Monday, June 25, 2007

Everyone's in the Middle?

Before dismissing 1 Timothy 6:17ff as being for "those REAL rich people":

I have noticed that no matter how much $ Americans had when they were growing up the tend to see themselves as "middle-class". I know exceedingly wealthy folks who regard themselves as such because they know a handful of folks who have a lot more. Or as someone said to me recently "There is always another Bill Gates around the corner" -- so they must not be "rich".

Then again both in my personal experience with folks who grew up with very little and in reading Mitchell Duneier's book "Sidewalk" you find folks at the other end of the spectrum who won't use the word poor to describe themselves. Partly this is an identity issue (who wants so say they were poor? or rich for that matter?) and partly it is perspective. In a clip from the movie "Killer of Sheep" (regarded by Richard Roeper as the greatest African American film of all time!) there is a man who says (I'll have to paraphrase here) "I ain't poor -- look at so-and-so, he eats grass! that's poor! I ain't poor!"

So no one wants to be regarded as rich. But I'd say that if you live in a household with income greater than $50K annually, and/or if you have (or will have) a college degree, you (and I) are flat out RICH. Check out for perspective. If you go there and enter your income you will find out what number richest person in the world you are. Most fill find that they are in the top 5%, at least. Probably the top 1%! So if you are among the richest, even 10% of people in the world currently -- and that means you'd be in the top 1 or 2% of the richest people in the history of the world -- I'd say that makes the label "rich" appropriate.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Native Son

I read Native Son this month. It is basically a historical fiction genre book - but it wasn't called that when it was written. I am not a big fiction reader so I'm not sure about the category, but it does trace the life of a fictional character that could have existed in any one of many US cities during the past 140 years. The book is about an African American man who lives a life of oppression and is almost type cast to commit horrific murder against one or more white people.

Written by the much heralded Richard Wright, it captures in agonizing detail the life of Bigger Thomas during the period of a few weeks. Bigger is based on a number of men and boys that Wright new growing up in the South during Jim Crow. The story is set in late 1930's Chicago -- amidst the slums of the black ghetto.

I live just off of 46th street about 3 blocks from "4605 South Drexel", the location of the home in which Bigger worked and committed his initial crime (we live on the black side of the "color line" spoken of in the book -- a line that to this day remains intact). This was definitely a hook for me as the primary characters travel around my home and community. The park that they drive around in for 2 hours (Washington Park) separates my home from our ministry site and I drive those roads daily.

It will take some time for me to process the book and its lessons or interest for me. I think that besides the geographic setting the interest I have is in seeing the community through the eyes of an African American author. I think to some degree Wright is just "tellin the truth" about the life of an oppressed people. On the other hand "hope" is what sucks the life out of the characters, they live without any joy, and the preacher is just a wishful thinker -- not really a real character. These are all things that I know are core aspects of the community and therefore I think not honestly portrayed.

On the other hand he has a great ability to describe the effects of oppression and injustice to the community as a whole and why a real estate tycoon who gives millions to assist the community he helps oppress is really someone trying in vain to do something helpful -- basically the man is just applying balm to his own conscience, not actually working for change.

The other critique I had was that Bigger was externally void of almost any words or thoughts but internally able to articulate his feelings and sense of the world in masterful prose. Partly I think this was Wrights means of showing how someone who appears to be less than a man externally is actually much more than what he appears. But I kept thinking that the contrast between the Bigger external and internal was too much -- the internal man was Wright himself. Maybe that was his whole point?

Justice & Fish

Ok, briefly here, a breakdown on approaching justice issues using old proverbial wisdom as an outline:

1. Give a man a fish.
2. Teach a man to fish.
3. Be sure the man has access to the pond and that no one is destroying or polluting it!

Are Christians called to engage at all 3 levels? (Usually we prefer option 2 since it is moderated, efficient, avoiding politics on the one hand and handouts on the other.)

Practical Justice

I have been reading a book lately called "Practical Justice" by Kevin Blue. I picked up the book because I am not sure what it means as a follower of Jesus Christ to "do justice". I alluded to this in my last entry. Are there categories of justice that we should and should not pursue? Isn't justice a code word for political activism? Isn't political neutrality the real call of the minister? Isn't the separation of church and state essentially biblical (or at least wise)?

