The Shame of Being Poor

When looking at poverty through a New Testament, Middle Eastern cultural lens, there are insights on how Christ related to and responded to the poor that the western cultural lenses that we read the Bible through completely miss. A worldview that dominates Middle Eastern societies is one of honor and shame. All interactions and conversations either honor a person or shame them in the way they are addressed and treated socially. One’s standing in the community may be one of honor or shame based on their position, wealth and influence, and whether they are able to fulfill their social obligations.

In order to understand why Jesus honored the poor and shamed the rich who hoarded their wealth, it is important to know the economic structure of 1st century Palestine where wealth and resources were limited. According to New Testament scholars Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh the concept of “limited good” is the key to understanding the dynamics of wealth and poverty and the attitudes towards the wealthy.[1] Modern economies operate on the basis of unlimited supplies of resources and commodities. If there is a shortage, more can be produced. So if one person got more of anything, it did not automatically mean that another person got less. Malina and Rohrbaugh explain the very different reality of 1st century Palestine, which was based on “limited good”.

But in ancient Palestine, the perception was the opposite: all goods existed in finite, limited supply and all goods were already distributed. This included not only material goods, but honor, friendship, love, power, security, and status as well – literally everything in life. Because the pie could not grow larger, a larger piece for anyone automatically meant a smaller piece for someone else[2]…Profit making and the acquisition of wealth were automatically assumed to be the result of extortion or fraud…To be labeled ‘rich’ was therefore a social and moral statement as much as an economic one. It meant having the power or capacity to take from someone weaker what was rightfully his.[3]

Professor of ancient history at York University (Canada), Philip Harland notes that most scholars acknowledge that the economic situation of the peasantry was precarious due to subsistence-level farming and the expenses for taxes, rents, and seed, as well as the threat of natural disasters and famine.[4] As taxation from the Romans and the demands from the Temple authorities in Jerusalem increased, the poor were pushed further into destitution.[5] Palestine, which was transitioning from a barter economy to a ‘money’ based economy under the Romans, forced the poor to trade what little they had for survival and for their food needs to acquire money (coins) to pay their taxes and Temple dues. Various scholars estimate that as much as 40% of what a peasant produced went towards taxes and religious dues.[6] Besides this, farmers were subjected to blackmail, bullying and over taxation (Lk. 3:13-14). As the cities grew, they required increasing amount of resources and food from the rural areas. The urban elite procured these on terms that they dictated to the poor, which were often grossly unfair. In addition, any emergencies such as accidents, ill health, and crop failure forced the poor into debt, with them having to borrow money at exorbitant rates.[7] If they failed to repay the loans, they would not only lose their land but also could also be enslaved or imprisoned (Mt. 5:25-26). As a result, most of the peasants in the rural areas did not have any surplus and were poor and destitute.

It is hard to understand the social impact of poverty in 1st century Palestine (and in much of the majority world today[8]). There was shame attached to being poor as it meant that with limited resources they could not fulfill their social and religious obligations.[9] New Testament scholar at Notre Dame Jerome Neyrey writes, “Although most people had meager possessions and low status, there were families or kinship groups who could no longer maintain their inherited status in regard to marriage contracts, dowries, land tenure and the like. Loss of wealth translated into lower status, which meant loss of honour.”[10] The lack of wealth and influence, and being unable to fulfill one’s social and religious obligations resulted in shame so that the poor were not treated as a normal part of society. They were thus marginalized and ignored.

Jesus uses this paradigm of honor and shame to teach how God treats the poor and how He abhors the rich who hoard their wealth and ignore the needs of the desperate around them. In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Lk. 16:19-31) Jesus does something that was culturally radical. The parable is about the rich and poor in 1st century Palestine, where the rich were immortalized in lavish burial tombs that honored their name and memory. Going against the cultural norm, Jesus instead honors Lazarus, who was not only poor but also a beggar who had nothing and no social standing, so that he is remembered by history through the living memorial of the parable because he has a name. However, Jesus leaves the rich man anonymous and thus having no lasting honour. By giving Lazarus a name, Jesus identifies him as a unique individual and not just as one of the poor who hide in shame.

