The Worthy Poor

The following is a guest post from Eric Schubert, a provisional member of the Iowa Annual Conference, serving as lead pastor at Greenfield United Methodist Church in Greenfield, IA.

I recently gave a sermon series in my church based on the Scriptures about being citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20) and ambassadors for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20 and Ephesians 6:20). During that series we talked about what it means to belong to Christ and the Kingdom of God and represent that Kingdom on Earth. One aspect we discussed was how easily ideas of the world come to seem natural or even Christian when in fact they are not. One idea we discussed was that of the worthy poor.

The idea of the worthy poor was firmly established in Western thought by the philosophers of Greece and Rome (especially Plato in ancient Greece, reinforced by the Stoics, such as Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius in Rome) as well as by the economic systems of the pagan Roman Empire. The economic system during the time of Jesus is known as patronage. Patronage is a wealthy or powerful person taking care of less wealthy or powerful people. These (strict) levels of power and wealth were determined by familial, political, financial, or national relationships. The idea of the “poor” or “needy” as we understand it now did not exist in Roman pagan thought. Instead, a person with money was obliged to financially support those within the rich person’s patronage expectation.

So what did one think about those in need outside of a patronage relationship? Frankly, they rarely thought about them. When someone in need outside of a patronage relationship was thought of the view of those in need was quite negative. Plato, hundreds of years before the time of the Roman Empire, stated the idea of the worthy poor perfectly when he wrote, “it is not the starving as such or the similarly afflicted who deserve sympathy, but the man who, in spite of his moderation or some other virtue or progress toward it, nevertheless experiences some misfortune.” Plautus, a famous comedic playwright who lived in Rome around 180 BC, developed a character role for beggars in his plays which derided and mocked them. He wrote it was better to let beggars starve, since “he does a beggar a bad service who give him meat and drink, for what he gives is lost, and the lives of the poor are merely prolonged to their own misery.” Seneca, the great Roman leader and Stoic philosopher of the first century AD, believed one should only assist those who were deserving. “The good leader and judge ‘will not avert his countenance of his sympathy from anyone because he has a withered leg, or is emaciated and in rags, and is old and leans upon a staff; but all the worthy he will aid and will, like a god, look graciously upon the unfortunate.’ ” And thus, honestly, ends the writings found about those in need. This lack of record is in itself telling, but what has been found is all negative.

The Christian record of the time, from the earliest recorded writings leading into the Cappadocian period of St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and in Constantinople, St. John Chrysostom, is very different than that of the pagan leaders. The Bishops worked very hard to introduce the concept of the poor and needy and attempt to drastically change how people thought of those in need. Early Christians led radically different lives than those around them, both in economic and physical relationship. A part of weekly worship in the time of St. Justin Martyr (150 AD) was the collection and distribution of funds so “the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word take care of all in need.” There are examples of Christian care for the sick throughout the second and third centuries from Syria to Rome. Though unable to build institutional structures, early Christians served the sick, poor, and otherwise distressed to the best of their ability.

The Cappadocians (Basil, Nazianzus, and Nyssa) and Chrysostom publicly and directly challenged the Stoic and cultural views on how to treat those in need. They did this in several different ways. By embracing the many and various Biblical texts from the Old Testament through the New, the Bishops re-described the poor as kin (that they were sisters and brothers, related by the blood of Christ, and therefore to be cared for in a reinvented patronage system), argued the poor share the Image of God and as bearers of the image deserve help, that Matthew 25 really means what it says and the poor person you help truly is Jesus, and taught that acting like Christ makes one more like Christ (how Wesleyan!). Along with these teaching principles, the Bishops lived a life which practiced what they preached, doing all they could to help those in need.

Basil, after being elected Bishop in 370, took his families’ seemingly large land assets and used them to care for the poor and needy. This place came to be known as the “basilias” in honor of its founder and served as a poorhouse, hospital, and hospice for anyone in need for several hundred years. Chrysostom “reduced expenditure on the bishop’s palace and transferred it to a hospital. He founded new hospitals, including one for lepers.” The four also established an incredible theological foundation for these acts, and for the encouragement of others to care for those in need.

