Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Power, Cruciformity, and "Fighting Back"

Dear [a pastor who contacted me with concerns about my last post],

Thanks so much for the message and for your support. It means a lot, and I appreciate your call for me to remain strong in the face of adversity. I hope I did not give the impression in my last message that I am surrendering. Absolutely not! I cannot surrender; there are some places in this world that once you've been there, you can never turn back. My ministry in the city is one of those places. Having looked into the faces of hundreds of men, women, and children who are in desperate physical need and dire spiritual need, I cannot give up.

I also agree with your comments about building hate and resentment by my choice of lifestyle. I am no stranger to such activity. I've made enemies, been robbed numerous times, and even had my personal property vandalized. There is a very real sense in which it is dangerous to stand up and follow Jesus, the unsafe-but-good Lion and Lamb.

I appreciate your thoughtful analysis of my last message, and I appreciate the challenge you gave me. I understand you took issue with my self-description of "powerlessness". Perhaps my use of the term "powerless" was not the best choice of wording, but even now I would still impart the same overall message. Let me make my main point right up front, then you can skip the rest of this long message if you want. I started typing and the next thing I knew, I had a novel! ;)

The point I'd argue is this: To proclaim powerlessness is not to admit defeat at the hands of the powers that be. Instead, to proclaim powerlessness is to admit our own inadequacy to remedy the brokenness of the world by any means other than the Gospel of Christ. Let me try and explain what I mean.

I agree with you that I am not "powerless" in terms of world resources. I certainly have more resources at my disposal than most of the families I work with in the inner-city. My family even has a lawyer on retainer. So when I said I was powerless, I did not mean that I was without resources.

I could easily, as you suggested, find a lawyer and take legal action against the furnace company. I could contact my state legislators, as you mentioned, or get the media involved. All of these are possibilities available to me in this matter. In my mind, the question is not whether or not these resources exist. The question is whether or not I should use these means and methods as a Kingdom citizen.

I often wonder whether my rights as an American conflict with my identity as a Christian (in some ways). Just because I have these means available to me (legal action, media attention, etc), does it mean that I should use them? Maybe it is possible for me to fight hard to get what is truly mine (the furnace), yet still do great damage to God's plans for this ministry.

I think of a man named Boyd and something he wrote in one of his books. He made the distinction between seeking power OVER someone and seeking power UNDER someone. I think his distinction is very helpful for believers to wrestle with.

To sue the furnace company, or seek some legal action against them, I would seek power over them. I would confront them, do battle with them, and force them into submission. In this instance, I would be using power to get a position OVER them... I'd force them into submission so I can get what is mine. (Understand, it IS rightfully mine. I have, in fact, been wronged. But there is still the question of what methods I should exercise in seeking restitution.)

Power UNDER them is a different scenario. Do I have power? Yes. But should I use power structures of this world over others to make sure I am never wronged? Or use brute strength to undo every evil that is done to me? I have found in my Christian walk (and you can disagree with me if you wish) that power under others is the best model.

I know that many people see this as being passive inaction. This is not the case! It is the meek and peaceful who will inherit the earth, says Jesus. If someone forces me to walk a mile, I should walk two. If they steal my clothes, I should give them my outer coat (cloak) as well. God's strength is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). Do a search in Paul's writings for "weakness" and see how often it turns up. God tabernacles among His people and displays His strength not when His people are trying to show off their might and strength, but when they are admitting weakness... or "powerlessness" as I called it in the last message.

Jesus and Paul were not saying, "Be doormats." They were teaching that our power does not rest in our ability to fight for ourselves, but in God's ability to set things right. We have power, but a different kind of power than the world uses. So, I tend to shy away from asserting myself to set things right. Where do we get this idea of asserting ourselves and fighting to defend our rights, anyway? I can't think of a place in Scripture that tells us to assert ourselves, but maybe you can think of something to help me round out my viewpoint.

Now, I DO have power to boldly proclaim truth, yes, so long as I do so in love (Eph 4:15). I can speak the truth of Scripture with some degree of authority. Yes, I can seek justice for the oppressed. But do I have the right to assert myself and demand that I am treated right at all times? I am not so sure. If anything, I am called to expect mistreatment at the hands of others and to bear it with humility and patience.