In the parable, the name that Jesus pointedly chooses for the beggar is Lazarus, which is derived from Hebrew אלעזר, Elʿāzār, meaning “one whom God has helped”. Through that He reveals the heart of God for the poor and the broken. The dogs, whose saliva is healing for his sores, care for Lazarus. God’s creatures had more compassion for the beggar who was sick and desperately hungry than the rich man, who was oblivious of Lazarus’ existence as he passed him everyday as he went in and out of his house. The poor are not just an anonymous category on a socioeconomic scale. Each of them has a name with their own dreams and struggles. By acknowledging their name they become human, even though they may be vulnerable and in desperate need. Because they have a name, it challenges us to acknowledge their existence.

In the parable neither man is a great sinner. Lazarus is not accused of being lazy or being of poor moral character. The rich man is not condemned for being rich, but for not being concerned for the poor. His concern right to the end remains only for his family and never for those who are not part of his social circle. He excludes the outsider as not being worthy of his attention and care. Ibn Khaldun, the Tunisian Arab historian and sociologist, wrote that tribes survived by taking care of their own and rarely those who did not belong to their tribe. Jesus challenges this prevailing attitude that a family’s and tribe’s only concern should be for their own, to the exclusion of all others.

The most remarkable thing in the parable is that Lazarus never complains nor speaks through out the parable. Culturally he would not have been allowed to speak to the rich. How can one so shamefully poor and socially outcast speak with an honorable member of the community! God breaks through this stifling cultural barrier and honors him by speaking for him who has no voice.

I wonder what it would look like to pick up the poor and the broken from the shame of their every day lives and honor them. I do know that if we did, it would thrill God that His children reflect His very nature and character.

[1] See also Alicia Batten, “Brokerage: Jesus as Social Entrepreneur,” in Understanding the Social World of the New Testament, eds. Dietmar Neufed and Richard E. DeMaris (London: Routledge, 2010), 168.

[2] It is only when this is understood, is the concept of the Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:8-55) understood. All debts were to be cancelled, and land that had been sold could then be redeemed.

[3] Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 400.

[4] Philip A. Harland, “The Economy of First-Century Palestine: State of the Scholarly Discussion,” in Handbook of Early Christianity: Social Science Approaches, eds. Anthony J. Blasi, Jean Duhaime and Philip-Andre Turcotte (Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira Press, 2002), 521 and Malina and Rohrbaugh, Social Science, 390.

[5] Richard Horsley, Jesus and the Powers: Conflict, Covenant and the Hope of the Poor (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2011), 134.

[6] Harland, “The Economy,” 521.

[7] Ibid, 516, 520.

[8] Also referred to as the global south and the developing world.

[9] Malina and Rohrbaugh, Social Science, 390-391, 400.

[10] Jerome H. Neyrey, “Loss of Wealth, Loss of Family and Loss of Honour: The Cultural Context Of The Original Makarisms In Q,” in Modelling Early Christianity: Social Scientific Studies of the New Testament in its Context, ed. Philip F. Esler (London: Routledge, 1995),140.

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Why does God care for the poor?

From “Compassion and the Mission of God: Revealing the Hidden Kingdom” by Rupen Das.

Why does it seem that the poor are important to God? If God’s mission is to save humanity by forgiving their sin and rebellion through Jesus Christ, why is there so much in the Bible about compassion and care of the poor, the broken, and those who live in the margins of society? Are they just ethical teachings and commands that should define society whenever possible or is compassion fundamental to the Christian faith? Why is God so concerned about a broken world?

Jürgen Moltmann writes about the crucified God. He refers to the Jewish Rabbi Abraham Heschel’s concept of the pathos of God. This pathos is not what he calls “irrational human emotions”, but describes a God who is affected by events, human actions and suffering in history. Moltmann writes, “He is affected by them because he is interested in his creation, his people…”[1] This pathos is contrasted with the apatheia of the gods that Judaism and early Christianity encountered in the religions of the ancient world. Apatheia was their inability to feel or be influenced. Centuries later the Church encountered Islam, where God is not one who knows suffering and therefore cannot relate to the problem of human suffering. For most people God remains distant and uncaring.

