During Lent, we commemorate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. As if it were New Year’s Eve, most Christians make a Lenten resolution, consecrate it with prayer, and stick it out until Easter. Our concern for particularity in this moment, while laudable, can prevent us from grasping — and being grasped by — a broader sense of mission. The immediacy of figuring out, “What am I going to give up?” can prevent us from asking, “What sort of person is God calling me to be within the church and the world?” The first question pivots around our personal aspirations; the second one opens up a vista of service and mission. Developing the latter theme, we might approach Lent as an opportunity to embrace the care of Christ and emulate his ministry of coming alongside and caring for the least of these.
Embracing the care of Christ can be painful, for it often requires a prior admission that we are wounded. Many recent college graduates work hard to secure employment and repay loans, only to experience job loss, a reduction of responsibility, or another economic shift causing them to move back in with their parents. They are wounded. Some 222,000 veterans have returned from Iraq to a jobless recovery, a gridlocked Congress, and employers who cannot grasp the relevance of leadership skills honed in a military context. They, too, are wounded.
Our individual ailments differ, but we share an Augustinian solidarity. The bishop of Hippo suggests that we are Good Samaritans, called to love across differences of race, class, religion, and other social realities. Yet we are also recipients of God’s boundary-bursting, Samaritan love — Jesus found us by the side of the road, bandaged our wounds, and nursed us into wholeness by the power of his Holy Spirit.
As a community whose health has been and is being restored, Christ calls us to tend to the social ills of his people and all people. Matthew 25:31-46, in particular, underscores the importance of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those who are in prison, and welcoming the stranger.
By caring with and for society’s most vulnerable members — Jesus calls them “the least of these” — we bear witness to the in-breaking of God’s kingdom in Christ. We embody his love by performing acts that immediately address the maladies of drug addiction, domestic violence, and chronic sickness. Moreover, our engagement in intermediate, systems-transforming work on behalf of the least of these — inmates, immigrants, gay and lesbian military personnel, and so on — testifies to the restorative justice of God’s kingdom in Christ.
Such care, whether personal or structural, does not itself build or establish God’s kingdom. To claim that it does collapses human initiative into divine work (making devils out of those who may oppose it for well-argued reasons) and, more dangerously, runs the risk of idolizing the stratification of power that enables such change (e.g., relief and development arms of denominations or national governments become sacrosanct instruments beyond critique). Our individual and collective care for “the least of these” represent necessary and yet feeble attempts to follow in the footsteps of our Lord who prioritized the marginalized in his ministry. Our call is not about politics, not about ideology, but about modeling the love and justice of Christ. Cornel West has famously remarked that, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” What does our Christian faith look like out on the street?
Lent reminds us that the church’s social service and justice-making efforts fall short of God’s glory, that our best attempts to repair the world are still broken, leading us to depend anew on the care of Christ. We are weak, but the consolations of our Lord are strong; through him we discover the strength to love, the power to carry on.
What is patriotism? Who loves America?
On the 4th of July, millions of patriots will wave the flag and declare that they love USA. But which USA? Sometimes it seems we love a country that never existed, and despise the country we actually have. Do we really mean “God bless America”? Or just God bless myself?
The reality is we do a poor job of loving most of America. We love the declaration of independence, but continue to live as though much of it is a lie. We do not believe we are all “created equal,” but instead that some of us are just plain lazy, stupid, ill-fit, and unworthy. We value ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ but deny it to the 49 million Americans living below the poverty line.
We rally around the Constitution but ignore its very first sentence, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility.” Have we forgotten this founding mission, even as we make false idols of our founders?
We fight to keep the Pledge of Allegiance intact at our schools, but ignore the words “and justice for all” — we like to pretend that it just says “with liberty.” We behave as though “liberty” and ‘justice’ are opposing forces, forgetting that they have always been, and must remain, inextricable allies. We pride ourselves on our freedom, while maintaining the highest incarceration rate in the world (we hold some 25% of the world’s prisoners in our cells).
We wear t-shirts with the Statue of Liberty, but bare our teeth at the immigrants she was erected to welcome. We love her flame held high, but spit at the plaque at her base: “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” But given our history, you cannot be a patriot of this country and a bigot toward our immigrants at the same time.
We declare “support our troops!” But if you “support our troops” that means you must support our young, our poor, our people of color — the populations that are fighting our wars. Yet we claim we support our troops while maintaining the systems of injustice that oppress the soldiers fighting on our behalf.
If you “support our troops,” it means you keep their streets at home just as safe as they have kept the streets abroad. It means you give them access to the homes and jobs that they have kept secure. It means you provide the healthcare that keeps their families healthy. It means if they are legal to fight, they are legal to attend school, and that you admit them into your colleges.
We wage war against those that killed some 3,000 on September 11th, but turn a blind eye to the 245,000 poverty-related deaths that occur every year. Is our reaction different because of the identity of the victims, or that of the aggressors?
You say you are afraid of those that want to destroy our country. But so am I. I love America. So much so that I will not stand for the bigots, the oppressors, and the fear mongers who try to destroy it. We need to understand that our ‘American values’ are meaningless if they apply only to the privileged. We need to make clear everything that is anti-American about hate.
We need to reframe what it means to love America and who gets to be the patriots. It is patriotic to care for our neighbors. It is patriotic to educate our children, feed our hungry, and clothe our naked. We need to reclaim patriotism for all Americans.
This commentary originally appeared at By Their Strange Fruit. It is reposted here by permission.
