Give me neither poverty or riches…

Two things I ask of you; do not deny them to me before I die: Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that I need, or I shall be full and deny you, and say, “Who is the LORD?” or I shall be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God. Proverbs 30.7-9

These words, so powerful and so true, should be inscribed on the heart if not the wall of every Christian, especially in the wealth and prosperity of American society. Indeed this proverb most profoundly encapsulates the very heart of what have been the most troublesome and persistent problems in our society and in the church. So much of the injustice, racism, environmental and economic exploitation that has plagued our society finds its root in a failure to be satisfied with, “the food that I need.” Scripture tells us that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, and that those who desire to get rich fall into a trap and are ensnared by evil, and the Proverbs are filled with admonitions like this one against the deceitfulness, transience, and emptiness of wealth.

Despite this it seems the chief day to day preoccupation of believers (much like everyone else) is the acquisition of more and better. In fact purveyors of the much maligned prosperity gospel have built a theological house around the notion that God not only wants to meet our needs, but desires for every believer to be materially wealthy.

Prosperity preachers, maligned though they may be, are not the first or the only to promote such views. Indeed it could be said that the scorn heaped upon them by mainstream evangelicals is a bit hypocritical when one drives into the parking lot of the typical suburban evangelical church and observes the well coiffed parishioners leave half million dollar suburban homes in $40,000 SUV’s to worship in sanctuaries plush with thousands of dollars worth of carpet, and tens of thousands of dollars in the latest multimedia equipment. The rich always decry the indulgences of the poor.

Prosperity preaching is in some ways merely a continuation of what has always been latent in American evangelicalism: an equation of God’s blessing with material goods. After all the massive prosperity of the United States was built on free land (taken from natives) and free labor (taken from Africans) the use of which was often endorsed by protestant Christians.

In any event, as a observer of immigrant culture in the context of the immigrant church, this correlation has caught on quite readily. It is an unfortunately easy leap to make; the pursuit and achievement of the American dream is often perceived (if not overtly stated) to be the best way to be a good Christian. And while it is easy to see and critique it in the Asian church, it is quite apparent in other places as well. After all the Christianity they practice is the Christianity to which they were converted.

What can I say?

I find myself emotionally overwhelmed by the news of recent events at Virginia Tech. I am not sure why I am so affected by this. Perhaps it is that I work on college campuses and know intimately how much brokenness lies just under the surface of people who are among the most privileged in the world and who churches routinely ignore except to consider what benefit they might derive from their attendance at services or their usefulness in tending to the younger children in the congregation.

What can I say to something that happened just across the border in a neighboring state, on a campus not terribly dissimilar to that on which I labored for so many years endeavouring to be salt and light and trying to pastor people like the kid who was the gunman.

How is it that I am so deeply affected when he is not from “my community” except that I have come to feel it is my community in some way. Having immersed myself in the Korean American context for nearly three years, I resent the fact that so much is made of his “resident alien” status as if that somehow explains it all. I cringe inwardly in much the same way I do when a Black person commits a crime and I know that all Black people somehow bear the stigma because we share the color. I don’t like the subtext, the subversive narrative that is developing which attempts to explain the inexplicable by implying that this is somehow connected to his “Asianness” and by implication the somehow intrinsic “foreignness” of any Asian person makes them automatically suspect. I wish they wouldn’t keep bringing up his ethnicity since it seems incidental. Others talk about this as well, better than I have.

I feel sick in my stomach for the parents who, if they are like most Koreans, probably go to church even if they aren’t Christians and undoubtedly feel intense pain at the loss of their son coupled with overwhelming shame that their son would do this. I cannot imagine what it must be like.

I am angry and ashamed of my desire, when I hear things like this, for it not to be a minority. I am angry that when a White kid does these horrible things, the story is always of his or her typical normal upbringing and even thought peopel wonder why, they never wonder if it has anything to do with their race.

I think of my students, many of whom are 2nd or 1.5 generation Korean Americans, and I think of the ones who suffer from depression, who just can’t seem to get it together academically, who struggle to be at home at the university and so seek solace with other Korean Americans. I think of how they must feel, or even if they feel anything at all or even allow themselves to. I can’t imagine what I would say in that situation. DJChuang has much more to say on this.

Perhaps I have come to own this people as my people, so that I am hurt with them though I cannot even fully enter into that hurt.