Bruce Fawcett, the President of Crandall University in New Brunswick, Canada illustrates how and why the poor and vulnerable affect God. He muses that suppose one of your children was severely disabled. While you would love all your children equally, you would have a special concern and love for your disabled child because of his or her inability to function fully in society and because of their dependence on others. This child’s disability and his needs would influence all your decisions and you would even write your will keeping this child in mind. The poor, similarly, are unable to function and participate fully in society as God intends all His children to, which is the reason for God’s “preferential option for the poor”.[2]

                  The Parable of the Refugee – Understanding how God felt

Imagine for a moment, refugees running away from their homes. They don’t have to be Syrian or Iraqi refugees; they could be anyone, anywhere fleeing devastation. Now picture one of the refugees returning to his devastated home. It does not look like what he had built. All that he had lovingly made is broken, destroyed or missing. Imagine his emotion, seeing the extent to which his home has been destroyed beyond recognition. Everything he had built and made with his own hands and his labour, is now destroyed and unrecognizable.

Now consider how God would have felt entering this world in the person of His Son. This world does not look like what He had created. All He had loving made is broken or destroyed, especially that which He made with His own hands and into whom He breathed His own spirit. This living being is broken and not functioning the way He intended and planned. Imagine God’s emotion at seeing the extent to which His creation has been destroyed, and feel the urgency in His mind, that this must be put right, ASAP![3]

The evidence of the pathos of God, of Him being affected by the darkness and evil that has warped His creation, is the incarnation, where God identifies Himself as Immanuel – God with us. Because of the incarnation, He understands the depth of human suffering and says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matt. 11:28) He answers the prayers of those who cry out to Him in desperation. “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” (Jn 14:13-14)

This astounding offer not only transforms the nature of prayer but also offers insight into the character of God. Prayer then is no longer just worshiping a powerful god out of fear in order to appease him. Neither is prayer a petition to a god asking for mercy and favor, not knowing if he hears, much less answers. When the church members who were providing assistance to the Syrian refugees asked them if they could pray for them, many would comment, “You mean God would hear if I prayed. You mean He cares.” They were surprised that God would be concerned for their pain and struggles. They were encountering a God whose very nature was to “defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.” He rescues the weak and the needy; 
delivers them from the hand of the wicked. (Ps.82: 2-4)

Compassion was what motivated Jesus in His ministry. The disciple Matthew having observed Jesus firsthand writes in 9:36, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” When He healed, it was because He was moved with compassion (Matt. 20:34, Mk. 1:41, 9:22) When He taught using parables, Jesus spoke about the compassion a father felt towards a rebellious son (Lk. 15:20). The Greek word is splanchnizomai and literally means, “to be moved in the inward parts.” It connotes a strong physical and emotional reaction, “a gut wrenching response.”[4] Unfortunately the word “compassion” has come to mean feeling sorry for someone or a mental attitude of pity at someone’s misfortune. The word splanchnizomai only occurs in the Gospels and is only used to describe Jesus’ reactions. “It is used…to describe the attitude of Jesus to people defined as the [multitudes] and the action that ensues from that attitude…”[5]

The pathos of God is not just a sense of sadness or an intellectual acknowledgement that there is something wrong with the world that He had created. For Jesus it was a gut wrenching reaction as He saw the lostness of people, the poor who were victims of injustice, those with crippling diseases and illness, the premature death of the young, and the abuse of the human beings He had created. Compassion is a divine attribute fundamental to God’s nature. It defines Him.

[1] Moltmann, The Crucified God, 270.

[2] Personal conversation with Bruce Fawcett. The terms “preferential option for the poor” is a term used extensively by Peruvian theologian and Dominican priest Gustavo Gutierrez.

[3] Kalyan Das, Sermon preached at Botley Baptist Church, Oxford, UK on October 12, 2014.

[4] D. Preman Niles, From East and West: Rethinking Christian Mission (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2004), 79.

[5] Ibid, 79.

What is the biblical narrative?

From “Compassion and the Mission of God: Revealing the Hidden Kingdom” by Rupen Das .

Most people find meaning in life as they discover their place within a narrative that they feel explains the world and life for them. In the pluralistic world we live in, there are competing narratives about the meaning of life and about our relationship and obligations to society. Most of these narratives are usually not communicated through a comprehensive philosophical presentation, but through the exploits of heroes and role models, through parables, stories and folk wisdom, through advertisements, commercials and TV sitcoms, and occasionally through religious education. They are the tools and vehicles through which ideas and values are communicated. Philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb author of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbably writes, “Metaphors and stories are far more potent (alas) than ideas; they are easier to remember and more fun to read…Ideas come and go, stories stay.”[1]

While narratives have their limitations because they tend to simplify reality rather than explain its complexity, narratives are important and powerful because they are able to embody ideas within real contexts and thereby giving meaning to events in history and in life. Canadian sociologist at the University of Calgary, Arthur Frank, writes about how stories influence and shape human behavior.

