I’m a bit ashamed of the Church. Oh, don’t get me wrong – plenty of churches do lots and lots of brilliant things. Frankly, were it not for the missional efforts of the Church, I hate to even think of how far under some people would have slipped. The church where I serve, for example, is a small church, but we manage to feed a few hundred people a month. We’re talking about people who have slipped through the charity cracks and probably have very few options for food left. Feeding them? That’s a good thing. A really, really good thing. Still, I’m a bit ashamed of the Church.
We’ve become a lot less than we were created to be. We’ve been told what is required of us, we’ve been given examples of what that looks like and then we’ve proceeded to do what we want to do, take the easy way out and choose paths that allow us to feel good about ourselves for doing something, but never actually making a lasting impact. At least most of us have. We feed a person for a day, we turn their power back on for now, we give them shelter for a night, and that’s a good thing… but we fall miserably short of challenging and changing the systems that will have those same people starving in a week, sitting in the dark next month, sleeping in the streets all too soon.
We’ve been told what is required of us, we’ve been given examples of what that looks like but we, the Church, busy ourselves with “the work of God” and miss out all together on the rest of the words of God. We let our silent good deeds be the end of our efforts to help, dooming struggling children of God to suffer under the oppressive and cyclical nature of systems designed to keep ‘the least of these’ in their place. We are much better and much more comfortable at giving people a hand out than giving them a hand up. Put simply, we prefer the self-serving feelings of charity to the self-sacrificing realities of justice.
Charity does help those in need, but only temporarily. Who it really helps is those of us who have a need to help, who feel it is our calling to aid those in need. Charity lets us feel like we are doing something to respond to need in a world that is overwhelmed with people in need. There’s really no risk in it and people are usually very supportive of such efforts. Justice, on the other hand, is hard. It frequently requires a great deal of sacrifice and you probably aren’t going to get a lot of people cheering you along the way – probably quite the opposite. So, most churches don’t do it.
Justice looks like activism and churches tend to shy away from that. Justice requires you to not make nice with abusive systems, to rock the boat a bit and to take a stand on issues that are frequently political hot buttons. To too many Churches, that sounds very… well, un-Church like. Too many of us think being Church means being liked and all that standing up for something means standing against something and we just don’t like the thought of people not liking us because of it.
Sure, we will stand against things that we believe have a direct impact on us personally (even though they usually don’t) – things like sexual orientation, abortion. Those? Oh, we will be more than glad to take a stand on those. But the things that effect the poor? Well, why risk having our friends think we are being “too political” or have them think we aren’t a nice, polite, docile reflection of Jesus?
Why? Because Jesus was not nice and docile – at least not the way people have come to think of him. He not only confronted systems of injustice, but he tried to teach us to do the same. He did it standing in the tradition of great prophets of Judaism who never failed to stand up against abuse of power. They risked everything. They frequently were run out of town. Jesus was hung on a cross for it.
Maybe that’s what we’re afraid of – the crosses we’d have to bear. Maybe we’d rather see ‘the least of these’ carry the overwhelming burdens of a society structured to benefit the wealthy than to be thought of as anything less than “nice.”
But maybe not. Maybe we just haven’t thought it through enough. Maybe we just need new leaders to stand up and say “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary,” with the passion and prophetic voice that Dr. King once did.
Then again, maybe we are the new leaders. It is time for the Church to reclaim the place of prophetic voice in the midst of our unraveling society. As the wealthiest of folk step on and abuse the poorest in our nation by co-opting our government (supposedly for, of and by the people) through the voice and influence of the almighty dollar, we, the Church, must reclaim our prophetic voice. We must not stop doing the necessary and much needed work of charity, but not stop there. We must push on, risking ourselves, risking ridicule, risking our places of privilege, and reclaim the biblical and prophetic voice of justice. Without justice, charity falls short. Biblically speaking, they are a matched set. It is time to let justice roll.