Sarah Thebarge is a speaker and author who grew up as a pastor’s kid in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She earned a masters degree in Medical Science from Yale School of Medicine and was studying Journalism at Columbia University when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 27. Her writing has appeared in Just Between Us, Relevant and Christianity Today and she recently released her first book, The Invisible Girls: A Memoir. She was voted one of 40 Women Under 40 who are challenging taboos of the Christian faith.
KW: What is the primary message or shift in perspective that you hope readers will come away with after reading The Invisible Girls: A Memoir?
ST: The main message of the book is that there’s hope for broken people.
There was hope for me even after I’d received a life-threatening breast cancer diagnosis. There was hope for me in spite of my boyfriend breaking up with me, my good friend dying of cancer, and my church bailing on me when I needed them the most. There was hope for a Somali refugee woman and her five daughters who were on the brink of freezing and starving to death. Even after we’ve given up, God can show up in the hardest, darkest, messiest places and somehow redeem them.
KW: You have written your book as a memoir. How has the use of story been significant for engaging your readers in the message that you are hoping to communicate?
ST: For me, a lot of non-fiction tends to feel two dimensional. But stories, especially memoirs, feel three dimensional. They’re not just information on a page that you can download into your brain like a software program; they’re a doorway into someone’s experiences and emotions and hardships and growth. Because stories engage not only our minds but also our hearts, we can connect to them, and be changed by them, in a unique way. I think that’s probably why Jesus taught truths to his followers in the form of parables rather than textbooks (I guess technically I should say scrolls, seeing as how the printing press hadn’t been invented yet.)
Anyway. I hope when readers pick up The Invisible Girls, they don’t just learn facts about my life. I hope they experience the depth of the heartbreaks and losses — and the grace that met me there.
KW: What would you say is the most difficult obstacle for people to overcome in order to engage in the stories of others?
ST: When we hear someone else’s story, especially if it’s a hard one, we tend to to think we have to fix it. We have to solve the problems, untangle the knots, erase the consequences, alleviate the suffering. But most of the time, we’re powerless to do any of that. So we get overwhelmed, and we tell ourselves that if we can’t completely rectify the situation, we shouldn’t engage with it at all.
When we get caught up in the desire to fix peoples’ stories, we miss the greatest gift we can give to each other — the gift of our presence. If you look at the life of Jesus, he didn’t heal everyone who was sick. He didn’t overthrow the Roman government that was oppressing his people. He wasn’t the God who fixed or changed or healed everything; he was Immanuel, the God who dwelled with us. The God who moved in next door and lived there for more than three decades and gently loved us and promised us that he wouldn’t ever leave us alone.
And that’s what we can do for each other. There are many problems we can’t solve, but what we can do is promise that no matter how dark or hard or messy someone’s life is, they won’t have to walk through it alone.
KW: You have walked in close proximity with suffering – of your own and of others. How do you believe coming into contact with the brokenness of humanity changes us?
ST: I think it makes us realize how much we need God. When everything’s going well in our lives, we tend to take the credit for it. We think we made wise choices, avoided mistakes, or took advantage of the right opportunities. But when things go wrong in our lives or the world around us, especially when the suffering seems unprovoked and random, it makes us realize that the control we thought we had was just an illusion.
The bad news that we all have to accept at some point in our lives is that the world is broken beyond our ability to repair it. But the good news is that God is wildly in love with us, and he promises to take all the broken pieces and make something new — something we couldn’t dare to ask or imagine.
KW: What is the one thing that you believe Christians in America need to understand about their role in the narrative of redemption?
ST: For a long time I thought of God’s redemption story as a set of historical and theological facts that I needed to impart to other people — as if the only reason why the world was so broken was because people lacked certain key pieces of information.
And then I got cancer, nearly died, and ended up moving 3,000 miles away with just a suitcase of clothes. When I had given up all hope and thought I was destined to live out the rest of my life in exile, God encountered me here in Portland and infused my soul with his grace and love.