Securing our lives

There is a bird nest outside my back door located atop a drainage spout. I did not notice it until perhaps a week or two ago, but only today has it affected me in any way.

Every time I go outside, or even open my back door, the bird leaves her nest and flies around chirping in the most annoying way. From the safety of the glass security door I observe this watchful creature. She observes me as well from a perch hardly half a meter above my head. Her feathers are ruffled and she chirps threateningly. Despite our comparative sizes she seems utterly unintimidated by me or perhaps she is bold because I am such a large threat to her offspring. If I open the door and venture out, she will commence to chirping even louder and flying about in warning.

The efforts of this small bird to secure her safety or rather the safety of her precious offspring are comic in some ways, but only because I know how little she could do to harm me. But then again how must I appear: diligently setting my alarm whenever I leave home, being careful to purchase good locks for my doors, thinking about what can be seen of my home from the street. All of these are efforts to secure my life.

Since I read David’s post the other day I’ve been reminded of a question asked by a ministry colleague while we were in South Africa studying apartheid and its effects on the people. He asked a question that strikes right to the heart of both mine and the bird’s efforts to secure our existence: What’s wrong with me doing what is best for me and my family?

On the surface the answer is simply: nothing. But he asked that question in the context of studying a system that radically privileged one group of people over another. Why would any White South African choose to put himself and his family at risk? Or in the U.S., why shouldn’t I choose to live as far away as possible from crime, poverty, and ignorance so that I and my family can dwell in safety?

As a follower of Jesus who believes that we ought to be concerned and involved in the tragedies of injustice and oppression in our world, I can give all the right answers to these challenges while making every effort to personally secure my life; to protect myself from having to deal with any real injustice or oppression. David said it well:

“I know how to respond to the environment, racism, and poverty but this was altogether new for me — this was senseless and yet calculating evil. This is what some people live with all the time, I thought. And suddenly, I realized what an idol security had become. Everything suddenly looked unbelievably fragile to me and a sense of worry and low-grade panic seemed to set in. Even though I could acknowledge that every day, week, month, year that we had lived there in safety was God’s providence, I couldn’t help but to be overwhelmed by fear.””

It is an understandable response and a worthy one given what has happened in his neighborhood. I am amazed at how readily I and we allow security, safety, and prosperity to become idols. These are idols that remain happily unchallenged in our churches. Oh yes, we preach about confronting these evils and we take missions trips into difficult areas, but mostly we do it from the safety of our suburban existence. Because when it comes right down to it, we only like sharing in the sufferings of the poor and oppressed as long as we retain the option of escape. And so when tragedy strikes, we are caught off guard. Things like that are not supposed to happen in places like this.

As difficult as it sounds, these moments are graces. Not in the trite way that people spout about the sovereignty of God as if rape and burglary somehow contribute to his glory. It is a grace rather that the palpable nature of evil is exposed and our flimsy and idolatrous efforts to secure our lives: by living in the right place, going to the right schools, entering the right profession, eating the right foods, all of these things are exposed for what they are. We will have as much success in securing our lives as the bird outside my doorway. If I chose, I could devour both the bird and her offspring with hardly any effort, and all her flying about and frantic chirping would be in vain.

In a bird, such a search for security is funny at best and annoying at worst. But in us, it is a stark and sad reminder of how far we are from Eden; that our only really safety lies not in security systems or gated suburbs, but in crying out to God for protection and help. Our security is in recognition of just how fragile and small our bird’s nests are, but knowing that though we will face evil and we will suffer and we will die, our God carries us through. Some trust in chariots, and some in horses, but let us hope to trust only in the name of the Lord our God.

Hierarchy & the church

 

It is a word I’ve been thinking a lot about, particularly as it relates to culture and faith.  In the context of the church I currently attend, we are discussing the book Growing Healthy Asian-American Churches.  One of the things we recently talked about was the role hierarchy places in Asian-American and especially Korean contexts. There was reference of course to the Confucian based values system that underlies much of Eastern philosophical and cultural practice and mention of how those realities continue to influence the way Asian-Americans “do” church.   

For me the striking thing has been, again, the similarity between Black church and Korean church.   Pastors within the Black church context, regardless of denomination, have extremely wide latitude in leading/running the church, especially compared to their White counterparts. I can hardly find words to describe the honor and indeed reverence in which many if not most Black pastors are held.  Even when the person himself is not viewed favorably, the position of pastor is held in very high esteem and the pastor is generally thought of as someone to be obeyed within the context of the church, and indeed often outside of it.  Their authority is very nearly unquestioned. 

