Sunday, February 28, 2010

On Evangelicals’ Danger and Hope

When Evangelical churches consider giving (they are the only churches which I have first-hand experience with), their first impulse is to maximize salvations. They want to work in places that are “unreached.” Then they look for missionary organizations to win souls. Some of them will go one step further, and support explicitly Christian organizations to serve the poor, but only so long as they do it in Christ’s name. Never would they give to a ‘secular’ charity (for how would the people hear the Gospel, or know from whence the goodness comes)?

Do not misunderstand what I am about to say. I believe in missions, and in evangelism. Of any single action, it is still, in my mind, the most valuable; it is a deed with the highest honor. But there are other parts, essential parts, of Christianity which have been eclipsed by our blind pursuit of this highest honor. Any virtue or impulse may be corrupted if it is sought at the cost of all others. As C.S. Lewis points out on the dangers of focusing purely on the love of humanity, “If you leave out justice you will find yourself breaking agreements and faking evidence in trials ‘for the sake of humanity,’ and become in the end a cruel and treacherous man.” So, I think, if we hyper-focus on missions and evangelism, we will become a cruel and loveless church.

One commandment of God which is almost completely ignored by us today is charity for our brethren in Christ. Paul tells us, “As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all [men], especially unto them who are of the household of faith” (Gal 6:10) and the author of Hebrews reminds us, “For God [is] not unrighteous to forget your work and labour of love, which ye have shewed toward his name, in that ye have ministered to the saints, and do minister” (Hbr 6:10).

We do a mediocre job locally with the poor in general with food drives and homeless shelters. But we do an appalling job of providing for poor brethren abroad. We know generally about poverty and how we are to provide for the poor. But we forget that we have a special obligation to poor Christians.

But who takes collections for poor believers today? How high a priority in the modern Church are poor abroad? We often see poverty work only as a means to the end of evangelism. How many church dollars go to some few thousands of pagans in the Pacific Islands, while millions of our brothers starve in Africa? We send missionaries to the “10/40 window” because there are few Christians there. But how many of us really care about the plight of our brothers in that same window? How many sermons are preached on the plight of the brethren in that window? I have not heard one. We are letting our brothers starve so that we can first win new converts. This ought not be so. We ought to first take care of our own family , and then seek to serve others.

And were we not commanded to? Who are the sheep in Jesus’ Matthew 25 parable? Was it those who were powerful missionaries? Were the goats sent to hell for their lack of evangelism? No. It was for a lack of charity to “the least of these my brethren” (Mat 25:40). Those who saw Christ’s brethren in prison or naked or hungry and did nothing were sent to hell. And who are Christ’s brethren? He tells us: “he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren!” (Mat 12:49).

And where are the least? Where are the hungry, poor, imprisoned Christians? They are in the developing world. The centroid of Christianity is moving back again to the south and east, where there is still terrible poverty, disease and death. There is again a need amongst our brethren to the south and east. It is not now in Jerusalem, but in Africa and Asia.

Remember also Paul’s warning, “But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel” (1 Ti 5:8). John also questions the faith of those who fail this duty, “But whoso hath this world's good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels [of compassion] from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?” (1Jo 3:17). We Evangelicals struggle with hypocrisy, with doctrine, with patience and lust. But there is no place where we are closer to hell than in our apathy about the poverty of our brothers abroad.

We care more for the material condition of the unsaved than our own family. After coming to Kenya, I’ve often been asked about the missionary opportunities and never about the poor condition of the brethren. And I was not offered help to relieve their condition, but instead, Bibles. Bibles are good in themselves, and so are missions. But the fact that the condition of our brothers in Kenya is not even thought of is damning. In the present and manifest distress, the fact that church global missions budgets are often an hundredfold higher than global poverty budgets is damning. We must repent.

Providing for our own family is of utmost concern. Of what other duty which if we neglect it, are we promised hell (Mat 25:46), called worse than infidels (1Ti 5:8), said we abide in death (1Jo 3:14) or asked how the love of God could abide in us (1Jo 3:18)? What other duty was so important to distract Paul, the missionary’s missionary, from missions (Rom 15:26, 1Cr 16:3, 2Cr 8:2)?

But consider the wonderful opportunity God has arranged for us. For where we are poor, our brothers are rich; and where we are rich, they are poor. We should remember: we in the West were made rich in money but poor in spirit. Consider the power of the Holy Spirit, spreading Christianity like a wildfire across China, India and the rest of the developed world. Missionaries, evangelists and prophets are being raised up in multitudes by the Spirit there. And what of us in the West? Though we have a heritage rich in Missions and Evangelism in the First and Second Great Awakenings, now it seems to be God’s will that the fire be cooled.