A short while later, I met the Somali woman and her daughters who had also fled their home and landed far away with just the clothes on their backs. And my instinct was not to tell them information, but to live for them the story that God lived for me. To find out where they lived, to pursue them, to show them that they were not invisible, but seen and known and loved by God and by me.
In all of that, I learned that redemption isn’t a didactic exercise; it’s a story that God lived out for us — that he continues to live out for us every day, actually. And we need redemption just as much as the AIDS patient and the Somali pirate and the leper in India and the Mexican immigrant need it.
Once we experience the irrational, unconditional love he shows us, we can’t help but go out humbly into the world and live out that story over and over and over again, so others can experienced the love and mercy of the God who so loved the world.
Jesus began his ministry in his hometown of Nazareth. A city some forty miles removed from the shores of Galilee. A city never mentioned in the Old Testament.
Because of the violent reception he received, Jesus left Nazareth for Capernaum on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and, as far as we know, never returned.
What a distinction. A city who utterly missed what was standing in their midst.
The Son of God. The Incarnation. The Savior. The Prophet, Priest and King.
The one of whom the Prophets wrote and who King Herod slaughtered so many innocents in an insane effort to root out and eliminate.
Being simply Jesus, he was forced to find a new audience—one who would not see him still as a child, the son of Joseph and Mary, the guy down the street.
In short, Jesus was an activist who couldn’t gain a following with those who saw him, not as a radical, but as an ordinary citizen.
The pattern continues.
In villages, he was rejected by common people who regretted, not his lack of power, but that he used it primarily for the sick and poor rather than to bring prosperity or overthrow the Romans.
In Jerusalem, he was rejected by the elite who saw him, not as a power broker, but as an outsider and upstart.
By Rome, he was rejected and crucified by the powerful who saw him, not as one to be feared, but as another Jewish would-be leader who needed to be made example of.
The story of Jesus is full of paradox.
Jesus is the story of unlikely power.
Jesus is the story of one rejected.
Jesus is the story of bottom-up authentic perseverance and purity of calling.
Jesus is the story of leadership.
Jesus is the picture of how God changes the world.
In matters of truth and justice, there is no difference between large and small problems, for issues concerning the treatment of people are all the same. Albert Einstein
Tamara and I keep track of prayer requests on our bathroom mirror with a dry erase pen (so if we ever say we are going to pray for you we actually mean it).
When a prayer gets answered we remove it from the list and put a check mark on the top corner of the mirror as a reminder that God answers prayer.
Well… for the last month or two we’ve been in an “answered prayer drought”. Nothing, nada, zip… if you’ve been on our board tough luck and too bad… nothing’s been moving.
That is, to say, until today. We’ve had three significant answers to months-old prayers since this morning. When it rains it pours!!
I’ll take em’ when I can get em’… there’s no happiness like seeing God move in answer to prayer!!
Guest Post by Tabitha Sikich
Book Review of The Peep Diaries: How We’re Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors
It’s only recently that suggestions like, “You’re such a stalker” and “You were totally creeping on her” have become commonplace buzz words regarding our online social habits. And strangely, today we find the notion more laughable than repulsive. In a culture that has wholeheartedly embraced the social media frenzy, being a “creep” isn’t that unusual. In fact, it’s fairly acceptable behavior. And it’s all made possible because we and everyone else have bought into the trend to broadcast the details of our lives to the world — spill our guts about anything and everything. No filter. No regrets.
It’s nothing alarming. This is just the way we socialize.
However, maybe there’s more harm involved in shameless self-exposure than we’d like to acknowledge.
