At our church retreat this past weekend, we explored our conceptions of God. During one small group discussion the topic wandered to how our view of God affects our affinity for personal piety and missional living. Jen
mentioned that in a recent class on Spiritual Formation her classmates had shared what activities shape their spiritual lives. In ranking a list of spiritual practices, social justice consistently appeared at the bottom of nearly everyone's lists. She had recently been reading Gary Haugen (IJM
) who claims that God is a God of justice and that if we serve this God we will work for justice. Her question to the group was if God really is a God of justice then why is working for justice such a low priority for Christians? Who is getting it wrong?
There were of course more nuances to her question and I am reporting my perception of it as well, but it led to some good discussion. How we conceive of God - which attributes we deem most important, and which ones we ignore - has a huge affect on how we live. If we don't think that God cares about the poor (or if such a thought never crosses our radar) then why should we as Christians think that caring for the poor is a spiritual act? If we see God as most concerned with our personal relationship with him, as opposed to God being most concerned about the oppressed that is going to affect how we live. If it is all about our relationship with God, then acts of personal piety (reading our bible, praying, holy living) become most important. But if God's heart for the oppressed is focused on more then acts of justice (serving the poor, working for social change, lobbying to stop human rights violations) receive more attention. In the evangelical world that I am used to, the personal piety side has received the most attention often to the exclusion of justice issues. In fact, I've listened to sermons where the pastor said that God does not care about the poor and we should not be working to help them. But I've also heard that there are churches that focus so exclusively on justice issues that personal piety is ignored.
It would be easy to say that all that is needed is balance - equal doses of personal piety and justice - but I'm not convinced that is really the best approach. Neither approach should be ignored, but I continue to see more and more danger in the "it's all about me" approach to faith. God spoke into cultures and communities, the message of hope is for the world. If we think that we are the most important thing to God, it is a lot harder to get beyond our individualism and help others. But if we focus on God's compassion for the world, we will grow personally through the discipline of helping others. The personal piety has a place, but is something that I believe should be a natural result of our service to God and others and not the central focus of our faith.
The difficulty occurs in how to convey that message. Changing how we talk about God is a huge step. We also need to examine what cultural assumptions we bring to our interpretations of biblical texts. We can open people's eyes to themes of justice and God's compassion for the oppressed through the biblical narrative. Instead of seeing Ruth as the perfect example of the submissive and committed Christian wife (which has its own issues), we can see the sabbath practices that care for the poor being displayed.
But it has to be more than a matter of perspective. We need to stop living on the extremes. I know this approach will anger some, but I think we need to stop presenting everything as an all or nothing. Too often when faith groups talk about seeking justice they land on the "sell everything and give it to the poor" stance. We present the Shane Claibornes and Mother Teresas as our examples. And the choice becomes to either care and utterly and drastically change one's lifestyle, or to do nothing at all. The choice is so extreme that most people give up without doing anything. So while I know that there is needed discussion as to whether one can really live the American Dream and truly be seeking justice, why would doing nothing be preferable to helping people do what they can where they can? Baby steps right? So instead of telling people how evil American Idol is and telling us that we are messed up for caring more about it than the number of troops who die in Iraq (all of which may be true), I'm going to support efforts like "Idol Gives Back"
that helps raise awareness and gets people doing something
And I know this post has rambled all over the place, but I think that changing the perception of the evangelical church from a "me" centered faith to a "God/other" centered faith is a necessary step. Its a huge step that means changing our perception of who God is and changing the way we live. Missional living should be the goal, but it needs to be presented in ways that are comprehensible and doable for the average church-goer.
Labels: Reflections, Social Justice, Theology