Here are a couple of my assumptions: The scriptures are true and reliable. They form a more solid foundation for all of my activity in life than the political leanings of anyone or any system. I neither want to be a simpleton when it comes to reading scripture nor do I want to use my theological or political reflexes (or systems) to undermine what scripture says.

So all that to say that while I don't think we should be afraid to look the scripture and see a call to justice activties (if they are there). Does the bible have much to God's people that call us to justice? Inescapably, yes. Ok, so what does that mean?

My feeling is that we should take our Jesus straight. Don't water him down.
So when Kevin Blue reminded me about Luke 6:30 I was (and still am) pretty unsettled.

Luke 6:30 -- Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.

Every one of the 5 or 6 beggers I meet each day? The guys who just broke into my house and stole the keys to my car, house and my kids XBox 360? You've got to be kidding Jesus!

That's crazy. But "read the context" my bible education background responds. That only makes it worse. The context starts in verse 27: "But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. (vs. 27-29)

So "taking Jesus straight" on the whole justice issue starts with my willingness to set conventional wisdom aside and obey. So I'm broke this week -- and trying not to get caught with only a $20 in my pocket!

More to follow on categories for thinking about Justice. If I can't swallow this lesson I can't move to the next.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

What happens when mercy has to be repeated?

Micah 6:8 make it pretty clear that we are to be involved in at least 3 types of ministries as Christians. In fact, the way the command is written it is clear that until "this same Jesus" from Acts 1:10 reappears we are to always be about these things: do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God.

In the past few years I've noticed that often mercy has to be repeated again and again. Children in many communities need tutoring in a big way. So out of mercy Christians respond. But is it really mercy when generation after generation of young people by the hundreds of thousands receive a non-competitive, sub-standard, unequal educational experience? (I am obviously picking only one of a number of issues. Others must include health care, housing, employment, etc..)

Here it is 50+ years after "Brown vs. Board of Education", through a non-faith tradition lens made it clear that segregated education (and all other public institutions) would inherently be unfair, our neighborhood schools are totally segregated and nearly totally failing.

So is a response to this problem a mercy issue? Perhaps in the immediate need of some young person we can call it "mercy". But what we really should be bold enough to say is: this is an issue of justice -- and the God of scripture REQUIRES us to respond by "doing justice". When mercy has to be repeated again and again I think we need to look behind it for the likelihood that there is a societal injustice at play. (But too often as Christians we either don't know what it means to "do justice" or we won't. . . )

"He has told you, oh Man, what is good; and what does the Lord REQUIRE of you, but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6:8

Thursday, June 7, 2007

The Reconciliation of the Gospel

Over and over the gospel messes me up and straightens me out. I find that urban ministry with its economic, racial and geographical boundary crossing has me constantly in between people. Those on our staff, those in the community, those in our support base, those in churches, those in community leadership -- all of these are constantly at odds between groups and even among groups.

I find it easy to pity myself when I find myself, yet again, between people. And in that spot my only hope is Christ and the power of his transformation through the gospel. In particular I find Matthew's rendition of the gospel and its implications helpful to me as told through the parable of the unmerciful servant.

The forgiveness experienced by the initial servant (more than he could ever repay in his life) is to be given in kind to those around him. Yet, he finds it hard to do -- as do most of us! If we really understand that lesson we would also understand the apostle John who wrote: "by this we know love, that he laid down his life for us and we ought to lay down our lives for our brother". 1 John 3

So not only should I work with people to live out this radical reconciliation, but I should also live that in my constant "in-betweenness". I think that for most people it is far easier to imagine taking "the big hit" for someone when there is a crisis than to actually die to our selves and lay down our lives when it means we will be late for an appointment, or misunderstood, or needing to patiently wait for someone to come around, or just being able to live with people who don't agree with us. Its the simple things that require forgiveness and persistent love that we find most challenging about the gospel.

I can't comprehend staying in urban ministry without the gospel constantly reminding me of my need for grace and calling me to show it to others.