A few years ago prolific writer, founder of Broken Pencil magazine, and social commentator, Hal Niedzviecki wrote a book about the “Era of Peep Culture.” Peep culture is, as Niedzviecki defines it, that “rapidly emerging phenomenon, a cultural movement steeped in and made possible by technological change.” And that movement has wrought an intrinsic shift in the way that we function as a global society at every level and sphere of interaction. “How we socialize, shop, play, date, mate and maybe even process information are all undergoing fundamental transformation.” It would have been an oddity to predict, even twenty-five years ago, that a person could virtually thumb through hundreds of potential partners — their suggested compatibility based on things like preferred hair color and a favorite hockey team.
But not only are these non-static social trends changing the ways that we live and relate, they’re also having a profound effect upon who we are as human beings. In his book Niedzviecki offers intriguing anthropological research to support such a claim. Since the beginning of our existence, people have had the need for connectedness and recognition from the “tribe.” The clannish, communal, and village-like social structures that have made up most of this world’s social history were much more conducive to meeting that human need; far better than the way communities (especially in the West) are structured today.
The in-breaking of the technological age has fueled a dramatic shift away from authentic community. A shift which has, in more than one way, eroded that innate and proper functioning of society. So we’ve migrated to the virtual world of cyber-socialization, looking there for our sense of connectedness and recognition.
“Peep culture is our twisted answer to the dehumanizing of humanity.”
But a disintegration of the natural ways of living together as social creatures isn’t the only detrimental effect that peep culture has had. Now research is producing evidence of other widespread effects on our society. For one, there has been a dramatic rise in levels of narcissism in those who’ve grown up amidst the inundation of social media. One study shows that half a century ago, a grandiose 12% of teenagers thought of themselves as uniquely important, above and beyond their peers. Today, more than seven times that many teens think of themselves that way, and double that number actually believe they’ll one day be famous.
But there’s more. Peep culture’s had an effect on our sense of self-restraint and filtration. In 2008, Niedzviecki points out, “overshare” was Webster’s New World Dictionary’s word of the year. It’s had a very real effect on our capacity to communicate and relate to one another. Just think of the last time you saw a crowd of young people all “together” — every single one of them with faces practically glued to their cell phones. (But, if we’re honest, they’re not the only ones.)
Peep has also influenced the perpetual growth of moral ambiguity within our culture. It’s easy to take for granted the details of lives that are always available to us any everyone else; details that provide a closeness we didn’t have to earn. One tragic example is the story of a nineteen year old who took his own life on live web stream while chat room participants watched it happen without any urgent sense to intervene. As Niedzviecki puts it, that’s “what happens when the banality of existence is merged with the inherent excitement of voyeurism.”
Yes, the ramifications of peep culture have been astronomical. But The Peep Diaries isn’t all gloom and doom. Before I reached the point of hurling the book across the room with repulsion at this twisted cultural phenomenon, Niedzviecki, at the last moment, swept in with a message of positivity that resounds within the halls of the peep culture’s social institution.
“…Peep isn’t about how we’re all turning into voyeurs or pathetic snoops. Peep is, in fact, a bold attempt to decentralize power, a grassroots campaign to return to individuals the capacity to tell their own stories about who they are and how they live.”
One of the greatest draws to the technologization of our society is the reality that just about everyone is online. And everyone can be. The social media age has leveled the playing field in a very real sense. It has broadened the platform, providing greater opportunity for a multitude of voices to be heard. There’s a lot of good in that.
But, as with most things, the possibility for good is often bound inextricably with potential for atrocious fallout. Our culture has changed. And it will keep changing. But because you and I are part of this culture, and are certainly being shaped by its transformative ebb and flow, it’s best we’re aware of the ways we’re being conditioned to relate to the people around us.
The Peep Diaries is a worthwhile read. Not only is it an eye-opener to the reality of our intoxicating cultural conventions, it’s also a witty and tactfully written social commentary that may leave you both humored and slightly nauseated. But the parts that have you cringing make Niedzviecki’s conclusion to his book all the more brilliant. The conclusion that there is nothing trivial or insignificant about our humanness — that the intricate details of every individual’s narrative are things worth cherishing.