But in the place of that fiery passion, God has blessed us instead with the riches of this world. We are the most productive people ever to have lived. We are far richer than the Romans, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Arabs, the Byzantines and the Britons. We have money, business, ingenuity, organization and technology. We are better equipped than any other people in the history of the world to end the desperation of poverty, an affliction persistent since the Fall of Man. We are the first generation in the history of the world with the ability to actually do it.

Missions is a higher calling indeed (1Cr 12:28), but not one that we are particularly good at. I came to Kenya thinking there was some opportunity for missions. I soon realized that I had exchanged an excellent mission field for a poor one. Though God has given me gifts in evangelism, there were fewer opportunities in a rural village in Kenya than in the ivy halls of Stanford. Christianity is stronger in Kenya than it is anywhere I have seen in the US, and I found myself especially ill-equipped to evangelize, particularly when compared to my fiery brothers here.

While not given particular gifts in evangelism, we as a culture have powerful and unprecedented gifts in “healings, helps, governments” (1Co 12:28); let us use these to their utmost, while ever coveting the greater gifts of our brothers in the developing world. We have a greater ability to give than any people at any other time in the history of the world. One in our middle class has a greater ability to give than even kings and merchants of old. So let us give in abundance and “with simplicity” (Rom 12:8).

And let us never forget the other edge of the sword of opportunity; it cuts both ways. “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required” (Luke 12:48). We will not be held guiltless if we squander the greatest opportunity for generosity in the history of the world. And we will surely draw close to hell if we close our hearts to our brothers.

Let this generation of Evangelicals be remembered as our great forbears in Britain were. Two centuries ago, William Wilberforce and his fellows ended the slave trade in Britain and will be forever remembered for it, both on earth and in heaven. Let Evangelicals of this generation be remembered not as those whose greedy hearts were cold, but as those who set the captives of poverty free, those who brought food and shelter forever to billions. Let us act like the Philadelphians, the city of love for the brethren, a Church that keeps God’s word to provide for our Christian brothers and for the poor. And then we can receive Christ’ promise, “Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, [which is] new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and [I will write upon him] my new name” (Rev 3:12).

Of Alliances and Kingdom Building

We are not saved by works alone. But the Kingdom is not built by faith alone. And it is not only built by Christians. Certainly God uses all for his purposes. Even Satan himself will serve God’s purpose, as will his instruments like the Pharaoh of Exodus; even vessels for destruction have their place in the Kingdom (Rom 9:22).

There are many men who have seen God, whose work will survive them. The mathematician who sees beautiful Truths of God but fails to worship Him will indeed pass away. His postulates will not. And there are many men who love God, but whose work is headed for destruction. The Christian who builds a corporation which oppresses the poor may reach heaven, but as one escaping a fire (1 Cor 3:15).

Truly, we are commanded to use “mammon of unrighteousness” to achieve God’s ends (Luke 16:9). I once heard a missionary speaking on medical missions, encouraging the use of secular grants over church donations, “Why use God’s money for what Satan will pay for?”And if we are to use the fuel of the Enemy, why not also his vehicles? Would not Christ also commend us for our shrewdness in that regard?

This is war. Our mission: to bring about the Kingdom in every way to every place. And if Poverty is one foe standing in our way, can we not coordinate our efforts with its fellow foes? If Poverty is entrenched in a non-Chrisitan region, call it Sodom, can we not support those fighting it, whatever their alignment? Even if this does nothing to fight another of our enemies, Faithlessness, does this not advance the cause of Christ nonetheless?

But it is doubtful to me that these Enemies of the Kingdom are not aligned and strengthened by one another. Let us return to Sodom. Its citizens have never seen compassion before, but the coming of a secular organization shows it to them. Will they not be drawn to know from whence that compassion comes? And will not their inability to answer (for few secular people have any idea why they do good) create an intense yearning for Truth? Would not this Secular compassion till the spiritual soil of Sodom, allowing missionaries to sow where they had not tilled?

Does not “every good gift…[come] down from the Father of lights” (Jam 1:17)? Does compassion have any other source but Christ? And if it is from Christ, will not even secular compassion “draw all men unto” to its source (Jhn 12:32)?

But even assuming we could know that Sodom would never repent, would fighting Poverty there be in vain? I think not. All of Christ’s charity failed to win converts, for by the end of his ministry, “all forsook him, and fled” (Mark 14:50). I would think it blasphemy to call any work of God futile. I think His charity will live on eternally even if its objects do not. Of course, it is the greatest thing for both to live on. But the hard-hearted cannot sabotage the reward of the charitable. There is some element of the charity itself which must be eternal.