O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant …
It was a chilly December night in downtown Chicago, and about a dozen of us from a suburban Christian college were Christmas caroling. My best friend, Uriel, stood next to me as we sang. A few people stopped to listen.
… O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem, Come and behold him …
A black man edged closer as we sang. He seemed to eye me, the only African American in our group. His head nodded in rhythm with the melody.
… O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord!
“Say, brother,” he said, approaching me as the song ended, “would you please help my family? We ain’t got no money and my baby needs formula.”
He was probably in his 20s, but his tired and ragged appearance made him look much older. “Please, man. I need to get us some food.”
I glanced at the others in my group. We knew the safest response was to politely refuse. Yet we were Christians. Weren’t we supposed to help needy people?
“Would you please help me?” the plea came again. “Just a few dollars.”
I looked at Uriel.
“We can’t give you money,” we finally said, “but we can buy you what you need.” If the guy was telling us the truth, it was something we had to do.
“My name is Jerome,” he told us as we hiked toward a nearby convenience store. He lived in a city housing project with his wife and three kids. As we entered the store, I noticed that his eyes seemed to brighten. Maybe we’d brought a little hope into his life.
Soon we’d bought him baby formula, eggs, and milk. This seemed a fitting conclusion to our evening of caroling.
As we handed Jerome the groceries and bus fare, I noticed his eyes had darkened into an frightening stare. “You think you better than me, don’t you?” he said. “You all think you somethin’ ’cause you come out from the suburbs, buyin’ food for the po’ folks, but you ain’t no better than me.”
“No …” I struggled to find more words, but nothing came. I realized there was nothing I could say that would change his mind.
After a moment of awkward silence, Jerome grabbed his bag of groceries and walked away. Then he suddenly turned and said sharply, “Merry Christmas.” It was not a warm wish, but a condemning statement filled with broken pride.
The December air blew colder. No one said a word.
There wasn’t anything to say. Our holiday spirit had suddenly evaporated, and there was no way to bring it back.
We might have resented Jerome and felt justified. But was he wrong? We gave him a gift. He accepted it. Should there have been anything more?
That’s sort of how it was at the first Christmas. Jesus wasn’t born a helpless baby for applause. Years later, he didn’t hang on the cross for the praise and adulation — many of those he died for made fun of him. Still, he gave selflessly and unconditionally. So, why had we expected gratitude and warm fuzzies for our gift to Jerome?
Strangely enough, Jerome gave us something far better than another opportunity to feel good about ourselves. He made us look hard at our motives and gave us a sobering lesson on the real reason for giving.
We were expecting a pat on the back. Jerome reminded us of what the true reward of Christmas is all about.
This is a developing thought process for me, so please hear me out for a moment. In the heat of the current battle over health-care reform in America, it does seem inevitable to many of us that the federal government will continue to grow.
I don’t think there is an example of a democracy that has “un-done” growth. After all, it is the nature of a living thing to want to grow. This, of course, is at the heart of our nation’s present debate. How much of a role should government play in our lives? The conservatives classify big government as “doomsday coming” and proof of societal decline. The liberals, on the other hand, see the expansion of federal programs as a fulfillment of the government’s obligation to its people. But here is another take …
I’m a registered Republican. I didn’t vote for Barack Obama. I believe in free-market enterprise. I like smaller government. There, I said it. It’s out!
That said, I think government plays essential roles in any civilized society. Defense, interstate highways, basic education to name a few. And there is one more role I would add to the list. Health care!
I know we have the most advanced medical treatment in the world — and the most expensive. I wouldn’t want to see it compromised. But I have to admit that something is wrong with the picture when the working poor and a sizable portion of the middle class don’t have access to these benefits. I am coming to believe what the rest of the modern world has concluded — that health care is a basic human right. To be last in line of industrialized nations to provide medical treatment for all our citizens is not something I am proud of.
I like government close to home. That’s one reason I’m a Republican. But I also have to admit that Social Security has served us fairly well, and I have no real complaints about how my Medicare is working. Oh, yes, the bureaucratic paperwork is aggravating and I hate talking to a computerized recording, but I guess that’s not too different from the way most large corporations function these days.
I seriously doubt that health-care reform can be accomplished without raising our taxes, but, frankly, that’s one of the taxes I wouldn’t mind paying. Compared to the costly wars we have funded recently, health care seems like a rather redemptive investment.
Do I like what Obama is proposing? Actually, I do. While I wouldn’t want a government takeover of our health-care system, I do see the value in a system that insures every citizens’ access to competent medical treatment.
Obviously it’s a very complex issue. And I’d be the first to acknowledge my ignorance in many of the complicated realities of this confusing medical world. I do know, however, that it makes no sense to see my low-income neighbors go to the hospital emergency room for ailments that could be treated inexpensively in a community clinic. And I do know from personal experience that physicians prescribe expensive and unnecessary procedures just to protect themselves from lawsuits. I guess these are a couple of the reasons why they say the system is broken.
I like competition. That’s one reason I like what Obama is proposing. I think I’m ready to let the government give health care a try. Our free-enterprise approach, while propelling us to the top spot in medical advances, has failed to figure out a system that shares the benefits with the whole of society. And that’s a justice issue.
Say what you will about Obama, on this one I believe he’s on the right side. We may disagree strongly about his politics and his methods, but his push to see that all citizens are being rightly cared for — especially the poor — is a push in the right direction.
And I’m still a Republican.