guy just stands there listening to the Body.”

“All this in a thong?” I was incredulous. The visual by itself made me uncomfortable.

“I know! But, so get this, the Body finishes his rant, and this guy just says, ‘So do you still want the water?’”

“I couldn’t do that,” I said. “I’d lose my bearings and forget what I was there to do. I’d be trying to defend Jesus.” It was the truth as I imagined it. “I wish I could keep that vision, but I know I’d get caught up in the argument.”

“No joke.”

“We did a similar thing at the Uni,” Nick recalled. Uni, I thought, I wish I had an accent. “It’s crazy how much people will resist kindness though. There was this big hill on campus, and one day we were offering to carry people’s bags up this big hill, but no one would let us. We were like ‘We just want to carry your bags up the hill. It’s a steep hill. Let us carry your bags.’”

“They’re afraid you’re going to run off with their computer,” Mike interjected.

I thought of a comment I’d once heard, that we refuse to help others out of fear—fear of being used, abused, taken advantage of. That made sense. But for people to refuse help for the same reasons—I was sad because I could make sense of that, too. Fear is such an ugly thing, dividing us from each other like that.

“Yeah, they’re all like, ‘No, no, I can carry my own bags. I don’t need any help,’” Nick was continuing. “We couldn’t serve people as much as we were trying.”

“I’ve been trying to fit that in my head—the whole social justice and compassionate action thing,” I admitted. “I mean, in Christian circles, you’ve got evangelism and discipleship and those make sense to me. I know what those are for. But I can’t figure out what all this social justice is for.”

“It doesn’t fit in those categories,” Mike recognized.

“No, it doesn’t. It’s like, it comes before all that,” I reasoned. “It seems to me like Christians have gotten this bad rap for all the reasons the Body was saying. He’s right about it in a lot of ways. And what that guy with the water bottles was doing was sort of clean-up, trying to redeem the reputation Christians have. It was basically public relations, image management. But is that it? Is that all we’re trying to accomplish with this social justice trend? Evangelism and discipleship, we know what the goals are and what the results are. We’re clear on that. We can measure that. But compassion and justice, what are the results for that? How do you know if you’re getting anywhere?”

“You don’t,” Mike acknowledged.

“So is it really an important part of being a Christian, if it isn’t saving souls or something like that?”

Then Nick, ignoring my logical cornering, said simply, “But serving is its own end.”

And I knew he was right. It was like a math problem I was setting up the wrong way. Once I had the answer though, the whole problem seemed intuitive. Why hadn’t I seen it before? Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. “Even Judas’s,” Nick pointed out. Jesus set us that example of service. Since he did it for us, Jesus said, we should do it for others. I was so stuck in my concern with making sure we had something measurable, tangible to show for our work, that the equation didn’t make any sense. In reality, service isn’t about creating results but about obeying Christ.

But more than obedience even, it was about being like Christ. So much so, that even if nothing came of a cup of cold water, even still, that act of service was its own end. It looked like Christ, and that was enough.


Mike Moore said...

I just got done cranking on some research regarding social justice issues and than saw your post! Solid stuff, well put. Let's see....how do I use a blog in Turabian format?

Ben B said...

Those water boy chaps were surely following the way of Jesus, but I sure wonder what it would look like if those same serving chaps would tell their fellow believers to take aconciliatory stance on the national level not just the personal level? What does it look like to live in a pluralistic society with room for "legal" lifestyles which with one disagrees? Is that Christ-like charity also?

Andrew Engelhardt said...

Mike, you follow this format: Author, Book title (Publishing City, Publishing State: Publisher, Year), page number.

Oh wait, I probably shouldn't be the one describing Turabian.

But besides that, I really appreciate the discussions that happen on your guys' blog. Your prophetic voice (with humility) challenges me. Thank you for these words of wisdom on becoming like Christ. Keep it up Adam and Mike!

Adam said...

Ben 0

So you're wondering about what social justice looks like on a macroscopic scale? I think one issue is how that extracts serving from a relational context. Once divested of from relationships, I think, it becomes something different. That does not free the Christian from his responsibility to serve, though, but his responsibility is changed somehow.

Ultimately, I think the Church, collectively acting on a personal relationship level, would make the macroscopic requirement unnecessary.

Ben B said...

Agreed, I think.

But one must remember that the role of the church was supplanted by the New Deal or the global move to more modern, centralized bureaucracies. So it's simply a sticky wicket to think the church can have a more than marginal role in the public sphere.