Is it wise for Christians to draw such a hard line in their giving? I think not. I think we shall be rebuked for a lack of shrewdness if we continue along our present course. When effective organizations who serve the poor better than Christian ones are ignored for their secularism, will we not be judged for the poor who went hungry because of our foolishness? We should aim to serve the poor by the best means presented to us.

We should remember that arrows into the heart of Poverty are no less lethal because they are shot by a secular bow. And if a secular bowman has the shot, should we deny him arrows?

Of the Kingdom

Jesus Example

Was Jesus’ work on earth spiritual or physical? It was certainly spiritual, but nothing in God’s kingdom is ever purely spirit. Even God, who is Spirit, takes on flesh. The demons of pride and domination were cast out, so to speak, of the first century religious institutions, but so too were literal demons cast out of individual people. Christ preaches against greed, particularly amongst the religious, but he also makes a whip to drive out the money changers from the Temple. Jesus conquered spiritual sin on the cross, but did that in parallel with His conquest of physical death in the Resurrection. We are spirits indeed, but we are spirits clothed in flesh. The church is the spiritual body of Christ, but it is ones whose purpose is to effect physical change in this world. After all, the arguments the body parts have is over which is more effective in the physical world.
Why did Christ come? As it turns out, He had a lot to do. He came to “bear witness unto the truth,” (Jhn 18:37) so that “they might have life, and that they might have [it] more abundantly,” (Jhn 10:10) so they “might have my joy fulfilled in themselves,” (Jhn 17:13) to “seek and save that which was lost,” (Luk 19:10) to call “sinners to repentance,” (Luke 5:32, 1Ti 1:15) to the “lost sheep of Israel,” (Mat 15:24) to “save that which was lost” (Mat 18:11) to be the “Saviour of the world” (1Jo 4:14), that “we might live through him” (1Jo 4:9).
But His mission was not just preaching. Though salvation was certainly a theme and major part of his commission, it was not all of it. The longest passage discussing His purpose for coming to earth was read by Him in Nazareth at the beginning of His ministry. He reads, “The Spirit of the Lord [is] upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, To preach the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19). Certainly there is a lot of preaching involved. But there is also liberation, deliverance, and healing. His commission was not simply to preach and convert by means of healings; they were independent parts of his commission. Of course, this could be spiritualized if isolated from Christ’s work. But interpreted by the life Christ then set out to live, and considering the sorts of things He spent most of His time doing, it would strain the text beyond its breaking point to think of this as being exclusively spiritual.
Jesus taught about the living bread, but he also fed 5000 people because they were hungry. He cleansed lepers for compassion sake. When he healed ten lepers, and He knew that only one of them would return. I do not think Christ would have withheld healing on the ten even if he knew that none would return. Truly, none did return. On the night of his arrest, His ministry collapsed as, “all forsook him, and fled” (Mark 14:50). The 5000 he fed. The 10 lepers he cleansed. Every single person for whom He did a miracle and to whom He preached left Him. At the time of his crucifixion, Jesus ministry was an utter failure in terms of evangelism. He had zero remaining converts. But had Jesus’ work up to that point been completely destroyed? Would the only value of His ministry come from His Resurrection?

The Prophets’ Mission

Such is the story of many of the prophets. Most ended their ministries killed in Jerusalem by those to whom they preached and demonstrated the Kingdom. The most pious tended to be the most rejected (compare the success of Jonah to Jeremiah). Does their only value, and that of Christ, lie in their ability to win souls?
I would answer emphatically, “No.” Christ showed the Kingdom of God while on earth. Every demon that was cast out was a picture of the coming Kingdom. Every cleansed leper, every full belly, every kind word and beautiful act Jesus did was a picture of that which was about to dawn. The feeding of the 5000 was a physical prophecy of the coming Kingdom; it taught about how hunger was a fleeting thing, something which would have no place in the Kingdom of Heaven. During His ministry, Christ sends out His disciples and tells them, “Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give” (Mat 10:8). Their commission was not

Eternal Value

But how could any of these physical works have any real value? Would not any earthly deed be far out-shadowed by even the smallest eternal deed? Certainly helping the poor is good; but the poor, along with their slums and villages, hunger and disease; will rot and decay, or else be consumed along with all other things in the end times. Wouldn’t even a single salvation, a single person going from mortal to eternal, outweigh any amount of conversion-less charity?
The answer depends entirely on your view of eternity. If you see heaven as a place containing only souls, then evangelism is really the only important thing. All charity must become a means to that end. But did Christ heal, cast out and feed purely for the purpose of conversion?