Mass incarceration is an increasingly hot topic, thanks in part to Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow which serves as a great introduction to the issue. Michael McBride, Executive Director of Berkeley Organizing Congregations for Action and Lead Pastor of The Way Christian Center in Berkeley, CA recently addressed questions on this issue for Redux. This particular video gives some great ideas on practical ways you can respond to the issue as you find out more about it.
The Reverend Becca Stevens is an Episcopal priest serving as Chaplain at St Augustine’s at Vanderbilt University, and founder of Thistle Farms & Magdalene. Thistle Farms employs 40 residents and graduates of Magdalene, and houses a natural body care line, a paper and sewing studio and the Thistle Stop Café. Magdalene is the two-year residential program that serves women at no cost to them. Stevens has authored nine books and her latest book is Snake Oil: The Art of Healing and Truth-Telling.
KW: What inspired you to write Snake Oil: The Art of Healing and Truth-Telling?
BS: I had started learning about healing oils as part of my work as Founding Director of Thistle Farms and my work as a pastor. Thistle Farms is an all natural bath and body care company that employs close to 50 women who are survivors of trafficking, addiction, and prostitution. I wanted to reclaim the title of Snake Oil seller in a more positive light and take a new twist on the idea. After all, I had all the tools I needed to sell the promise of healing. I had a heart full of gratitude, a fair amount of brokenness, a healthy dose of skepticism, a hankering for entrepreneurship, and a big desire to help the underdog. All of those ingredients, mixed with being an advocate for women coming off the streets, created a recipe for writing book and wanting to help heal lives.
KW: Who are the people who have most influenced you and the work you do?
BS: I am my mother and father’s daughter to be sure. My Dad was a priest who was killed by a drunk driver when I was five. I grew up admiring the idea of him and how he died while living out his calling. My mother was a nurse who ran a community center and raised five kids by herself. She was practical and tough, and I grew up longing to be as down to earth as she was. In my work of establishing communities for survivals of trafficking, addiction, and prostitution and then establishing a social enterprise to support those communities I have blended the heart of my father and the practicality of my mom. I love ministries that are ideal, humble, and actually do work that sustains community.
KW: What do people most need to understand to be awakened to the need for their empathy and action on behalf of the hurting?
BS: I think people need to remember that they have been in the ditch. We do not share the same experience, but we all have been in need sometime in our lives. We can stay compassionate and empathetic when we can fan the flames of gratitude stirred by the truth that someone helped us out of the ditch and offered us food, clothing, and love. We are awakened to action when our hearts are ready to give in gratitude with no strings attached.
KW: In the course of your career as writer and activist, what has been one of the greatest difficulties? What has been one of the most empowering successes?
BS: A while back I quit trying to differentiate between success and failure. I have gone through things I think of as utter failures only to see in hindsight how powerfully love was working through those times and that truly they were some of the richest times that I have known. One of the worst times I went through was a graduate of our community who relapsed and then was murdered by a truck driver. I thought of the whole thing as a horrible failure—a failure of my work, of the injustices of the world, of all the systems that let her fall through cracks as deep as the grand canyon. At her funeral though, I wept and was left speechless by the thick spirit of love that filled the room. I have never felt the love of God as I did in her service. It was through that experience that I decided that if that was the worst the world could offer with poverty, addiction, abuse, and injustice just topping the list, I would do this work for the rest of my life just to experience how love is powerful enough to speak the last word.
KW: How have you, and how do you hope to see the contemporary Christian culture transformed in its approach to advocacy and social justice?
BS: In the book, Snake Oil, I offer practical recipes and idealistic musings for people to integrate into their daily living. I think we would do well to remember that healing is simply a sacramental way of walking towards wholeness. Working for justice and being advocates is a powerful way to preach about love and healing. I hope we become more practical Christians and pass on these mantras:
We can love the whole world, one person at a time, but it will take all of us our whole lives.