In expanding the concept of kin, the poor and sick were named by Nazianzus “brethren,” “brothers,” “your own member,” “equals and kindred,” “equal rank with us and of the same race,” and “one common reality.” These terms would be shocking to a pagan raised in the patronage system and an incredible expansion of the obligation of the converted Christian. Nyssa stated “Do not tear apart the unity of the Spirit, that is to say, do not consider as strangers those beings who partake of our nature…You see a man and in him you have no respect for a brother?…For you yourself belong to the common nature of all. Treat all therefore as one common reality.” The Bishops were working with language the Roman people understood (kinship language used in the patronage system) but completely redefined that language to help people understand what it meant to be a Christian.

Another important facet of the Bishops’ beliefs and teachings about actions toward the poor was that of the Image of God. For the Bishops the text about being created in “our image” (Gen. 1:26) and the implications of the incarnation were very important. If people were created in the image of God, and if when God the Son came to earth Christ put on human form, this human form is incredibly important. So much so that anyone who shares that form needs to be treated accordingly. Nazianzus addresses this issue by saying “Our brothers of God…born with the same nature…compounded of nerves and bones as we are; more than this, they also have received the same divine image as we have, and have perhaps guarded it better…They have put on the same Christ and have been made sharers with us of the same.” Notice the use of the term nature. This term that was being used by these same Bishops in when talking about Jesus’ relationship to God: they are both divine and both of the same nature, of the same substance. In the same way all people share the human nature of Christ and deserve the respect of that nature no matter what economic place they may be. Nyssa supported this, stating “Don’t despise these prostrate one as if they merit no respect. Ask who they are and discover their worth. They have put on the face of our savior. The Lord has given them his own image that they might be the stewards of our hope, the guardians of royalty.” For these Bishops the incarnation had tremendous consequences for how we treat all of fellow humanity.

The Image of God ties into a very close and literal reading of Matthew 25. To help a poor person was to literally help Christ, and to not help was to turn away from Christ, with all the concerns that would come from such an action. Nazianzus preached to his people:

“I honor that purse of Christ which encourages me to the care of the poor…I am fearful of that ‘left hand side’ and of ‘the goats’…because they have not ministered to Christ through those in need…[W]hile there is yet time, visit Christ in his sickness, let us give to Christ to eat, let us clothe Christ in his nakedness, let us do honor to Christ, and not only at table, [or] with precious ointments [or] in his tomb [or] with gold, frankincense and myrrh…but let us give him this honor in his needy one, in those who lie on the ground before us this day…”

Chrysostom states that “Jesus is alive in strangers, in the naked, the poor, the sick. Whatever has been done for those in need has been done to Jesus,” as well as “it is Christ who is clothed and fed in the person of the poor man.” There is not leeway in what they said. Help the poor or abandon Christ.

Finally, the Bishops taught that to help the poor was to act like Christ, and to act like Christ was what discipleship is all about. This aligns with Wesley’s understanding of perfection, though the Christians at this time (and still in the Orthodox Church) understood this idea as the process of divinization. As one grew closer to Christ one acts more and more like Christ, becomes more like Christ, and hence, becomes more divine. Though not exactly the same as Wesley’s understanding of perfection, both beliefs strongly rely on an understanding that the life of the Christian is a participatory one. We as Christians bear the fruit of Christ, and the more we participate with Christ (Wesley would say through the means of grace) the more we become more like Christ.

Nyssa talks about this process in relation to how to treat to the poor: being merciful as God is merciful. “Mercy and good deeds are works God loves; they divinize those who practice them and stamp them into the like of goodness that they may become the image of [God].” Nazianzus based part of his belief on right action regarding the poor in Matthew 5:45, “Resolve to imitate the justice of God” whose gifts are “equally upon all, the just and unjust alike, upholding the dignity of our nature by the worthiness of his gifts.” To state this in a Wesleyan way, since God’s mercy is over all His works, so we should be merciful to all we meet, and this mercy is demonstrated by service.

