In the push for church activism, are we focusing on how to image God’s process of loving and lasting changes in our own congregations and communities?
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. ~ Galatians 3:28
A few nights ago, a prominent alumnus of Yale Divinity School invited out the school’s United Methodist students and nearby Methodist alums for a quick pizza dinner It was a great chance for us to learn a few things that happening in our church’s global office, and for him to learn about how things are going for Methodists at YDS. As we got chatting about key advocacy projects that many of our church’s conferences sponsor, I found myself listening a lot to everyone’s views on what church activism should do.
Local and global church activism
The United Methodist Church advocates for many projects and initiatives that help to improve lives around the world. For example, the Nothing But Nets project, co-sponsored by United Methodists and many other organizations, helps to save millions of lives every day – an effort in which just a few dollars of donations can go very far. Our United Methodist Book of Discipline cites a range of social goals that the church should support to help bring the transformation of the world in the image of Jesus Christ. We’re an active global church, to be sure.
But as the pizzas got eaten and our discussions shifted deeper into to church activism, I found myself getting a bit restless as some people began to talk passionately about some of our church’s social advocacy initiatives. Some cited frustration with trying to get local initiatives to help people to succeed. Others spoke about national and global initiatives for human rights. Everyone talked about the political polarization that our nation and our church is experiencing.
…But whose cause is “right”?
Finally, I found myself saying something like, “Look, this is all great, but tell me how this is going to get these people to sit with one other in the same pew or row – to talk with each other, and work with each other?” It seemed like I had named an elephant of a sort that had been in the room all along – the problem of who we are at the heart of the church as Christians.
And who we are in the church, sometimes, are people who put issues above the basic mission of the church, one way or another. I have my own opinions on any number of social and political issues, and sometimes they are strong opinions, but I never want those opinions to stand between what Christ needs to do in the world for the world. Anytime that I insist on being right through my own will, I am not righteous – a trait that doesn’t always come naturally to a stubborn person like me. But I have seen too many times how putting issues before God’s love can hurt the church, its people, and the world. To me, the only right cause is Christ’s cause – the healing and transformation of the world through God’s love made present and active.
Serving people whose hearts see hurt
Just before the pizza dinner, I had checked in with my Bible study group at the Shoreline Cafe in Branford. Our discussions can get very deep often, and that night people were asking “hot topic” questions, like, what do you say to someone who cries as they hold a four month-0ld aborted fetus in their hands? A question like this calls for more than an “issues” answer. It’s the heart that hurts that needs to be healed and transformed by Christ. I asked my group to consider not only this child, but a mother who had a husband who had been punching her in the stomach during other pregnancies and causing miscarriages, and abusing their children. Might this baby have come from such a situation?
In other words, tender hearts hurt for basic but complicated reasons that issues advocacy might miss. A lot of activism, both in the church and elsewhere, fails to embrace the basic and functional needs of everyday people, such as the “Nothing But Nets” project does. People march on Washington, put special “badges” on their social media profiles – not bad things sometimes, perhaps, but how do those sorts of actions live on past a passionate moment to enact change that transforms the world in the image of Christ? What are we committed to, day in and day out, that makes a difference in our own communities, as well as the world? How does it help to unite us with the people next to us in our pew, or in the grocery checkout line?
Paul’s approach to the church’s middle
In my New Testament studies this semester, I am learning new approaches to looking at how the apostle Paul’s letters addressed “hot topics” issues. Paul’s apostolic journeys after the resurrection of Jesus were in a world with a culture and diversity as great as ours today. For example, just to say that Paul was Jewish doesn’t really tell us the complex range of identity issues involved in saying just that. What kind of Jew? How influenced by the culture of Romans and Greeks? So when Paul talks about how there are not Jews and Gentiles, women and men, free people or slave people in Christ, for example, he’s not saying that these distinctions go away completely through faith, as if we were all put into one big spiritual blender to make an “average” Christian.
Instead, what Paul seems to be saying is that we need to be careful about how we look at the complexity of the people who we deal with as Christians. Our tendency is to fit people into “boxes,” without considering the things about them that don’t fit into a box, or to pretend that differences don’t exist at all, or that the only thing that matters about ourselves is the particular box that we want to put ourselves into. Who God sees is a child of God, part of the family, waiting to live as an adopted child of God through Christ. Adopted kids often don’t look like their new parents in many ways. Paul suggests that God sees the obvious and subtle differences between us, and doesn’t want us to pretend any of that away.
Treat God’s family well – personally
So, when it comes to church activism, my main question for people is: how are we doing with our adopted family’s priorities? Do they have a safe and affordable place to live? Do they have healthy food and access to health care? Do they have good guidance and education opportunities? Can we offer them decent work? In our pizza dinner discussions,, these turned out to be what were considered the hard issues. Well, they are certainly hard issues, but they’re the really important ones that Jesus dealt with in person.
And what’s most important thing to do isn’t always the most glamorous thing to do. Like sitting with a homeless person to support them at a 211 emergency services interview to get safe and clean shelter, helping them to navigate the system to find housing, and then inviting them to be a part of your church family. Or advocating at a state legislature for a budget line item that make emergency shelter and long-term affordable housing options available. Or lifting a hammer on a Habitat for Humanity home build. Or raising money for a young person to experience how God’s love can change the world beyond America in a mission project.
Finding God in the “radical middle”
This sort of “up close and personal” approach to church activism may leave some people on both sides of the political and theological spectrum unsatisfied. However, if in fact we focused on these sorts of issues, how much a better a world it would be! God’s idea of Christian perfection is not a human idea of perfection. We focus on agendas, Utopias – things that are perfect in our image.
But if we do not reach across the pew or turn around in the checkout aisle or on the street corner to deal with people as they are, or treat people on the other side of the world as our personal friends, how an we really make progress on these other issues? Instead of turning “them” into a “problem” to be “fixed,” we must first embrace that they are as complex as we are, and that only bringing God’s perfect love into the world in Christ can make the difference.
Yes, there will be frustrating and disappointing compromises in the process of doing this. Yet, we will learn how to move from them to the next step that brings people together. If we practice forming these habits of finding common ground on basic issues at our most basic church family level that help us to act, then we are setting the example for the world and our children’s world as to how to solve the world’s problems. We cannot solve them without God’s help and guidance, and we cannot solve them without trying always to look at real people’s complexities and shortcomings in trying to solve them.
Moving forward, together
We listen carefully and compassionately, and then we try to move forward together as God’s people, not papering over our differences, but accepting that they will make us stronger as we move together.
Does this mean that we cannot make major changes in the world through church activism? No, but it does mean that the real change happens first at the most intimate levels of our church families. If, like Paul, we are not helping people to widen our notion of God’s family on the most basic human issues that should unite all Christians in service to all of God’s creation, while respecting both subtle and strong points of differences in the process, then it will be hard for God’s church as a whole to move forward in the image of God’s love.
So yes, I am a radical – I want to radically love the world in the image of Christ’s love, and I want that love to transform the world first and foremost, one life at a time. That’s plenty big enough for me right now.