Stories animate human life; that is their work. Stories work with people, for people, and always stories work on people, affecting what people are able to see as real, as possible, and as worth doing or best avoided…. Human life depends on the stories we tell: the sense of self that those stories impart, the relationships constructed around shared stories, and the sense of purpose that stories both purpose and foreclose.[2]

Unfortunately narratives are viewed as an inferior form of communicating truth in our technological age. Professor of homiletics, Paul Borden writes, “Our literate technological culture has convinced us that truth cannot be communicated [through stories]. Stories may be used to illustrate truth but not communicate it…While analytical and logical presentations are sometimes required and beneficial, the assumption behind such presentations is often one of disdain for narrative as the means for communicating major ideas…However, more people in culture are influenced, not by papers and books by philosophers, ethicists or commentators, but by the artistic communication of their ideas in the media…In other words, it is the stories and ideas taught by stories that influence people…”[3] Is it any surprise that a major form of communication in the Bible are narratives and stories.[4]

When it comes to the narrative of the Bible as a whole, there are different understandings of what the larger narrative of the Bible is. Some focus on the issue of justice and the theme of God liberating people from social and economic bondage. Others focus on a God who blesses, heals and prospers. Yet others focus on the eternal dimensions, specifically life after death. Many focus on the love of God, and God wanting to fulfill us and make us everything that we were intended to be, in the process freeing us from our psychological bondages. The Biblical narrative is often understood as having four parts – creation, fall, redemption and new creation. Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen offer the Biblical narrative as a six-act drama: creation, fall, redemption started with Israel, redemption accomplished in Christ, the church, and the final consummation.[5]

Is there a larger narrative about a Creator God redeeming not just human beings but all of creation; where history and time have a purpose “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Eph. 1:10) and that there will come a time when it will be said, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever.” (Rev. 11:15) Is not the Biblical narrative about the eternal King who is the Creator, and about His Kingdom? The issues of justice and liberation, redemption, blessings, the love of God, hope, eternal life and wholeness in this life, are all realities of the Kingdom of God and not separate narratives. It is critical to understand this, because the narrative provides the context for the truth to be understood and then communicated. American theologian Alan E. Lewis wrote, “narrative is now being tested as theology’s starting point, in response to which, and in reflection upon which, concepts, doctrine, and prescriptions for action may subsequently be constructed.”[6]

In the midst of the discussion of the Biblical narrative, it is important to remember who the Narrator is, even as He speaks through the limitations and individuality of the human writers. The Biblical narrative is not only unique in that it addresses the issues of evil and injustice, but is all the more astounding as it gives meaning to an absolutely magnificent, incredibly beautiful and terrifying universe. It is the story of a Creator, of love spurned, redemption and second chances. It describes justice and judgment, and the intriguing possibility of forgiveness. It is a story of an eternal Kingdom and its King. This narrative is not a fairy tale or a Russian novel grappling with the existential questions about life and society. Instead, it is the history of time. Brian Wicker writes, “The claim to be able to tell such a story amounts to the claim to be in the position of God.”[7]

The Annales School is a style of historiography developed by 20th century French historian Fernand Braudel and others that studies long-term social history referred to as la longe duree. Rather than focusing on “episodic events or the public deeds of Great Men”,[8] they pioneered an approach that looked at the influence of geography, material culture and the psychology of the period on history. William Dever, professor of Near Eastern archeology at the University of Arizona writes, “They looked rather at history as the result of cultural adaptation to the “deeper swells” of changing natural conditions over the millennia.”[9] Too often the study of Scripture has focused on narrow and specific issues, or on individuals and heroes without understanding the larger narrative of God’s work, as well as the history and the context of the Bible. This book will revisit some of the biblical narratives to try and understand where the poor and the broken fit within the economy of God and why. Understanding this will provide the basis for a theology of compassion.

[1] Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The impact of the highly improbable, (New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2010), xxxi.

[2] Arthur W. Frank, Letting Stories Breathe: A Socio-Narratology (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2010), 3.