The theological foundation given us by the Bishops helps us avoid two major issues in our care for the poor today: a vision of the worthy poor taken straight from Stoic thought, or a paternalistic view that “we” can and should come save “them” from their present condition. On the first hand, we have seen that any view of “the worthy poor” is theologically unsupportable. On the other hand, if the poor are not only our sisters and bothers but Christ in the flesh, we would not approach helping someone in need without anything but grace, love, respect, and even a holy fear and trembling. Then we would serve not to “fix” or “bring them up to our level,” but instead to be with someone whom Christ is present. When we serve others this way we realize we will learn as much about Christ from whomever we serve as we bring to them, since we are serving Christ when we serve another. Looking at the writings and example of the Bishops gives us a different way of approaching the poor than many current perspective, one which I believe will do a much better job of truly being ambassadors for Christ and representatives of the Kingdom on Earth.

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Immigrant Children from Central America — Who are the Parents?

Grace Des Moines Peace

Guest Post from Dr. Jan L. Flora and Rev. Alejandro Alfaro-Santiz

Our chickens are coming home to roost with the large numbers of unaccompanied Central American children making the life-threatening journey from Central America through Mexico and across our southern border.  Perhaps a better metaphor would be to say that we fail to recognize our collective paternity of the children undertaking this dangerous trip.

Some readers may remember the Contra War under Reagan, but the overthrow of President Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala by the Eisenhower Administration is little known here.  The CIA orchestrated the overthrow of Arbenz’ elected Guatemalan government in 1954 and replaced him with Col. Castillo Armas.  Arbenz had sought to peacefully change the extremely unequal land ownership patterns in that country.  Our support of right-wing governments triggered a 36-year insurgency. When indigenous peasants joined the fight a quarter century later, General Rios Montt’s regime (1982-83), according to Amnesty International, massacred 70,000 civilian women, children, and men. Although the U.S. wrung its hands at these grizzly human rights violations, military aid continued to flow to Rios Montt.  The current president Otto Pérez Molina was the general in charge of the army unit in El Quiche responsible for genocide in that area.  Currently, Guatemalan communities opposing mega projects (e.g., mining, hydroelectric dams) are being repressed when they opt instead for local and sustainable development.

U.S. support of the Somoza dictatorships in Nicaragua (1932-1979) and right wing governments in El Salvador and Honduras led to insurgencies in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, and pervasive human rights abuses in Honduras.  Only Costa Rica, which never had such unequal landholdings and which had a mild-mannered revolution in 1948 which resulted in the elimination of its military and regular democratic alternations in power of competing political parties to the present day. The Sandinista movement in Nicaragua came to power in 1979, prompting our fomenting of a bloody civil war there to forestall another Cuba in our hemisphere, though neither the Soviet Union nor China provided support to the guerrillas in any of the three countries.

Once the U.S. and its rightist Central American allies brought the insurgent groups to the table to negotiate a peace agreement in 1996, our development aid plummeted.  Our narrowly defined interests had prevailed, which somehow absolved our government of any need to build more just societies.  Formal democracy returned and has been unbroken in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, but the four Central American countries we “aided” in the 1980s are as impoverished as ever.  Absent significant economic development, right-wing regimes in El Salvador and Honduras offered an ideal setting for narco-traffickers to operate.  El Salvador, after a series of right wing governments, has finally elected progressive governments twice in a row, but inequality remains great. The deportation of Salvadoran gang members from Los Angeles has strengthened gang violence in that country.  President Obama, to his credit, ultimately decided not to block the election of a former FMLN guerrilla leader and his party to the Salvadoran Presidency earlier this year.

