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Church, Culture, Mission, Poverty, Spirituality

The Poor as a Point of Meeting

“Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God.” Matthew 5:9

A few years back in Kolkata, I was working at Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying where I met another American who had just finished his doctorate studies in Ireland. The theme of his studies was the politics of peace. His desire was to work with the United Nations for the establishment of peace policies, but he wanted to come to India to get some experience working with people. I thought that India was an interesting place for him to come because of the dire poverty, the threat of different forms of violence, and the variety of faiths, cultures, languages, and histories. I asked him if in his doctorate studies he had ever seen a place where policy-making had successfully created peace. He said that policy-making never created peace; it could only create space for dialog or create structures that maintain peace.

I told my new American friend about an organization that I had visited a day earlier called L’arche that cares for people with handicaps. I told him that it was a hopeful model of people from different backgrounds living together in peace. Though the organization was founded by Christians, they accept people from different faiths, and in India that means people from the Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and Christian faiths as well as others. The name of this particular home was appropriately called Asha Niketan “Home of Hope”, and that is what I saw it to be. There people came together each day in prayer to be closer to God and to serve those with handicaps. Though we may criticize the lack of persuasion to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, the community exists in self-giving love. There they make peace. They do not curtail conflicts in the name of peace, but they work through them for the sake of peace. That is because peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of justice and love. And love, justice and peace are fruits of the Spirit and not the fruits of policy-making.

At the L’arche community, it is evident that the poor have the potential to be a point of meeting for people of diverse cultures, beliefs and histories to come together and serve on their behalf. In a world where violence breeds violence, the poor give us the opportunity to lay down our weapons of destruction and to pick up tools of service. The weakest and most vulnerable provide a place where we can come together, and they show us the potentiality of striving for peace, justice and love. As Christians, we are called to love the poor. But we are not so naive to think that the poor can be separated from the world in which they live – a world of godlessness and idolatry. As we love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and as we minister to the distressing disguise of Jesus in the poor, we must soberly engage the whole world with all her “regimes of truth.”

Mahumut Aydin said, “[I]n a globalized world, the duty of adherents of different religious traditions should not be to claim the superiority of their own religious tradition as an a priori entity, but to show in practice how much their faith brings liberation to the poor and how much it contributes to the development of the common good” (“Globalization and the Gospel: A Muslim View”). Many of those living in pluralistic societies share this view and see it as a way in which we can live together while keeping “our religion” private. Though Aydin is saying something important, his statement cannot be normative for the fundamental motivations of the Church’s mission.

We do agree with Aydin that liberation of the poor does point to faith. We recall that throughout Jesus’ life, He pointed to the liberation of the poor as a sign of the coming Kingdom and to point to His Sonship (Luke 7:19-22). Likewise, faith in God does develop the common good. When the God of love indwells His people, His people love. Where His Kingdom is, the world cannot escape the goodness of God. That is why Jesus says that He causes the sun to rise on both the evil and the good (Matt. 5:45), and it is not insignificant that the evil are mentioned before the good.

We must also recognize that Aydin is correct in saying that the integrity of our Christianity can be measured by our relationship with the poor. Jesus says that “Whatever we do to the least of these, we do it unto Him.” If we are not serving the least of these, how are we being Christian? James reminds us that true and pure religion is this: ministering to the orphans and widows and remaining pure in the world.” If we – you and me and not just the institutions to which we belong – are not ministering to the defenseless and marginalized, how is our religion true? One does well to remember that religion (religio) means “to bind” in Latin. This term can have two diametrically opposing connotations: bonding or bondage. When we bond with the poor through solidarity and service, our religion is true; when our religion simply becomes a worldview that saves us or legitimizes our lifestyles, we live in bondage.

We can also follow Aydin in affirming that Christianity is not a religion of superiority. Christ leads us to seek the last place, even the place of death. We are not called to what the world sees as victory but to what it terms victimization. In 2 Corinthians 4, Paul outlines how our faith is victorious when it is vulnerable. Unfortunately, we usually reject this place of vulnerability. Desmond Tutu said, “I fear that we have all been so seduced by the success ethics that we have forgotten that in a very real sense the church was meant to be a failing community.” The missioligist David Bosch said, “A church which follows the model of the victim-missionary is one that is called to be a source of blessing to society without being destined to regulate it. It knows that the Gospel ceases to be Gospel when it is foisted upon people.” At the same time, we believe in Jesus Christ because He is worth believing in. We therefore can stand before the world with what Lesslie Newbigin terms “proper confidence” which is a firm commitment to truth. 