[3] Paul Borden, Is There Really One Big Idea in That Story? In “The Big Idea of Biblical Preaching”, ed. Keith Willhite and Scott M. Gibson (Grand Rapid: Baker Books, 1998), 68.

[4] For example, Klyne Snodgrass estimates that more than one-third of the teaching material recorded in the synoptic Gospels are parables. Klyne Snodgrass, Stories With Intent: A comprehensive guide to the parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 22. (Snodgrass 2009)

[5] Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics, 2004), passim.

[6] Alan E. Lewis, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001). 10. Lewis writes about the impact of narrative theology. “On the surface at least, this is, therefore, an inauspicious, even perilous, moment for theologians of many varieties and all confessions to agree that it is precisely the genre of the story, or narrative, upon which they should concentrate their analysis of how truth is conveyed, and with which they should begin their attempts at communication… “Stories” have recently emerged in much theology as the very means by which the truth of God is understandably received and effectively passed on by the community of faith.” Ibid, 10.

[7] Brian Wicker, The Story-shaped World: Fiction and Metaphysics: Some Variations on a Theme (Notre Dame: University Press, 1975), 101.

[8] William A. Dever, Who Were The Early Israelites And Where Did They Come From? (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 133.

[9] Ibid, 113.

Reflection – The Fourth Sunday in Lent

Lenten Scripture Readings for the week: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3: 14-21

I don’t know whether because it’s the fourth week in Lent or that I have a growing awareness of the frailty of human life, I am becoming increasingly aware of grace – the need for unmerited favor from God, and going against every independent streak in my personality, the need for unmerited favor and help from others also. Mark Galli recently wrote, “To know and bask in grace is to relinquish control. To admit we’re not in charge and never have been.” Grace is woven throughout this week’s Lenten reading.

In the desert, the people rebelled against God, yet He provided them a means of grace so that they may live. The passage in Psalms describes the people as fools who suffered because of their rebellious ways and disobedience. Inspite of that when “they cried to the Lord in their trouble…he saved them from their distress. He sent out his word and healed them; 
he rescued them from the grave.” The passage in Ephesians describes a God who is rich in mercy, who saves us by grace and makes us alive. He shows us favor, which we do not deserve. Grace is not just about forgiveness. It is also about experiencing the favor, help and the presence of God in the midst of frailties and desperate times.

A true experience of grace is transformative – that when I am unable to cope anymore, somebody steps in to help, resolve my problems, and provides me a way out of the mess that I am in; when desperate prayer is answered and God steps. In that moment, the gnawing fear, anxiety and a sense of helplessness are suddenly transformed into a lightness and joy in our spirits that spontaneously burst forth into praise. The Psalmist in today’s reading writes, “Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for mankind. Let them sacrifice thank offerings
and tell of his works with songs of joy.”

However, the experience of grace and God’s unmerited favor is not just a blessing that I hoard for myself, or something that we as a church limit to only people who belong to our community. Grace and compassion go together. The grace that we experience we extend to others. It is a way of living life.

The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky tells the story of Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin, a descendant of an old Russian noble family, who supposedly suffered from epilepsy and other mental weaknesses. As he returns home from his treatment in Switzerland, he is immersed into a society that is obsessed with power, greed and sexual conquest. Relationships are destructive and are scarred by manipulation and the abuse of power in every way possible. Maybe because of his mental challenges, Myshkin is a simple soul, in a sense naïve, and as a result trusting. His goodness and his ability to extend grace to various people have no place in the midst of the ugliness of such a society, and he is labeled an “idiot”. Jill Carattini describes the impact of Myshkin.

Myshkin’s inclination is to help rather than to harm, to give mercy rather than malice, forgiving again and again, though surrounded by people who do not.  In fact, it is this group who tirelessly labels Myshkin the “idiot” because he refuses to participate in the disparaging and destructive ugliness of their own ways but instead takes what is cruel and repulsive in them and dispels it.

Such a life is countercultural and demonstrates an alternative to ugliness, manipulation, cruelty, revenge, and death. The story of Myshkin is a parable. It is unrealistic to believe that being able to extend grace and show compassion as Myshkin did is humanly possible. It requires a transformed life for love to not be egocentric but be driven by grace and compassion. Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall writes, “Trust in God then frees us sufficiently from self to make us cognizant of and compassionate in relation toward the other – in particular, the other who suffers, who is hungry and thirsty, who is imprisoned; the other who “fell among thieves”; the other who knocks at our door at midnight in need.”