Honduras, from which the U.S. coordinated its Central American anti-guerrilla operations in the 1980s, had an abysmal human rights record. As a member of a Central American human rights task force of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) in 1986, the first author visited Honduras with two other LASA scholars.  We verified the Honduran government’s human rights shortcomings and corroborated U.S. knowledge of those violations. Missionary friends recently returned and currently in Honduras indicate that that record remains problematic.  In 2006, Manuel Zelaya was elected President. He came to be modestly progressive, raising the minimum wage, aiding small farmers, and offering free public education.  The U.S., in contrast to most Latin American countries, ultimately gave its blessing to a bloodless coup in 2009, which stopped progressive government action.  Add the gang activities and it is not so surprising that child migration from Central America (especially Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador) is on the upswing.  This year, 75% of the unaccompanied children arriving on our southern border are from these three countries; most of the rest are from Mexico.  The Pew Hispanic Center analyzed Department of Homeland Security (DHS) data showing that thegreatest number of unaccompanied children come from San Pedro Sula, Honduras’ second city, where the homicide rate is 38 times that of New York City!

The UN refugee commissioner (UNHCR) recently interviewed a representative sample of 400 Central American and Mexican unaccompanied children ages 12-17 apprehended in the U.S. Forty-eight percent of the youth recounted being personally affected by organized violence from drug cartels, gangs, or state law enforcement personnel.  Twenty-two percent indicated having experienced abuse or violence by their caretakers at home. The UNHCR estimates that some 58% of the unaccompanied youth merit protection from returning home.  The DHS examined the origins of unaccompanied Central American children who came during the first 4 ½ months of 2014.  They concluded that “…many Guatemalan children come from rural areas, indicating they are probably seeking economic opportunities in the US.  Salvadoran and Honduran children… come from extremely violent regions where they probably perceive the risk of travelling along to the US preferable to remaining at home.”  The Center for American Progress shows that lax border enforcement (the mantra of Sen. Grassley and Rep. King is “secure the border first”) is not a factor, since the amount spent on border interdiction has increased along with numbers of unaccompanied minors apprehended.  The numbers of such minors doubled from 2011 to 2013 and likely will double again from 2013 to 2014.  Border Patrol agents doubled between 2002 and 2013.  The $18 billion we spend annually on immigration enforcement dwarfs what we spend on health and development assistance ($198 million in FY2014) in all of Central America.

We provide military aid to Central America ostensibly to fight the drug wars.  A failed U.S. drug policy (failed because it has neither slowed drugs from south of the border nor reduced demand in the U.S.) strengthens the Honduran National Police with a suspect human rights record.  The Los Angeles Times on July 9 reported that an elite unit of the Honduran national police trained by the U.S. Border Patrol Tactical Unit to interdict drugs and arms, is currently assigned to keep Honduran children and families from crossing the border into Guatemala on their way to the U.S.  This immigrant interdiction program, “Operation Rescue Angels,” and has been in effect since VP Biden’s trip to Central America.  This aid is part of the $642 million spent since 2008 on security assistance to all seven Central American countries. $176 million was proposed for FY2014.

How have our public officials responded to child migration?  Not well. President Obama seeks additional funds for Health and Human Services to house unaccompanied minors, but proposes to change the 2008 law that prevents summary deportation of unaccompanied children all countries but Mexico. The Administration is now working on a proposal to grant refugee status to a limited number of Honduran children and youth in Tegucigalpa, but that is not likely to stem the tide of unaccompanied child immigration. The Administration seems to be as embarrassed by the appearance of these refugees as Republicans should be for failing to pass comprehensive immigration reform, the single most important factor in unauthorized migration to this country.  Reps. Latham and King and Sen. Grassley have stood up for “strict” adherence to immigration law, while blocking comprehensive immigration reform. Such reform would diminish problems generated by and for the youthful sojourners who risk life and limb to escape an intolerable social situation in their countries of origin and/or to be reunited with parents they may have not seen for many years. It does appear that – in the short term — the Pharisees speak louder than those who embrace the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Governor Branstad has steadfastly refused to collaborate with other Iowans in helping Iowa’s share of these brave, ragged children to be housed here while it is sorted out which have relatives where in the U.S., which should be eligible for asylum, and which could safely be deported back to their home countries.  Governor Branstad seems determined to take an anti-Obama stance, when he should be taking a pro-Governor Ray stance – welcoming refugees from troubled parts of the world.  Governor Branstad distinguishes the child refugees from Central America and those who came to Iowa from Southeast Asia in the late 1970s, by saying that the latter came legally.  That is a distinction without a difference.  The bill proposed by the Senators from Arizona to allow a modest number of child refugees from Central America, also proposes to immediately turn back all those who would continue to arrive at our borders.  The irony of the anti-immigrant hysteria among certain of our political leaders is that immigrants who have arrived in Iowa since the 1990s, first mainly from Mexico, now increasingly from Central America and other war zones around the world, have enriched our culture, stabilized the population of certain declining rural counties, and expanded Iowa’s youthful population as Iowans of European descent continue to age.  Those of us who will one day qualify for social security should be thankful for the young families – and indeed the unaccompanied children – that have migrated to our country and will pay the taxes that keep us healthy and happy in our retirement.