Now, some would say that God will grant justice for the oppressed, but only if we "go after" wrongdoers through legal action, media attention, etc. And you may rightly feel this way... that God will provide justice through the means of courts and state legislators (which He can). So, the methods you mentioned could be the way through which God sets things right. I am pretty sure that is what you were getting at, right?

But, again, I would classify many such endeavors as seeking power OVER people. We must seek justice, but not by playing by their rules, or "sinking to their level" by using their means and methods to "win." Instead, I speak the truth, denounce injustice in every form, and live with integrity, waiting for God to fight the battle for me (this is not passive, but a very active way, which is different than the methods of the world). The prophets spoke out against injustice quite boldly, but they did not assert themselves in the sense that the tried to undo the wrongs committed against them. Most of them experienced persecution and unfair treatment at the hands of others. In Revelation, we see the martyrs longing for God to act on their behalf (they themselves having submitted to mistreatment).

I have power, yes, but I try to utilize it UNDER others, boldly standing opposed to evil. But I do not assert myself OVER others to reclaim what is mine, no matter how much evil is done to me.

"Cruciformity" it is called by some... living a Cross-Shaped life. Just as Jesus emptied Himself and submitted even to death, we must empty ourselves in service and love and humility, even if it means great loss and death for us.

Allow me to clarify as well, when I suggested that inner-city folks are powerless, I did not mean that they have no voice. Everyone has a voice. I meant that the voice people have has been suppressed by those in power. So, then, they don't need me to fight for them; God will see to their protection as the Protector of the poor and oppressed (Psalm 14:6; 34:6; 9:9; 82:3). He works righteous for all the oppressed (Psalm 103:6). But they do need me to shout the truth on their behalf, kind of like the prophets did. Blow the whistle and say, "Hey, world, this is evil!!!!" I like how you said it in your email, "Make some noise."

My comment about the health care system was meant to get at exactly what you were saying... that those who are in charge are seeking profit at the expense of the weak. And, yes, this will continue as long as fallen people are in power.

This is why I place little to no faith in the power of our government to fix problems such as these. Yes, the government can help, and it is a necessary component of the work we do here in the city, but it is by no means our salvation. You'd say that too, I think, that our government is not our hope. Instead, we as the church should live differently and address these problems by bubbling up from the bottom... bringing power up from under folks. Then the kingdom will spread like a mustard seed.

In a lot of ways, the government we live under is irrelevant. I become somewhat unpopular when I say that sometimes, but I have found it to be true. The Bible is not an American book, so it compels me to live as Christ lived regardless of the nation I live within. If I lived in Communist China, I would be called to live like Christ. If I lived in socialist Europe, I would be called to live like Christ. I happen to live in America... I must live here like Christ.

So, I cannot quite agree with you statement about placing hope in democracy. Yes, democracy is a blessing, and I love to operate within its provisions in this country. But I can't say that it is what I should hope in. Democracy is not necessarily a God-given provision, in my mind. In fact, Deuteronomy and Leviticus institute God's government for Israel with some socialistic tendencies (like Deut 15 and Lev 25, dividing up crops for the poor and such). The early church in Acts 2:44 and 4:32-33 seem to operate like communists (not entirely of course, but in some ways). All that to say, the actual form of the government over us does not matter much; what matters is the way we operate as Kingdom people of God within our system of government.

I don't live as a Christian BECAUSE of the United States, I live as a Christian IN SPITE of the United States. (This is not to say that I am against America, for I am not against America). Some parts of our government are really cool, and I love being able to live here. I am especially thankful for the men and women who have worked so hard to preserve the privileges and rights I exercise. But I still can't say that I can endorse one style of government as the "good" form, although some forms of government are clearly bad. Democracy, for example is good, but there are good elements of other forms of government as well.

Wow! I wrote a bit too much on the topic, perhaps. But I guess these matters take time and patience to work through. I say nothing here with final authority, so if you'd like to discuss it more, I would be more than happy to do so. You won't bother me by replying, or refuting something I say. Part of being the body of Christ is being able to disagree well. I hope I made sense, and that I was not offensive. And no, don't worry, my chops have been busted far worse than that!

Thanks again for your kind and thoughtful comments,

Peace to you,
Jack

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