Maybe this is what Eph. 2:10 refers to as good works, that as we experience the grace of God, we are now able to extend grace and compassion to others.

Glimpses from the Syrian Crisis: Impact of the Local Church Showing Compassion

What would happen if a local church were to reach out in compassion to those in need as part of who they are, and not just be a closed community that looks after their own well-being. As the Syrian crisis escalated and Lebanon became inundated with refugees, a small group of churches decided to reach out to the most vulnerable among them.

The challenge for the Church throughout history has been to try and find a balance between ensuring that the faith of the community survived, and engaging with the world around them in meaningful ways. Jürgen Moltmann, the German theologian at the University of Tubingen, describes the struggle between identity and relevance that the Church in every generation and in every country faces. The struggle is for the church to constantly define and protect its identity, which is often defined by its history, in the midst of competing and changing values in the surrounding cultures, and threats from the political context. Unfortunately, this causes the church to be inward looking and thereby loosing its relevance. However, the process of remaining true to what it means to be a people of God and followers of Christ, while engaging with the community and finding ways to be relevant, will change the church.

The tension between survival, faithfulness and relevance is still very much as the core of how churches in Syria and Lebanon are engaging with the Syrian crisis. Because of the existential threats that Christians and churches feel, many of the historical churches through their denominational relief departments provide assistance to their members who have been displaced or are in need. Some of the local Protestant Churches, on the other hand, have seen this moment in history as a strategic God given opportunity to move from the margins of society (being considered latecomers in the social and religious landscape), by becoming places of compassion and having an influence with the Gospel within the larger social context.

Lessons about the Role of the Church

Over the past sixty years the local church has been mostly marginalized in matters related to evangelism, missions, church planting, or ministries of compassion such as relief and development. As a result, specialized agencies have evolved to handle these efforts. As the political and social events unfolded in the region, there was an urgent need to rethink the understanding of “church” in order to respond effectively. The local church, as it had evolved over time, presented significant barriers in moving beyond its walls to engage with those not part of its community. There was a need to interpret and define a place and a role for the local church within the larger context of society. There are a number of lessons we (at the Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development) are learning on how local churches can become places of compassion within the community.

1. The local church is an institution in the community: Evangelicals often focus on the church as a spiritual body that is concerned primarily with the after-life. There is no doubt that the Church, the Body of Christ, is a link between the physical and spiritual realities. What is not properly understood is the fact that a local church is an institution in the community. John Inge, Bishop of Worcester (UK), writes about a Christian theology of place.[1] Places and communities are integrally linked, which together build the identity of the other. A local church is part of the community and together with other institutions in the community helps create the community’s identity. The church exists in a specific physical and social place for a purpose. If this holds true, then the local church has obligations, as do other institutions, to the community in which it exists.

The local church as an institution in the community naturally has visibility, history,   credibility and relationships. As a part of the community, it is a natural and logical place from which a relief project can be implemented, as long as there is no conditionality or manipulation using the aid that is provided. The local church needs to move from its understanding of being an exclusive club with rigorous entry requirements, to being a place where compassion is expressed and experienced by any one in need.

2. A local church needs to be a church and not an NGO or a social service organization: Many Christian NGOs and donors that seek to work with and through local churches, unintentionally turn these churches into social service organizations through their operating and management practices, requirements and restrictions. A local church is a worshiping community, with preaching, teaching, discipling, counseling, praying, and assisting those in need, “for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” (Eph. 4: 12-13). Through all of these activities, the local church is to be salt and light in the community.

 Well-intentioned donors, because of historic precedence, require churches receiving their funding to not be involved in evangelism or any form of proselytism, or in any other spiritual activity during the period when aid is being provided. This is based on an international humanitarian standard called the Red Cross Code of Conduct. They feel that it would be manipulative because of the power dynamics involved between those providing the aid and the beneficiaries.

The reality is that power dynamics are a part of every human relationship; eliminating them is neither realistic nor possible. However, they can be managed and their impact minimized. The fundamental issue in being able to manage the power dynamic is that there should be no conditionality to the aid as it is being provided, nor should there be manipulation by those providing the aid. The local church needs to continue to be a church and not morph into a social service agency, not forgetting that helping those in need is one of its functions among all the others.