KW: What words do you have for those who are either interested in or have been long-engaged in social advocacy and are discouraged by the daunting magnitude of suffering in the world?
BS: We are not called to change the world. We are simply called to love it. To love the world, sometimes it means that we need to change. The injustices in our world are daunting in their magnitude and depth. It is right that it humbles us—but it can’t stop us from trying to wake up the next day and love the world all over again.
“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”
[Partially adapted from Chapter 10 in Pursuing Justice: The Call to Live and Die for Bigger Things]
I have a friend in the Democratic Republic of the Congo who has spent the last decade and a half helping some of the world’s most vulnerable people. He was born and raised in what is one of the most war-torn regions on the globe today. His life is threatened regularly, and he faces the seeminly impossibly task of trying to restore villages decimated by rape, murder and plunder.
Some visiting executives from a large, well-known global-relief organization once toured the region. They noticed what a great job he was doing and offered him a position leading their Congo operations.
He quickly turned them down.
He refused because he saw that God had given him the job he had; that God had been the one to build relationships, open doors and keep him safe. He said, “I’m right where God has called me to be, so why would I go anywhere else? I don’t just want to do good. I want to be where God wants me to be.”
He serves because he loves his country, weeps for his people, and believes the only way to effect change is to trust God and the power that comes through the message of love and reconciliation in Jesus.
The way he understands goodness, it can only flow from a single source.
We know what is good and what God requires of us, taken straight from Micah 6:8—to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.
We can’t do that. Not one of us can do what is required.
We are to do justly—but who among us can do justly at all times?
And so we are to love mercy—for our own mistakes, for the mistakes of others, for every time our hearts do not match the heart of God, we need mercy.
And what does loving mercy produce? Humility.
Quite simply, we cannot be just. We have no standing before God or our fellow humans. It is only God who can make us just, who can justify us. We can’t will or act or intend or resolve or plan or move our way to being fully good people. When we try, we fail.
But when we succeed, we see, as Jesus did, God’s hand in the good we did.
What we can do is center our lives on God, as justice is centered on God, all the time and of necessity. Justice both demonstrates the need for grace and is completed by grace. Paul reported to the church in Corinth what God had told him about grace: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
We want to be good, but God is good. James 1:17 tells us that “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”
All goodness that flows into our world flows from God.
Jesus was once approached by a man who asked, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered.
“No one is good—except God alone” (Mark 10:17–18).
Jesus, the most upright and good person ever to live, didn’t allow people to call Him good. Instead, He pointed back to His Father.
It is my prayer for all of us that this truth would transform the way we inhabit our lives. God does not call us to create our own goodness out of thin air, as if justice were something we could acomplish with a checklist and a bit of hard work.
Instead, God calls us to listen. The source of all goodness will surely have something to say about injustice. Then he calls us to obey. That is what it means to give our lives away. I pray each of us will have the faith to do this, on behalf of others and for the glory of God.
Peter Greer is president and CEO of HOPE International, a global nonprofit focused on Christ-centered job creation, savings mobilization, and financial training. Peter coauthored the first faith-based book on microfinance, The Poor Will Be Glad: Joining the Revolution to Lift the World Out of Poverty, and recently released The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good. Peter blogs at www.peterkgreer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @peterkgreer.
KW: Tell me about some of the experiences that led you to realize there were spiritual dangers to doing good.
PG: One evening after the kids were in bed, my wife Laurel said one of the most frightening sentences I have ever heard: “You are choosing your ministry over me—and I feel nothing for you.”
I was the CEO of a Christian nonprofit—doing “great things for God” and “building a successful ministry” —yet I was giving my wife and kids leftovers. We were in a bad place. Unintentionally, I had turned my ministry into my mistress. I’m so thankful for my wife, Laurel, who was courageous enough to confront me and remind me that ministry starts at home.
