M is for the Marginalized (an alphabet for penitents).

While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples.  When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners. -Matthew 9:11-14

 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”-Matthew 11:19

Maybe Lent has been easy for you. You gave up something you shouldn’t imbibe too much anyway and after an initial struggle, you’ve starting to feel the freedom in new routines and habits.  But is that really the point? It is possible to keep our little rule and our little fast and fail to follow Jesus—going where he goes and loving who he loved.

Jesus’ critics called him a friend of tax collectors and sinners, indicating he had the wrong sort of friends. He loved the religious outsiders—those colluding in the Roman occupation and profiting from injustice,  and those who weren’t welcome in the temple because of their lifestyle. Jesus was a lover of the marginalized, the outsider.

He came from a tiny rural village, conducting much of his ministry in Galilee, far away from the seat of power and the religious establishment. He had friends in low places, and outside of a couple of Pharisee friends, he didn’t have strong relationships with the ‘right’ sort of people. The crowds that came to him were the poor, the disenfranchised, the revolutionaries, the tax collectors, and the sinners. These were those without hope in the socio-political world of the Roman Empire or the religious world of first-century Judaism.

What strikes me as odd, is how a season of Lent, which is all about following Jesus, has become such an insider affair. Ash Wednesday is for insiders. Religious outsiders don’t get it: “You got some grease on your head.” “Dude, wash your face!” Lenten fasting is a strange cultural artifact for the wider culture: “So what are the rules of Lent?” “You are giving up what? Why would you want to do a thing like that?” None of what we do seems to make sense from the outside, and yet the outsiders are with whom Jesus spent most of his time.

If our Lenten fasting helps us apprehend the truth about Jesus and his place in our lives, and if the season is about following him, then we need to be intentional about connecting with the margins. In our age, as in Jesus’s, this means the poor, the widowed and the orphaned. This means the neighbor who wouldn’t be caught dead in church (likely because of bad memories of the hypocrisy she found there). It means standing up for the forgotten and invisible people in the community such as the urban and rural poor,  naming injustice and being cognisant of privilege and power dynamics, and cultivating friendships with people who have nothing to contribute to our personal success. It means attending the wrong parties and hanging out with people with the wrong lifestyle.

Of course, Jesus did all this without falling into the temptation inherent in negative peer-pressure but he was denounced as a drunkard and a glutton. He was willing to risk ‘guilt by association’ to love those on the margins. You can’t follow Jesus—go where he goes and do what he does—without making some dangerous connections. If you aren’t friends with the marginalized, who are you following?

Taking Mission Beyond Privilege: a book review

We live in a divided America: Republican and Democrat; haves and have-nots; Caucasians and minority communities; Christians and Muslims (or really anyone else), educated elites and the illiterate. We are divided by politics, religion, race, economics, and culture. And you don’t have to look too far for evidence of how deep the divide. We’ve witnessed the public debate over who’s lives matter whenever someone gets killed and have heard the startling statistic that three-quarters of white Americans are without any minority friends.

y648What Makes D.L. Mayfield’s memoir Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith so good is the way she opens up about the challenges of living in the divide.  Raised on a steady diet of missionary biographies and dreams of heroic self-sacrifice she began living and working with Somali-Bantu refugees with hopes of winning converts and gaining significance from her missional efforts. Instead she found her Somali friends eyed her with suspicion and treated her presence with benign neglect. Committed to friendship with her Somali friends, her attitude gradually shifts to one which is more reciprocal and mutual than that of mere missionary. Her mission field transforms as she learns to give and share the love of God with her Somali neighbors.

When Mayfield begins her mission, she is full of privileged assumptions and believed-expertise. She confronts her own privilege, her  need for recognition, and she makes the shift from expert/sage to that of listener. Here are a couple notable quotes I underlined as I read (chapter titles in parentheses, the electronic copy I read didn’t allow me to specify location) :

I am not poor. I drink lattes during droughts, eat hamburgers during famines. I profit off the world I was born into, an economic system that crushes and oppresses. The problem was that I was born at the top, and so all of those troubles at the bottom used to seem so hazy to me. This is the real problem of being rich and happy and healthy and popular: it becomes easy, oh so easy, to forget about the rest. (Wade in the Water)

The longer I knew my refugee friends, the more ignorant I became. Or at least, this is how it seemed to me. I started off so confident, so sure of my words and actions. Over time, I became immersed in their problems, falling headfirst into a crash course on how hard it is to make it on the margins of the Empire, and I ended up becoming overwhelmed, overworked, and slightly bitter. I went from feeling like an expert to a saint to finally nursing the belief that I was a complete and utter fraud and failure, and this was the best thing that ever happened to me. It’s the only way I could ever start to learn to be a listener. (Part 4, The Life-Changing Magic of Couch Sitting)

I liked Mayfield’s book a lot. In part because I could relate to it. I spent two years in ‘urban mission,’ prior to going to seminary, with organizations that required me to raise personal support. In the early days of my mission I found it easy to write ‘support letters’ telling friends back home about what good work I was doing in the inner-city. However these letters became harder to write farther into my tenure as missionary. It became harder for me to ‘pimp the poor’ and as I was confronted daily with the cycles of poverty, addiction and racial inequities, I wondered what good we were doing. Prayer became difficult for me as I watched neighbors and homeless friends gain one small victory only to hit with an insurmountable roadblock (or get sucked back into an addiction).