3. The local church needs to also minister to those outside its community: Describing the structure of tribal and sectarian societies in the Arab world, Ibn Khaldun, the 14th century North African Arab historian and father of sociology wrote, “Only tribes held together by group feelings can live in the desert…” as the group ensured the survival and well-being of the individual. Tribes were very much inwards looking, safeguarded their wealth, and took pride in their heritage and identity. Compassion was only shown towards those who belonged to the tribe. Blessings and benefits were only for those who were part of the tribe. The tribal god was for their blessing and protection only and not to be shared with anyone else. This tribal mentality continues to define the religious landscape of the Middle East today. Each religious groups tries to take care of its own. Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf described such attitudes within the church as exclusion and embrace (also the name of his book[2]).

The inherent question is, who is the local church excluding and whom should it be embracing? The impact of reaching beyond one’s communal and social boundaries cannot be diminished. An often-heard comment from many Muslim families receiving food aid from churches for the first time was, “But you know we are Muslims?” The impact of showing compassion to the outsider, one who does not belong, is an absolutely radical statement by the local church.

4. The local church needs to partner with others within the community and beyond while retaining its identity as a church: Local churches have specific roles and functions within a community and are afraid of loosing their distinctives if they were to start addressing social needs. Providing assistance to those in need can be intimidating because of the wide range of needs people have. The local church needs to be a place of compassion that can connect those with specific needs with other agencies and organizations that have the expertise and resources to help. Many churches will network with other churches, but find it difficult to network with service providers and helping institutions in the community who share similar values.

5. Local churches need support in designing and reporting on aid received: One of the major complaints of donors against the work of local churches is that they don’t understand or appreciate the requirements of donors, and cannot write proper proposals nor provide reports or accountability as required. Most local churches neither have the culture nor the capacity to provide what donors need, in the format that they need it. One of the most significant lessons learnt through the Syrian crisis, is that churches need support to be able to do this.

Underlying these lessons is the reality of the Micah Declaration’s statement of purpose. “Our proclamation has social consequences as we call people to love and repentance in all areas of life. And our social involvement has evangelistic consequences as we bear witness to the transforming grace of Jesus Christ.”

Concluding Comment

Martin Accad’s SEKAP spectrum identifies a continuum of how Christian-Muslim interaction takes place.[3] At one extreme is syncretism, which seeks to reconcile the differences between Christianity and Islam; at the other is the polemical, which “adopts warlike strategies in relating to the other religion, where one seeks to destroy and uproot the tenets of another in order to replace them with one’s own.” The Kerygmatic approach that Accad advocates is a positive proclamation of the Good News. He writes, “…the nature of kerygma: God’s gracious and positive invitation of humanity into relationship with himself through Jesus.”

The local church by becoming a place of compassion is able to make real in word and deed, God’s gracious invitation to His Kingdom through Christ. It ensures that the church’s interaction with people of other faiths is not just verbal and intellectual. It moves beyond the apologetic and the polemic, and integrates life and theology into a wholeness, which most people understand.

[1] John Inge, A Christian Theology of Place (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2003)

[2] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996)

[3] Martin Accad, “Christian Attitudes Towards Islam and Muslims: A Kerygmatic Approach,” in Toward a Respectful Understanding & Witness Among Muslims, edited by Evelyne A, Reisacher (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2012)

The Promise in Advent

As I have listened to story after story from Syrian refugees of heart breaking cruelty, violence and indiscriminate killing, of towns and villages destroyed, and of families torn apart, I find myself sickened by what the world is today.

It is strange that Simeon and Anna (Luke 2: 25-38) are never part of the Christmas story played out every year in church pageants across the world. Yet, it is their excitement when they saw God’s promised Saviour, which brings into focus the meaning of Advent.

What is it about a small baby that absolutely thrilled them? They had waited years in the midst of the brutality of the Roman occupation, when hundreds had been crucified by the roadside for all to see, as various Jewish rebellions had tried to win freedom and failed. They had witnessed the grueling poverty in which seventy percent of the Israelites lived. They had seen the callousness of the wealthy as they abused and cheated the poor of what little they had left. It had seemed that God had been absent in all those years of waiting. Then in the middle of an ordinary day God appears with a promise. Simeon and Anna had believed that this is not the way God had intended the world to be and that He would one day set it right. The little baby was God’s promise.