What to do?  The most humane way of dealing with these unaccompanied children is for the U.S. to “harmonize its immigration law with domestic child welfare and international law by … requiring U.S. officials to consider the best interests of the child as primary in all … decisions regarding immigrant children.”  (Center for Gender & Refugee Studies and Kids in Need of Defense 2014).  The study, A Treacherous Journey, financed by the McArthur Foundation, further recommends:

  • No child should appear in immigration proceedings without legal representation; the Attorney General should appoint counsel skilled in child immigration matters.
  • An independent child advocate should be appointed for all children wanting to stay in the U.S.
  • A new form of immigrant relief should be enacted to prevent children from being deported when returning home opposes their best interests.

Our government over the years has helped create conditions that make these children refugees – by supporting the right-wing dictators who fought savagely (often with weapons paid for by us — U.S. taxpayers) to maintain the privileges of the military and the landowning class over and against another group of children, women, and men who committed the profound error of being born into a system that was rigged against them.  Should we not demonstrate Iowa values once again in welcoming the stranger as we did in the aftermath of the Vietnam War? Come on, Governor Branstad, have a heart.  After all, THEY ARE CHILDREN!

Dr. Flora is Professor Emeritus at Iowa State University.  He worked for the Ford Foundation in Spanish-speaking South America and in Nicaragua from 1978 through 1980.  He published a paper on “Roots of insurgency in Central America” (1987) and a book on the same topic. Rev. Alfaro-Santiz a U.S. resident, is the Immigration Specialist for the Central District of Iowa United Methodist Church and a Pastor of Las Americas United Methodist Faith Community. He is a native of Guatemala. References used in the paper are available from the first author (floraj@iastate.edu).

Jan L. Flora

1902 George Allen Ave.
Ames, IA 50010
floraj@iastate.edu
Cell:  (515) 451-9693
 Alejandro Alfaro-Santiz
Las Americas United Methodist Faith Community 1548 8th St Des Moines, IA 50311
aalfarosantiz@iliff.edu 
515-450-1621 cell 515-288-4056 office

 

Hard Peace

Grace Des Moines PeaceI keep coming back to this idea of a “hard peace.” Maybe it is because I am a hard-headed person that I am dissatisfied with the ways people talk (write) about peace and conflict within the United Methodist Church. There are all these “family” metaphors. We are told to rely on our “unity of spirit” and also there is a kind of playground dialogue which ends, “I am taking my toys and heading home. So there!”

While I often wish I was the kind of person who can say “Look! We are going to end malaria. We are feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. Isn’t that good enough? Isn’t that all the proof we need of the Holy Spirit fire igniting this church?” I simply am not.

I don’t think the most important question is how much service work are we doing as a church  but rather, how are we doing that work? Who is being ground down, beaten up, cast aside and left to die in the ditch while we are so focused on ending “poverty;” a concept with which we start to divide people into opposing groups of rich and poor, have and have not, hungry and fed, check-writers and service receivers, fit and broken, able and disabled. We are definitely doing our best to alleviate hunger and disease, but still, there is no peace.