Not only that, but pastors are honored and served.  It is not unusual for a church to have a “pastor’s anniversary” in which thousands of dollars are raised, extensive programming put together, and mounds of food prepared all in honor of the “shepherd of the house, the man of God.” Pastors are often treated like princes. (there is a significant downside to this which I may address in another post) 

I do not mean to suggest that Black pastors are all dictators.  To the contrary, most are not.  And there are significant institutional and even cultural constraints on their influence.  But in general they are quite powerful. 

That such a level of authority and hierarchy is a reflection of culture, I was aware.  The extent to which it is viewed as being negative (as it seemed to be in the book and as it most definitely was described as being in our class) is something different. 

Having been raised in the Black church, I am all too aware of the abuse of power, but I never questioned the validity of the pastor holding such authority.  In fact I have been at times an apologist for it, from a scriptural position.  Indeed if I were ever a pastor I cannot imagine that I would operate much differently than that.  Obviously I do not believe that pastors have or should exercise dictatorial control over their congregants’ lives. 

That hierarchy would be so questioned raises some hackles for me.  What is it about hierarchy that scares us so much?  It is not as if there is much vote for democracy in church or in society that shows up in the Bible (if the Bible could be said to advocate for any particular formulation it would seem to be a type of Theocratic socialism).  Perhaps it is simply that power has so often been abused that people flee from the very mention of it. 

But, without the esteem, influence and authority which was held by Black pastors during the Jim Crow Era, it is doubtful that the Civil Rights movement would have gotten off the ground.  It was the authority of the pastors that gave them the wherewithal to lead their parishioner’s places that many would not have gone on their own, and thereby led society into a radical transformation. 

Could it be that some Asian-American pastors need to lean into rather than running away from the cultural preference for hierarchy and lead their congregations into radical directions for the sake of the gospel? Could the respect and honor given to these pastors be leveraged for the sake of challenging the principalities and powers that are arrayed against Asian Americans and others, thereby preventing them from achieving their God given potential?  Perhaps there is a place for hierarchy and pastoral authority that does not dominate nor subjugate but genuinely leads courageously into places that many 1st and 2nd gens don’t really want to go. 

I don’t know the answers to these questions; and the issue itself is complex, but I know that simply blaming “hierarchy” is not a solution.

Future History: Part 2

So, continuing, albeit late, from my previous post…

How shall we now live given the dimensions of our culture & faith?  Increasingly I find myself drawn more and more to an essentially conservative approach to faith and life, not that I’ve ever been particularly liberal.  What I mean is that I am beginning to doubt the progressivist agenda of our age, especially the social justice wing of American evangelicalism.

It is not that I reject social justice; indeed, I believe that any reading of the gospels and the totality of holy scripture reveals a deep seated demand for justice to be implemented and to be sought after by the people of God – not just personal, but systemic.

 What I reject is the subtle substitution of such justice concerns for what might be called (and what have been called) fundamentals of the faith.  I do not think we can afford to bend out understandings of scripture to prevailing socio-cultural norms in an effort to be people of justice & mercy at the expense of holiness.

Ah holiness… that elusive word which I hear less and less of in any circle at all, but which is, to me, bedrock to our understanding of God and salvation.  God, it seems, is holy, and has the audacity to insist that we emulate him in that holiness.  Yet often social action, acts of mercy, etc., are substituted for personal holiness which, unlike the kingdom of God, is the one thing we are given sole jurisdiction over.

What do I mean?  Simply this: peace and justice in society are ultimately the purview of God who has promised that perfect peace & justice will not prevail until “the Day.”  What we have been given charge over is our own lives and bodies, which we are to purify and present spotless before the Lord.  Part of that purificaton and spotless presentation is working for peace & justice in the world and in our respective spheres of influence.

As we look towards future history, we would do well to look far enough ahead that we remember that history itself will one day draw to a close, and we will be ultimately evaluated not on the basis of how our sons & daughters remember us, but how our actions and beliefs are remembered by the chief judge.  That will certainly mean acting and believing in ways that will increasingly become unpopular and countercultural.  Just because those who have followed Jesus before us believed some things that we may not think of as being wrong, doesn’t mean that we are right.