Mayfield names a similar sense of disillusionment as the missionary romance wears off for her, but she comes out the other end, hopeful, if chastened. Books like this are necessary because they image for us what it looks like to learn to lay down our privilege, rights, and delusions of grandeur in order to join in relationship with the other. In a divided nation like ours, this is sorely needed. I give this book five stars and recommend it to anyone, especially those of us on the privileged side of the divide.

Note: I received this book from BookLookBloggers in exchange for my honest review.

From ‘the Will to Power’ to God’s Will for Power: a book review

I admit it. I am suspicious of power. Some of my uneasiness stems from where I have seen injustice done towards those on the margins.  But I also embody the typical GenX suspicion of authority and institutions.  I mean, I am no anarchist, but I have an Anabaptist-like suspicion of all who wield power.  Yet Andy Crouch’s new book, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power has got me to think hard about the positive, creative purpose of power. According to Crouch, power is not the problem, misdirected power is. Power is a gift from God which enables each us to flourish and engage in the creative task of image bearing.

After Crouch’s introductory chapters, Playing God unfolds in four parts. In part one, Crouch lays his case for Power being a gift.  Two biblical explorations–The creation account in Geensis 1-2 and the wedding feast of Cana where Jesus turned water into wine–frame part one. Crouch avers that the creation account provides a picture of God’s creative power and its connection to our image bearing. In chapter two, “Power is a Gift,” Crouch argues against Nietzsche’s ‘Will to Power’ and might-makes-right vision of power. The Christian vision of power unfolded in the Bible is, “Real power, not just passive-aggressive coexistence but the power to turn the page of history, to deliver the poor,  reconcile the lost, and raise the dead” (53).  The Nietzschean view of power is unmasked as idolatry (ascribing ultimate power to an illegitimate source) and injustice (grasping at power, while leaving others powerless–chapters three and four, respectively). Chapter five shows that the alternative to injustice and idolatry is to be an icon reflecting God’s image. Power becomes a means of creatively embodying the Kingdom in our context. The Wedding of Cana provides a case-study of the proper exercise of power (i.e. Mary and Jesus’ example in the narrative).

Part two describes the grip of power. Two biblical passages also bookend this section of the book–the ten words of Exodus 20, and Jesus washing the disciples feet in John 13.  Power, is often hidden from those who possess it (i.e. an executive whose words always close the meeting). The consequences of non-self aware power is that we fail to leverage it for good (chapter seven). Sometimes our personal power is the result of privilege (through our status as westerner, our wealth, our whiteness, or really anything else that sounds WASP-y) (chapter seven).  Crouch also questions the assumption that power is ultimately about  violence and coercion (as assumed  variously by C. Wright Mills,  Anabaptists,  and Nietzsche).  The alternative view of power that Crouch is sketching is our creative image bearing and does not treat  power as a zero-sum game where the powerful dominate the powerless (chapter eight). The ten commandments orient us with the proper disposition to power and questions our underlying  idolatry and proclivity towards injustice.  John 13 show how Jesus, aware of his power and privilege modeled a different order of power for his disciples.

Part three is dedicated to  describing the role of institutions. While institutions are broken and are often responsible for profound injustices, Institutions are also necessary for  human flourishing.  Commenting on one of the contemporary institutional failures in recent memory, the Catholic church’s pedophile priests, Crouch observes that there was both the failure of “underlords”–priests who abused their position and power, and “overlords”–bishops, cardinals (& popes!) who failed to hold these priests to account (213-4). He concludes, “So we find that in any failing institution, as common as the abuse of power is the neglect of power (214).   Crouch urges us to be ‘trustees’ working within broken institutions to provide places and ways for people to flourish.  International Justice Mission (IJM) is one example of an organization which works to strengthen institutions which restrain evil in particular nations and cultures (207-9). Crouch’s biblical exploration of Philemon illustrates how the apostle Paul did not attack slavery directly but used his power, influence and hospitality to advocated on Onesimus’ behalf.

Part four describes the ‘end of power’ in terms of its telos, its porper limits and the eventual cessation of human power as it is swallowed up in praise of God.

This is a great book, inviting thought about how power, properly construed, is a necessary component of our image bearing, enabling to fulfill God’s mission in the world. Some fruitful insights I gained from Crouch was the connection between idolatry and injustice (and the implications for evangelical’s evangelism and social action). I also found his examination of the ;hidden aspects of power’ and privilege incisive.  Many injustices are perpetuated by well-meaning people who would never grab for power at the expense of others. Nevertheless non-examined privilege is responsible for a whole lot of systemic injustice. Crouch is able to sing the praises of power, while taking an honest look at where power goes awry.

The picture of power which Crouch paints is different from the ‘will to power’ bequeathed to the modern world by Nietzsche, Foucult, et al.  Crouch’s reference point for power is God’s own creative purposes described in the Bible (with special reference to the opening and closing chapters)  This makes it a radical departure from power as usual. Thus while Lord Acton could say, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts, absolutely,” Crouch points out that no one has more absolute power than a parent has over their newborn babies; yet rarely does a parent use their power for ill towards them. If anything, a parent properly uses their power to care for, nurture, protect and feed the child.  Power is not the issue, the disordered exercise of power is. Crouch made me long to see more redemptive acts of power, not in the mold of Nietzsche’s ‘will to power,’ but of ‘God’s will for power.’

I give this book 5 stars. ★★★★★

Thank you to InterVarsity Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.