I think we have to work for the harder peace-the peace of justice. It is not a peace that says “Can’t we simply get along?” It is not a peace that says, “Oh, never mind him, that is simply Crazy Uncle Zee.” It is not a peace that says that families are safe, open, affirming, caring, loving, capable, and simply organized places in which to grow, but recognizes that first families are often the places where we learn how to hit, hate, deny, degrade, and destroy.

When Paul tells us we are brothers and sisters in Christ, he is not suggesting that we Christians get along with people the way we relate to our own siblings. In my family that looks like an awful lot of wrestling, name-calling, door-slamming, practical jokes and hand-me-downs. Instead, Paul is telling us we participate in a different kind of family, one where we have to get along with one another the way Christ gets along with us.

And that means we have to work at kindness, gentleness, peacefulness, faithfulness, joyfulness, loveliness, patience, goodness, and self-control. But those fruit are hard to nurture. They are hard to water and they are hard to grow. They don’t come naturally, simply, or easily, and evidence of their existence can be in short supply.

So, I don’t buy it. I don’t think there is a really a way for us to simply ignore our very real disagreements with others while we go about the service work of the church. Because, Christ didn’t really plant us here to provide services for those poor unfortunate souls. Instead, he tried to cultivate the soil of our souls, and he planted the seeds of God’s Mercy and Rightness, and he watered those seeds with Faithfulness, his own belief in us, that out of those souls might grow the Garden of God in the midst of a ground left salted and sere by the warring passions of people estranged from Love.

 

What Do Social Justice Ministries Look Like?

QuestionsA group of you have been thinking and praying together about faith and ministry. As you look around the church, you and your friends have come to the conclusion that there is not a robust social justice ministry. You are starting to feel like that is a place your church needs to grow. You have become convinced that in order to experience a vibrant and vital faith life, you are going to have to reach more deeply into the significant needs of your community. What’s more, you have read the research and you realize that you are going to have to take a different approach to these ministries if you stand a change of actually connecting with the people you intend to reach. In short, you have decided that you want to start doing social justice ministry, but you have no idea what that looks like.

Here are a few examples of ministries:

Fort Washington Collegiate Church (CRC) calls their social justice ministries You Matter. It has identified health, equality and service as three issues around which to organize. It hosts a weekly fitness class, promotes and sponsors healthy living workshops and cooking classes. The church also has a performance advocacy group and commits members to volunteerism with groups such as Habitat for Humanity. To read more about how they have engaged with these issues, visit their website: http://www.fortwashingtonchurch.org/our-ministries/social-justice-you-matter.

In Iowa, Matthew 25 is a ministry hub born out of a vision of whole life ministry that left the church building. It describes itself as

 “an independent, local nonprofit organization in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It exists to strengthen core neighborhoods on the west side of Cedar Rapids, and to provide opportunities for people to act on their values through service.

Matthew 25′s vision is to help create thriving, connected communities where all people are valued and talents are multiplied. It is a highly innovative and collaborative organization that partners with others to work in three program areas: Neighborhood Building, Youth Empowerment, and Cultivate Hope.”

From building renovation to an urban farm education center, Matthew 25 ministries are embedded in the local culture of Cedar Rapids. To see how they have organized around these program areas, visit their website: http://www.hub25.org/ You can also arrange to visit Mathew 25 directly by contacting them: 201 Third Avenue SW Cedar Rapids, IA 52404; 319-362-2214; info@hub25.org

First Unitarian Church of Cleveland has both a corporate and individual approach to social justice ministry. They work with local schools and Family Promise of Greater Cleveland to respond to the needs of families-from housing and education to intergenerational relationship building. Their menu of programs can be seen at http://www.firstunitariancleveland.org/pages/service-justice-social-justice-ministries.htm

Social justice ministries are issue and cause ministries. We can sometimes get caught up in our political and religious viewpoints and forget that at the heart of mission is intimate relationship with people. Vital ministries are born out of a passion for justice, a heart of compassion for those the world uses most cruelly, and a deep, relationship with Christ. They are ministries of solidarity with, not ministries of pity for. As you start to build your bridge into your community via social justice, lean into your heart places.

