There is a guy that I really admire whose name is Shane Claiborne (pictured to the left). You've probably heard of him. He lives in voluntary poverty in Philadelphia and spends his time helping to feed and clothe the homeless. He has written a couple of books, and one of them is called The Irresistible Revolution, which I've quoted previously on this blog and that you simply must read. Shane is a true revolutionary who's life and ministry have brought healing and hope to thousands of people. He lives amongst the most impoverished people in the city. He helps feed as many hungry people as possible. He goes to the forgotten places, and breathes life into people who have lost hope. A couple of months ago, I heard someone criticizing Shane and his approach to ministry. The basis of this criticism was that Shane was not spreading the gospel (i.e., handing out tracts with food) in his helping to feed and clothe the homeless.
I don't understand this kind of criticism. I really don't. I don't understand the impulse to view social justice as merely a tool to persuade people to think like we do. I recently found myself in a conversation with someone who is a Christian. He had heard me talking to someone else about the issue of human trafficking (about which I'm very passionate and believe that it is possibly the single greatest crime against humanity that exists today), and he started asking questions. I thought he was genuinely curious, so I was glad to have the conversation. He asked me if I was a part of any groups or subscribers to any newsletters that address the issue of bonded labor. I told him that yes, I contribute to a couple of organizations that are focused on rescuing people from slavery around the world. He then told me the following: "Well, you need to be careful who you give your money to. Some of these organizations are just interested in getting people back to their home villages and they don't try to convert people after they've helped them." I know that Jesus says we're to be loving to one another, but I really just wanted to punch the guy in the mouth. To suggest that a twelve year-old girl isn't worth rescuing from forced prostitution if she's not going to become a Christian is absurd and offensive. I graciously told him that I would give my money to anyone who would effectively set people free.
I was recently having lunch with someone who is a Christian. He was asking me how things were going at the church where I work. I told him that I was really excited about a ministry that we had started called Oasis. This is a ministry that offers assistance and aid to people who are struggling in some way. One example of this ministry's function was this: there is a woman who is a friend of our community who works with families who are in poverty in Fort Worth. As a service to these families, this woman wanted to teach parents how to prepare inexpensive meals using only a crock-pot. The only problem was that none of these people owned a crock-pot. So, we put the word out, and the Oasis ministry collected over 30 crock-pots and gave them to these underprivileged families in Fort Worth. Now, there are parents in over 30 homes in Fort Worth who can feed their children on an extremely limited budget. After I told this story to this Christian friend of mine, he had only one question: "So, how many of those parents were saved?" I'm not sure I even fully comprehended the question. Saved from what? Starvation? From not being able to feed their children? From hopeless desperation? I'd say all of them. Of course, that's not really what he was asking. He wanted to know how many of these parents, upon receiving their crock-pots, immediately joined a Bible study and started wearing WWJD bracelets (not literally, but I think you get what I'm saying). His question said to me, "I don't care that hungry people are fed. I want to know how many evangelical points you scored."
I am so very tired of Christians expecting each other to have some sort of agenda when they help people. Is this really what we're supposed to do? When the book of James says, "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress," did he accidentally forget to add that last part that says, "...so that you can coerce them to agree with your worldview"? I never see Jesus criticizing people for not converting enough "sinners" to his way of thinking. I do, however, see Jesus constantly criticizing religious people for neglecting the poor, oppressed, and marginalized (for example, see Matthew 23:23-24, Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 16:19-31, etc.).
I just finished reading a book by a guy named Hemant Mehta. You may have heard about him; he's the atheist who sold his soul on Ebay and went to church as a result. In case you're wondering, he did not become a Christian as a result of the experiment. He did, however, write a very perceptive and helpful book entitled I Sold My Soul On Ebay. In this book, he offers some incredibly helpful insights on how churches (who claim to want to reach atheists) can best have an impact on the people who are skeptical of Christians and the Church. Mehta writes this:
“When we atheists see how a church is making a positive difference locally and globally by meeting crucial physical needs of people, it’s hard to argue that churches are not a valuable part of society or that they should not be supported in their work. In fact, I wish more atheist groups would emulate that aspect of these churches’ missions." (page 141)
He's basically saying that, from his perspective, the greatest impact that churches could possibly have is contingent on their willingness to come to the aid of people regardless of whether or not they agree with us. When we enter into a scenario to offer help and are perceived as having some sort of agenda, we actually do damage to our own cause. Mehta goes on:
“If the church seemed more interested in helping needy people, that would be a tremendous statement in its favor in the eyes of the nonreligious. And just as importantly, it would generate interest and involvement among church members." (144)
It's more attractive to help people without an agenda. It's more compelling to offer oneself simply because there is a need that can be met. You wouldn't think it would take an atheist to explain this to a Christian, but here we are.
I should say that I do not, in any way, disagree with the act of evangelism. I fully believe that we are responsible to tell others about Jesus and what he has done and continues to do. My point in writing this is not to suggest that we do away with evangelism. I'm simply suggesting that, quite often, our evangelical actions would be much more effective if we would simply concentrate on showing people what Jesus was like instead of always trying to persuade, coerce, and argue. An ironic element to this is that I have always heard Christians say things like, "Actions speak louder than words," but then they just keep talking and doing nothing. Why is it that so many Christians who say this kind of thing don't seem to believe it enough to simply keep their mouths shut and help people with no strings attached? Do we not have enough faith in the power of the act of service to do the speaking for us?
I believe that Jesus called us to make disciples. However, I also believe that Jesus called us to be disciples. And, based on my reading of Jesus' teachings, a disciple is someone who helps the poor and oppressed; who comes to the aid of the orphan, the fatherless, and the widow; who clothes the naked and feeds the hungry. Jesus did not command these things because he knew that they would be effective evangelism techniques. He commanded these things because they reflect the heart of God.
We don't help the poor and oppressed so that they will immediately believe in Jesus (although we pray that they will eventually). We come to the aid of the poor and oppressed because we already believe in Jesus.