All Things New

But what if Christ was serious when He promised to, “Make all things new” (Rev 21:5)? What if “all things” meant more than human “souls”? What if there were more to God’s redemptive work than the human element?
Will David’s Psalms be forever consumed when the elements melt away? Or will they too have a Resurrection? Perhaps the echoes of God’s glory which we hear of in the Psalms will be given new life, unclothed of the cloak of human language, and we can hear in their full beauty the melodies which David’s soul so imperfectly expressed. Will the judgments of Moses pass away? Maybe these earthly shadows will become the pillars upon which the new Temple will stand. Will Nehemiah’s Jerusalem be destroyed by the New Jerusalem? Or will the New be built upon the eternal part of the old?
When we see the glorious appearing of the New Heavens and the New Earth, will see what God has prepared for us, using our hands to achieve his purpose? Will the Holy Place contain living paintings of the ending of the Slave Trade, of the great Christian compassion on those with the Black Death, of the steadfastness of Martin Luther, of the sacrifice of missionaries? Will the courtyard of the Temple contain sculptures of the apostles and prophets and teachers? After all, are we not the clay and He the potter?
Art and Justice and Industry and Order are all real things, or at least they are as real as we are. And though canvases and courthouses and stones will pass away, the work of Man, or at least that part of Man’s work which was on God’s behalf, will be Resurrected like Man will be (or at least that part of Man which has gained eternity). For our God is not a destroyer of the Good; will He abolish just laws, burn beautiful paintings, smash efficient machines and tear down cathedrals? No, for this is the job of another. When He comes again, it will be to make all things new, not to obliterate all things. Humanity is His tool, His paintbrush, his violin. For whatever glorious reason, He has chosen to bring about His Kingdom in us and by us.
God never rebuked the tax collector for being a tax collector (3:13) nor the soldier for being a soldier (Luke 3:14). Paul never gave a universal command for believers to leave their jobs and become missionaries. Indeed, he talked of the variety of the gifts, about the beautiful diversity of the body. Moses judged. David sang. Nehemiah built. All by God’s power and at His command. Paul didn’t judge, or sing, or build; he evangelized. But whose work will survive into eternity? Certainly the souls that were saved by Paul’s word. But are we to believe that only some of the work commanded by God will endure? Will Paul’s work endure and that of Moses and David and Nehemiah pass away? Or will all of God’s work endure, even if we cannot conceive of how?
But isn’t this a much more consistent picture of the world? Doesn’t it help make the picture of Christianity more reasonable? If salvation is the only eternal thing, then anyone not actively engaged in evangelism is wasting his time. Everything becomes wholly consumed with that. Poetry, art, business and medicine all become means to an end. God would only delight in them insofar as they were able to bring about salvation, not as things in themselves. But this is not the God who inspired the Psalms, who gave light to the stars, who designed the Temple. God cares a great deal about many other things.
It seems to me that we have simply lacked the creativity to conceive of how this might be. But we must overcome the temptation of thinking that our vague conception of the Resurrection of humans is all that really matters. We need to look forward to the glorious dawn and take Peter’s advice: “Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness. Wherefore, beloved, seeing that ye look for such things, be diligent that ye may be found of him in peace, without spot, and blameless” (2Pt 3:13-14).
We certainly need to seek moral perfection of ourselves and others in Christ, but we must also do a different thing. We must “look for such things.” What things? We must “…look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.” God is commanding us to see the bits of His Kingdom which are now visible. We should bits of this righteousness dwelling in Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, Notre Dame, Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” Newton’s Theory of Gravitation or Algebra. The righteousness, the dikaiosynÄ“, the part of a thing which conforms to and glorifies the Father, ought to be sought after by us.
Then comes the really exciting part. In whatever capacity God grants us, we should be his agents in bring His Kingdom to earth. This includes evangelism, but also art and poetry and social work and government. We need to first pray to God, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as [it is] in heaven” (Mat 6:10). Then we must do the harder thing; we must take the advice God gave to Joshua when Joshua knew what he should do, “Get thee up; wherefore liest thou thus upon thy face?” (Jos 7:10). We must get up off our knees and bring God’s Kingdom to earth, by word and deed, by pen and hammer, by paintbrush and guitar, by law and contract.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Poverty of Liberty

I was considering the best way to define poverty, and I think I may have stumbled across a very old idea that might fit the bill:

“ …all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Perhaps “poverty” is when you lack life, liberty or the ability to pursue happiness?
Poverty can certainly limit these human rights. Life can be limited by starvation the same as it can be provided by an invading nation or a murderer. The government has a commission to prevent the violation of the right in the case of the latter, but which it is the job of the government to prevent.