As we reject the world’s terminology of superiority and power, so we must be critical about legitimizing our faith through our practice or, as Aydin puts it, “to show in practice how much their faith brings liberation to the poor and how much it contributes to the development of the common good”. Of course, faith and practice are intricately related. Christian belief normatively shapes Christian practices, and engaging in practices can lead to the acceptance and deeper understanding of these beliefs. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Only the obedient believe, and those who believe are obedient” (The Cost of Discipleship). But we must ask with Miroslav Volf, “What grounds what: belief or practice?” (Practicing Theology). Is our service among the poor rooted in our faith in God, or is our faith in God rooted in our service among the poor? Subordinating beliefs to practices, as contemporary popular and academic culture does, leads to the completely functionalizing of beliefs. We as Christians must realize, as Volf asserts, that “adequate beliefs about God cannot be ultimately grounded in a way of life; a way of life must be grounded in adequate beliefs about God.” We identify with God through beliefs, and we encourage practices for the sake of God (Col. 3:23, 24).

Because belief has priority, we must concern ourselves with the disputed truth claims about God and that unambiguously includes the “regimes of truth” of other faiths and ideologies. That means that as we go into the world to preach Good News to the poor, we engage other claims to truth. If we detour these truth-claims, we are not faithful to truth but permissive of lies, and we are not makers of peace but accomplices of injustice. All regimes of truth are critiqued by the Truth which we come to know in the person of Jesus Christ. Truth is a person which demands that we be personally involved. “Truth, then, is available only to the one who is personally committed to the truth grasped. Knowing cannot be severed from living and acting, for we cannot know the truth unless we seek it with love and unless our love commits us to action” (Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence). In response to Aydin that means that we cannot separate our faith and action at any point and that our service (truth-commitment) to the poor is rooted in our belief in God (Truth) who loves and identifies with the poor.

How, then, do we engage the world? How do we come together as human beings to serve other human beings? How do we minister among the poor? How do we become peacemakers? How do we affirm the truth within diverse beliefs while critiquing the false truth claims? I do not want to offer any simple answers to these questions, but I want to provide a platform from which we can respond.

The poor can be a point of unity. When we put aside our own initiatives and selfish motivations, we can come together for the sake of the Other. We can do this together with people from other denominations and religions. Often, in our ministry among the poor, we have had non-believers work alongside us. They are not defining our motivations or direction, but they are participating in this work which we pray is bringing glory to God. Here we are not accentuating our differences but celebrating our common humanity. Behind this base of relationship lies a theology of creation. The Bible tells us that we are all created in God’s image. Yet, we are not primarily looking at our commonness as humanity; rather, we are looking together at the God in whose image humanity was created. Monotheism led to the concept of a single humanity. This is the God of whom it is said, “Hear o Israel, the Lord your God is one.” The one God in whose image humanity is created intrinsically links every person to every other person. But, as I said earlier, this does not mean that we blindly accept one another’s beliefs. What it does mean, in effect, is that we have created a point of meeting where we can mutually challenge one another.

360673052_74314353c4The poor can be an instrument through which God makes Himself known. Some theologians use the phrase “epistemological privilege of the poor” to describe the ability of the poor to understand and receive the gospel. To the poor, the Gospel really is Good News. Likewise, God often speaks and makes Himself known to the non-poor through the poor. Here we recognize a theology of the Spirit of Jesus. When we witness the injustice that the poor suffer, we can find hope in the God that is actively championing their cause. I know some non-Christians who are fervent advocates for the poor. As Christians, we can recognize and affirm the Spirit of Christ that moves beyond the edges of the Church into the world for which He died.

We can come together with all humanity to serve the poorest and weakest. There is a humble place of solidarity in our human frailty and inability. But we cannot come together to offer simple solutions. When confronted with poverty, we are confronted by suffering and dying that exposes our own powerlessness. We can confess that our solutions are exhausted. We take heart in something that Dietrich Bonhoeffer said in Germany during World War Two – a time and place where “the Final Solution” was propagated. Bonhoeffer said that Christians should not base their faith on the scientific method. He said we are not seeking after solutions to problems; we believe, rather, in the redemption of sinful, broken creation. Here lies a theology of redemption. Taking our foothold in God’s action, we as Christians can speak of redemption in the face of problems such as death and poverty. We can witness to a God who suffers with us and who has defeated sin and death.

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About Fragments & Reflections

David Chronic

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