Advent is a reminder of this waiting and anticipation that Christ will return, His Kingdom will be established here on earth, and there would be an end to brutality, injustice and poverty. The promise is that “every valley be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low”, every tear will be wiped away, swords will be turned into plowshares, children will not die prematurely, and that the elderly will not be displaced but live in their own homes.

There are days I despair just thinking how foolish it is to believe in something so radical when the reality around me is so hard and cold. Yet, it is this hope that is at the core of the Gospel that we share.

Living in the Saturdays of Life

Yesterday was the second Sunday after Pentecost and the lectionary readings for this week are Genesis 21:8-21, Psalm 69:7-10 (11-15), 16-18, Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17, Jeremiah 20:7-13, Matthew 10:24-39, Romans 6:1b-11.

It is strange that those who choose the Scripture passages for the lectionary would choose these verses so soon after the church celebrates the life transforming event of Pentecost. Throughout the readings for this week there are certain thoughts that occur repeatedly.

“…she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there, she began to sob.” Gen. 20:16

“Rescue me from the mire, do not let me sink…Answer me Lord, out of the goodness of your love…” Ps. 69: 14, 16

“Hear me, Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy…” Ps. 86:1

“Why did I ever come out of the womb to see trouble and sorrow and to end my days in shame?” Jer. 20:18

There are days or seasons when anyone of us could be praying these prayers of desperations, when the darkness is overwhelming and we wonder if the confusion, the pain or the sense of loss will ever end. These are also the thoughts and unspoken prayers of so many of the Syrian refugees whom we encounter.

We live in the “in-between times”, when the Kingdom of God has come but not yet manifested in all its fullness, when the reality of evil is still only too real. So many days feel like the darkness and disillusionment of the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

I have lately been reading Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall (The Cross in our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World) and American theologian Alan E. Lewis (Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday). Alan Lewis brings poignancy to his writing as he lost his battle with cancer while writing about living in Holy Saturday and not experiencing the reality of Easter Sunday and the healing promised in the Kingdom of God. He died believing in the promise of the resurrection and that he would experience life again as never before.

On that first Good Friday the disciples had no knowledge that there was going to be an Easter Sunday. Their teacher, whom they had come to know as the Lord, had died on the cross. With His death, their dreams and hopes of a better world and the coming of the Kingdom shattered. It is only later that they understood the meaning of the Cross as being the means of redemption and forgiveness of sins. They were desolate and mourning that first Saturday after Good Friday. It is only in this context that the completely unexpected, stunning, and unbelievable experience of the resurrection for the disciples on Sunday morning can be understood.

This week’s readings remind us again that so much of life is lived in the Saturdays of the salvation narrative, when dream, hopes and parts of our being may have died. However, unlike the disciples on that first Saturday who felt abandoned, God identifies Himself in Christ as being with us (Immanuel) and says that He will never leave us or forsake us. The people we minister to – the poor, the refugees, the migrant workers, the abandoned women and children – understand the Good News as the fact that God cares about their lives. The Good News that Christ has conquered sin and death and offers forgiveness and that they need to repent, has little meaning for them, when in fact they feel that they have been sinned against and experience the full brunt of evil in society. I am often ashamed that I have forgotten how life giving the reality of the presence of Christ is when I see the desperate refugees who have experienced unspeakable horrors, hear about a God of who cares for them and hears their prayers through Christ. The transformation and awe is so visible in their faces and when they speak about the God they have encountered.

It is only as they experience this reality of God’s presence and caring, do they begin to dream and hope again. Unlike the disciples who did not know that there would be an Easter Sunday, we know that there is a future because of the resurrection. The promises of Easter Sunday for new life and a new beginning come into focus, that one day in the social, economic and political order of society there will be justice and peace – the promise of the Kingdom of God. They look forward to the day when, “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever.” (Rev. 11:15)

The readings this week don’t end with the sense of desolation that the Saturday of the salvation narrative speaks so eloquently about through its silence. In every instance there is a resurrection, with God reappearing. By that simple act He affirms the worth of each individual to Him.

“God heard the boy crying…” Gen 21:17

“The Lord hears the needy and does not despise his captive people.” Ps. 69:33

“But you, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.” Ps. 86: 15

“He rescues the life of the needy from the hands of the wicked.” Jer. 20: 13b

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” Matt. 10:29-31

“We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” Rom. 6:4