The lack of liberty can come in many forms. It may not just be liberty in the sense of suffrage, but also in terms of education and beliefs about your own capacity. A slave working on a plantation certainly lacks liberty, but so does a factory worker who cannot leave his situation or promise a better one to his children. Likewise, a person with the ability to better his situation may have been convinced that he is unable, and perception becomes reality.

Limitations of liberty
If a person wants to run a marathon, three things can limit her. The first and most obvious is physical ability; can the person’s legs last for 26.2 miles? Secondly, does a physically capable person believe she can run the distance? And finally, is she willing to do it? She needs physical ability, belief in her ability, and wiliness to actually run. If any one of these things is lacking, she will not be able to complete a marathon. Her freedom is to run a marathon is limited by her body, her mind and her spirit.

The same is true of a poor person. A person may not have liberty or the ability to pursue happiness because they are physically unable (they lack the food to survive), mentally unable (they do not know or believe they can advance), or spiritually unable (they are unwilling to better their situation). To truly have liberty, all three kinds of barriers must be removed.
Most poverty work centers around the first one. We boost income, and build clinics. Most people believe that’s all there is to poverty. But, if liberty is the concern, then simply addressing physical barriers is insufficient.

There are many places with an overbuilt medical infrastructure; physical barriers are reduced. But the buildings remain empty. Mothers still birth their children at home and rarely use the clinic. In many of these places, they know that they’re supposed to give birth in a hospital and that it’s safer. But they prefer their homes. They have every physical and mental barrier removed; some simply lack the willingness.

Mental barriers are also sometimes addressed in development work. And even those who do trainings to address mental shortcomings will not be fully successful if they stop simply at information transfer.

Do we stop because it’s hard? Or because we’d have to address a culture and a preference (both of which are off-limits to relativists)? Changing minds like this is really really hard. But it’s what pastors, motivational speakers and advertising executives make a living doing: affecting people’s willingness to do things. Some of their job is removing physical or mental barriers; but most of it is giving people a spirit or desire to do a certain thing. And we cannot forget this very important piece of liberty.

Pursuit of Happiness
The ability to pursue happiness is a beautiful thing. It is not a guarantee of happiness itself. It is not the ability to hold property (Locke’s version). It is the abstract idea that one can seek happiness in whatever way one wants. Nobody can provide or force someone to be happy; the farthest one can go is to give another the ability to pursue happiness. This is a particularly hard place to stop, but a critical one. We can give liberty and freedom, but we cannot in the next moment take it away to force what we think will bring happiness. Happiness cannot be coerced. People must be truly free to choose misery, and we must not stop them, for to do so would be to undermine liberty and subverting the deeper happiness it brings.

We can build clinics, teach mothers about them, and advertise them. We can work with chiefs and elders to open their minds to the benefits of clinic birth. We can remove economic, social, and cultural barriers. But if a woman still chooses to give birth at home, we must let her.

Freedom and Its Spread
Freedom is not just government type; it’s not just being able to vote. It’s the ability to make choices and to live a full life. It’s climbing upward and giving your children a better situation you had. There are still billions lacking the promise our Founding Fathers sought to give to us.
But how does the flame of freedom spread beyond the shores of the United States? It’s no longer as simple as throwing off a single oppressive king with an eloquent letter. The oppressors are more than political, and so the solutions must be also; the answer is no longer simply in government or a good constitution.

The poor need a Declaration of Independence. They wouldn’t be throwing off an oppressive government, but an oppressive system. Parts of that system are sentient and malicious (dictators, oppressive companies) and parts of it are non-sentient (viruses, climate). And just as the Declaration of Independence wasn’t itself a new system, it made it clear that one would soon be necessary. The War of Independence that must inevitably follow will be fought on the soil of many foreign nations.

I pray that I may fight as their ally.

The Challenge of Liberty Poverty
The challenge with this definition is that it is the most difficult to quantify. It is the most abstract (which, if you believe Plato, means it’s potentially closer to truth than the less abstract ones). Donors don’t want abstract concepts. They, increasingly, want numbers. But this can be our ideal, the thing we really have in mind when we enter a community and want to help. It’s not about money, or property, or even improving conditions. It’s about Liberty.