Love is the energy which will fuel a passionate ministry. Good works without faith are dead, to make a turn on James. Don’t simply choose a cause or an issue and hope that work on that will bear fruit. Cultivate relationships with people such that their burdens become your own. I guarantee you that in doing so, issues and causes galore shall arise to meet your longing to be a disciple, to make disciples, and to transform the world.

When Faith Leaves the Museum

 

Samuel House
Samuel House

Ai Weiwei, perhaps best known for his exhibit Sunflower Seeds, is a conceptual artist who creates “social or performance-based interventions.” He is one of a number of artists who have decided to take art out of the museum and into society. For Ai Weiwei, these interventions are a way of “merging his life and art in order to advocate both the freedoms and responsibilities of individuals.”

‘From a very young age I started to sense that an individual has to set an example in society’, he has said. ‘Your own acts and behaviour tell the world who you are and at the same time what kind of society you think it should be.’   (Tate Museum)

The Women Are Heroes project is another example of an artist using the real world social order as a canvas on which to paint challenging ideas. The artist, JR, did this particular project “[i]n order to pay tribute to those who play an essential role in society but who are the primary victims of war, crime, rape and political or religious fanaticism . . .”*

When art leaves the museum like this, it is transformed into social witness. It becomes something publicly available.  It eludes censorship, yet is  exposed to raw and sometimes violent criticism. It somehow moves back and forth across the line of legal and illegal, sanctioned and under sanction.  It is vulnerable and open to whatever interpretations, ideas and reactions it causes.

For these two particular artists, these interventions are also intentionally meant to give voice to the voiceless-to bring the lives of unimportant and disregarded people into public view. Their works expose inconvenient truths and somehow point to the cracks in our well-reasoned ideas about how the world is supposed to work and how it actually works.

I think that vital faith is faith which has chosen to leave the museum. It is faith which endeavors to give voice to the voiceless-to bring the lives of unimportant and disregarded people into public view. It exposes inconvenient truths and somehow points to the cracks in our well-reasoned ideas about how the world is supposed to work and how it actually works.

Vital faith, like the artwork of Ai Weiwei, JR, or Iowa’s own Rev. Ted Lyddon Hatten, shows the light of God shining through those cracks, and brings the world’s attention to it.

This work-this faith in the world work-this social intervention-is social justice.  It is faith made publicly available. It is faith which eludes censorship, yet allows itself to be exposed to raw and sometimes violent criticism. It somehow moves back and forth across the line of legal and illegal, sanctioned and under sanction.  It is vulnerable and open to whatever interpretations, ideas and reactions it causes.

Social justice is a public faith witness which has the the power to break hearts and inspire people to moral elevation and awe. It paints compassion, grace and the irrational and extravagant love of Jesus on the canvas of the world.

Social Justice Church

Ann Truss
Ann Truss

A few months back, I participated in a panel discussion about social concerns, young adults, and the church. I was not asked to participate because I am an expert in social concerns, generational sociology, or the United Methodist Church. I was asked because I roughly embody the category of young adult, I am a participant in the church, and I really only stick around because the UMC claims to be a social justice church.

Now, social justice is a term with a lot of baggage. It has entire histories, theologies, doctrines and social movements behind it. Some people are comfortable claiming certain forms of social justice advocacy as the primary goal of Jesus, while others are sure that it is code for the “forced redistribution of wealth with a hostility toward individual property rights, under the guise of charity and/or justice.” What’s more, the cause wars in the church have been going on for so long, there is little to no room for different issues to come to light, much less an opportunity to regroup and consider whether we need to define a new set of solutions. Rather, new Christians, on entering the church, are asked to choose sides in conflicts that may well have no real meaning for many of them.

All of which is to say that, in the church, the contest between historical social ideas has become the point of action. Any conversation about social justice seems to be stuck in a repeating loop of name-calling, stereotyping and the painful backbiting which arises when we have been wounded-as though the most important thing we can do with social justice is to define it, and either claim or reject that definition for ourselves and our fifteen closest friends.