Another experience that opened my eyes to the spiritual danger of doing good was after a volcano erupted in Congo. I went to help. Up high on a platform, I handed out blankets to refugees. And a photographer was snapping photos. But I wasn’t thinking about the refugees. My thought was, I can’t wait until people back home see these photos of me. That moment helped me see how it’s possible to appear to be serving God but actually be making our service all about us.
When our service becomes all about us, we steam roll over our families and sabotage our impact by patronizing those we serve.
KW: Your book discusses many of these spiritual dangers – what is one you’d like to highlight?
PG: Christian karma is the false belief that, If I just do a bit more, God will simply have to bless me. When cancer hits, relationships fall apart, or financial challenges come, faith is easily destroyed for people who have the faulty foundation of Christian karma … God’s not keeping His end of the bargain, we think.
A dangerous philosophy in our service today, it’s simply untrue. God owes us nothing – and our service is a response to what he has already done.
KW: In one chapter, you focus on the danger of doing instead of being. Why is that a danger today?
PG: A few years ago, the ministry I serve with was thriving. But I was so focused on what I was doing, I forgot who I was becoming. This is at the heart of The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good. It’s so critical that we not only focus outward, but also inward—toward prayer, the spiritual disciplines—and, ultimately, toward Jesus.
Jesus clearly said, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” Jesus didn’t say “little.” He said “nothing.”
KW: Why do you think people are often unaware of the downside of doing good?
PG: It’s often subtle. You’d think a Wall Street investment banker has a bigger ego than a humanitarian aid worker in Africa. But I have been around do-gooders my entire life—and am one— to know there’s a desire to be seen as the hero in all of us.
It’s possible for us to be “selflessly serving,” but to be completely self-centered in the process. We serve—but we serve to get the credit for what we have done. We give. But only when our generosity is trumpeted. We go on trips. But only if we can post the pictures on Facebook.
Unless we rediscover the foundation of our service, good work can be all about us: promoting our image, heightening our own vanity and pride. Families can be neglected in pursuit of doing “great things for God.” And we can become more obsessed with all we’re doing instead of who we are becoming in Christ.
Ultimately, good things apart from a foundation of gratitude can become spiritually toxic.
KW: What encouragement would you offer for people working on the front lines, facing these spiritual dangers?
PG: I hope they come to a greater understanding of their own motives and brokenness. Even the Apostle Paul recognized, “Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me” (Romans 7:21). When we acknowledge our brokenness, we can find freedom to truly serve for a lifetime.
Why we serve makes all the difference. It’s not to gain leverage over God. It’s not for the purpose of making a name for ourselves or creating a successful organization. It’s out of a heart posture of gratitude to a God who knows we aren’t perfect, who recognizes that we are a mess, and who loves us anyway.
Our service is downstream from the Gospel message. Simply, it’s a response to God’s generosity. We forget this and it is just a matter of time before we self-destruct.
KW: How do these things affect those who aren’t necessarily working on the front lines of relief and development or other similar work, but are working out their faith on a daily basis in their everyday lives?
PG: Yes, these dangers aren’t just targeted to ministry leaders; rather they are challenges that (I believe) all of us face.
This book is a call to the larger Church to reexamine our motives and heart posture, be open, vulnerable and broken—because that is the space where we experience God and can rediscover a foundation of faithful and joyful service.
My hope is that in some small way this book will help friends to understand some of the most common pitfalls that derail those who do good, including the danger of doing instead of being, lack of accountability in the Church, not admitting our own vulnerability, moral lapses for a good cause, and Christian karma.
KW: What are some of the prevailing misconceptions Americans have about poverty and the poor? How would a better understanding challenge us and deepen our spirituality?
PG: One of the largest misconceptions we have about poverty is that it solely a financial issue. We define it by a dollar per day figure. Yet, when the World Bank carried out a study where they asked the financially vulnerable to define poverty, most used sociological terms. To those living in financial poverty, they described it in terms of feeling voiceless and powerless, rather than just a lack of material things.
