The Least of These

The heat of Cairo in the summer can be unforgiving. When added to the smells in the garbage village, zeal melts into lethargy. I remember climbing the hill inside this garbage collectors community to the Coptic Christian monastery where we lived with a team of American college students. Just in front of me, a single donkey suffered under an impossible load of refuse, struggling to reach the crest of the only paved road in the community.

I’ve been wondering lately how the utilization of for-profit language in the world of church and mission shape how we think about our faith and our mission. Many churches and most mission agencies have succumbed to using the nomenclature and methodology of the for-profit world. Churches have employees, mission agencies are run by chief executive officers, we “brand” our church or mission identity to distinguish ourselves from our competitors, 18-22 year olds become target markets, donors are invited to invest in our ministry and the needy become clients.

At the end of 2013, Pope Francis I released an exhortation he called Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) decrying free market capitalism which he described as an economy of exclusion and inequality. In doing so he stirred up a wasp’s nest of criticism. In the document he states, “some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world.

In the 1980s New Zealanders Mick and Ruby Duncan chose to live among the desperately poor in one of Manila’s slum communities. It was not a popular road, or an easy one, but one they chose out of love for God and neighbor. They stepped out in faith and spent ten years loving their poor neighbors and establishing a church.

In the midst of their sacrificial service they experienced something which is common among our neighbors who are poor: they suffered the loss of a son due to illness.

I read Isaiah chapter 1 the other day and wondered what it might have been like to hear these words spoken about me and those in my religious circles. I attempted to contextualize some of the language for the American church and the idolatry of money. It’s harsh and disconcerting, but if you are an American Evangelical like me, this is a window on what Isaiah’s hearers may have experienced.

ISAIAH CHAPTER 1

I have spoken before about the Protestant obsession to measure our ministries by shallow, external metrics which value growth over flourishing. If I look at the prophetic announcements about what it looks like for God’s reign to come, and if I like to count things, then maybe I should start counting the number of weapons beat into agricultural implements, and the number of blind who receive sight or the number of dead people raised in Jesus’ name.

The high school where my kids attended is a little on the edge of the norm in Wisconsin. In a state that is over 80 percent white and a city that is more than three quarters white, Madison East High is mostly non-white. It is the most diverse of the city’s public high schools, both economically and ethnically. But what’s really interesting to me about Madison East is that the popularity pecking order appears to be reversed from most other high schools, certainly the one I attended.

From the Asok BTS station (Bangkok’s Skytrain) it is a short walk to Soi Cowboy. In the summer heat the frigid Skytrain air conditioning bites my sweaty skin and a barrage of TV commercials blares from screens mounted on the walls of the car, dangling before us products I have seen and some I haven’t. I don’t watch much TV in the US but I can’t recall ever seeing skin lightening commercials. Here, they are as plenteous as acne ads, as if dark skin were a dermatological illness.

The capitalist worldview under which most of the world has been indoctrinated for the past 500 years has slowly been shaping our view of people. It has also shaped our view of church and the gospel.

We used to call Tuberculosis “consumption.” It is a fairly nasty, wasting disease and can be quite deadly. Consumption seems a fitting synonym for TB as I think about the effects of consumerism today.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the consumerism of today has whittled down our understanding of God’s mission. The gospel in a consumer society tends to look like a product sold in the “outlet stores” of our churches. People are customers to whom we pitch an extremely individualized and privately owned vision for the kingdom of God and our part in it.

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