Social justice in the church, then, becomes a fixed category of dead and dying social ideas by which we can group people. It becomes a stagnating pool of “us” and “them” statements, with opposing teams of Christians whose energy is directed towards definitively winning the argument so that they no longer have to wrestle with a Christ whose Way is anything but safe and simple.

When social justice becomes a definition instead of an awareness and relationship, the church becomes a museum instead of a community. As long as the church continues to let media outlets and political campaigns define its relationship with those in its town earning less than $11,170 a year, rather than opening its Bible, its doors, its heart and its treasure store to respond, no one will believe it actually cares about the poor. While the church spends its energy proof texting its justification, Exhale creates a a texting space to “show that it [is] possible to have an honest, thoughtful, nuanced conversation about abortion that [isn’t] polarizing and inflammatory. “*

The people of my peer group do not have either the patience or the time for social transformation which is merely a mental exercise practiced within the bounds of safe stances, ritualized actions, and appropriate topics. We are hungry for an opportunity to transform our world into the kind of place we want our children to inherit. A church stepping boldly out to lead that kind of work is a church we want to work alongside. It might even be the church we want to be a part of.

And if your church simply does not want to do that, that’s fine. We’re finding other partners for the journey.

On Earth As It Is in Heaven

250px-The_Civil_Rights_Memorial,_Montgomery,_ALI was recently asked, “What on earth or in heaven does ‘Climate Justice’ have to do with winning souls for Christ?”

This question has been sticking with me, mostly because the connection seems obvious to me yet clearly was not to the person who asked. I think the question also points to some of the other responses that come my way: suggestions that advocacy, mission, social witness, and civic activism are politically motivated rather than that they are rooted in a commission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

In searching for a response to this question, I googled social justice and evangelism to see what other people had to offer. There are a lot of perspectives out there, and a great deal of intellectual and theological debate. Not surprisingly, most of the articles I found suggest that social justice and evangelism are either/or forms of discipleship, and that to be for one kind of discipleship is to be against the other. But I think that assumption is a false one.

Maybe, then, I  need to turn the original question on its side. Maybe it is not so much a “what” question, as it is a “how” question. So how do I answer Jesus’ command to go and make disciples, and why does writing about [Climate] Justice matter?

My first motivation to do as Jesus asks is that I love God. That love was born at the bottom of a hill in my home town, from a completely irrational and altogether mind-shattering revelation of God’s prevenient grace. Even before I knew God, I heard the call to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. That call has only gotten stronger and more life-giving as I have pursued Christ.

As I look at the world I live in, I see not only that there are  poor, imprisoned, blind and oppressed souls that have not yet heard the good news, but also that  there are pervasive diseases and afflictions that continue to impoverish, torture, maim, and burden human beings and beloved creatures all across the planet.  Diseases and afflictions, evils, injustices and oppression, which would make a liar of God and a mockery of salvation.  So, while it is true that Jesus tells us to go and baptize, he also gives us power and authority to heal every kind of disease and illness.

That is why, for me, the commission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world is a call to systemic, social transformation, “to build a world where love can grow and hope can enter in,” as one of my favorite songs puts it. [Welcome (Let’s Walk Together)]

And I do not think we are left alone to do this. The Holy Spirit and God’s grace not only make us right for this work, but also make us holy to do it. And by actually living into Christ’s call on our souls-a plea to go to the prisoners, the sick and dying, the broken and demon-ridden among us and to love neighbors, strangers, enemies, and creation itself so much that we would give our only child simply to set it right-we might actually see the Reign of God.

So, to offer an answer to the question as to what on earth or in heaven  ‘Climate Justice’ has to do with winning souls for Christ, I want to answer that for myself, I see the connection most strongly every time I pray the prayer we have been taught:

Our Father, which art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name;
thy kingdom come;
thy will be done,
in earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those that trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation;
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
the power, and the glory,
for ever and ever.
Amen.