At HOPE, we asked the same question to a sample of our clients. They responded that poverty was not knowing one’s strengths or potential.
This is why a handout model of charity can actually make the situation worse. Too often, charity tells the financially poor “you are incapable.” Over time, this causes even more hopelessness.
KW: What are some recent trends you’ve seen through your work at Hope International that encourage you?
PG: The Church is awakening to the power of enterprise to be a key part of the solution to poverty. Increasingly, people want to truly help people help themselves through business activity. Microfinance, microenterprise development, social entrepreneurship and impact investing are all on the rise.
We are awakening to the power of patient investment, hard work, community solidarity, all built upon a bedrock foundation of faith.
I recently shared a quote from G.K. Chesterton (the late British journalist) in a talk I was giving on community. Chesterton wrote, “The eagle knows no liberty, he only knows loneliness.”
The eagle is the symbol of freedom and liberty. It is a truly American symbol. Yet in a country that is struggling with widespread isolation and loneliness, Chesterton’s insight is important. The eagle might be majestic and free, but it is alone. Likewise, Americans might have autonomy and individuality, but we are alone. Our prize is our curse.
True community takes sacrifice, commitment and interdependence. It occurs when we use our freedom to choose others rather than choose ourselves. Maybe we should stop worshipping the eagle and realize our happiness is less tied to liberty than it is to community.
I was in Australia meeting with several Evangelical leaders in areas of justice a couple weeks back talking about The Justice Conference when someone asked me what my heart was in founding the conference.
I wrestled for a way to sum up a lot of the thoughts, feelings and intentions and answered by saying, “The goal is to try and save the American Church from American Culture.”
I’m learning that my greatest frustration is the consumerism that is such a part of American life and my greatest passion is what I believe it can look like if we truly follow Christ and give our lives away. Giving our lives away is not only the opposite of selfishness and, paradoxically, how we find our greatest joy, but also one way we acknowledge Christ (Mat 25:40) and worship God (Rom. 12:1).
The Justice Conference gets me excited because it has the potential of both affecting change in the world as well as having a redemptive effect on those who attend.
Saving the American Church from American Culture… turning consumerism into compassion… moving from selfishness into a willingness to give our lives away on behalf of others to the glory of God.
Guest Post by Stephan Bauman
The night was anything but silent.
“In the days of Herod…” So begins the story of Jesus according to Luke. Herod became King of Judea through a massacre. During his reign, He murdered his wife and his wife’s mother. He slaughtered infants in Bethlehem. At his death, He decrees a hippodrome full of prominent citizens must also die.
Caesar Augustus, Herod’s boss and emperor of Rome, was a tyrant too. Along well-traveled roads, lawbreakers and dissidents were regularly crucified. Innocent people were constantly oppressed. Young girls were enslaved for taxes unpaid.
These events were all too common during a period called Pax Romana, or “Roman Peace,” initiated by Augustus, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, the first emperor “god of the Roman State” making Augustus, the “son of god.”
Amidst this historical context, what do we hear?
Mary sings, “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.”
Zechariah sings: “He has come to his people and redeemed them..from our enemies and from the land of all who hate us…”
And a chorus of angels sing “…peace on earth.”
Three songs, each revolutionary–each a cry of suffering and song of deliverance. Mary? She could have been enslaved for her seditious lyrics. Zachariah? Executed for his. The chorus of angels declaring “peace” during the high tide of Pax Romana? Treason. Gabriel, proclaiming the birth of the Son of God to Augustus, the son of god? A coup d’état, punishable by death.
Into a world saturated with pain and injustice, a light dawns. An unlikely pair: a peasant mother and trembling father. An improbable hero: a defenseless child from the periphery. And, an impossible plan: a life of sacrificial love to overcome a world of violent suffering.
Unto us, a child is born.
This week at Antioch I started a new sermon series on Mary the Mother of Jesus. Over the next few weeks as we lead up to Christmas we’ll be looking at some different issues through the life of Mary.
This week I talked about Mary throughout church history and the development of Catholic church doctrines surrounding her. I also discussed the humble and earthy nature of Mary and the narrative surrounding Jesus’ birth.
Mary was a devout person and had won favor with the Lord. This is no small thing if you think about it.
I think we confuse the significance of Mary by misinterpreting verses like Luke 11:27-28. In this text we see an exchange between Jesus and a woman in the crowd:
As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.”
He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”
We sometimes assume that Jesus was devaluing his mother Mary or downplaying her significance. In fact, he is subtly point to the very thing that made Mary significant in the first place–her faith, humility and obedience.
Jesus’ comments echo Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel in Luke 1:38 when she said, ““Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.” [NASB]
In whatever situation we are in, when we hear God’s word and humbly serve and obey, our greatness comes from walking with God in his story. Greatness comes through humble faith and our proximity to God, not in power and strength the way the world may perceive it.
I am often asked who has had the greatest theological influence on me. As far as my Theology of Justice, it’s pretty easy. No modern thinker has had a greater impact on the foundations of my thinking in justice, shalom and the beauty of God than Nick Wolterstorff. He is one of America’s preeminent Christian thinkers and his distinctions and clarity of thought are unparalleled. It has been a privilege to get to know and interact with him. I pray you’ll catch a glimpse of his unique and significant contribution to the conversation on justice in the interview below.
Background: Dr. Nicholas Wolterstorff (Retired in June 2002) was Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology, and has taught at Yale since 1989. Previously, he taught at Calvin College, the Free University of Amsterdam, and the University of Notre Dame and has been visiting professor at several institutions. He has received many fellowships, including ones from the NEH and the Danforth Endowment. He is past President of the American Philosophical Association (Central Division) and serves on its publication and executive committees.
KW: What originally motivated you to begin writing on the subject of justice?
NW: It was two existential experiences that led me to begin thinking, writing, and speaking about justice. The first occurred in September, 1975. I had been sent by the college at which I was teaching, Calvin College, to a conference on Christian higher education in Potchefstroom, South Africa. Present at the conference were Afrikaners, along with some scholars of color from South Africa, quite a few Dutch scholars, and a few from North America, Asia, and other African countries. The Dutch were very well informed about apartheid and very angry; they seized every opportunity they could find to castigate the Afrikaners. After a few days of intense back and forth, the people of color from South Africa began to speak up. They told of how they were systematically demeaned by apartheid, and cried out for justice. It was that cry coming from those people that opened my eyes and ears, heart and mind, to the importance of justice.
The other experience took place a few months later, in May, 1976. I attended a conference on Palestinian rights held in one of the western suburbs of Chicago. There were about 150 Palestinians there, most of them Christian; and they too cried out for justice.
It was the cries coming from those two oppressed people, the people of color in South Africa and the Palestinians, that moved me to start thinking, speaking, and writing about justice. I tell the story of these two “awakenings” in more detail in my book, Journey toward Justice: Personal Encounters in the Global South (Baker, 2013).
KW: What are the biggest misconceptions people seem to have about the words justice and love?
NW: One misconception that many people have about justice is that, when they hear the word “justice,” they automatically think of criminal justice. But criminal justice, important as it is, cannot be the whole of justice. Criminal justice becomes relevant when there has been a breakdown in justice, a violation of justice; it becomes relevant when someone has treated someone else unjustly. That implies that there has to be a form of justice in addition to criminal justice, a form of justice that, when it’s violated, criminal justice becomes relevant. I call that other form of justice, primary justice. Primary justice is basic. The point of criminal justice is to maintain and secure primary justice. The relation between justice and love is also commonly misconceived.
The most common misconception is that these are pitted against each other. If you act out of love, you won’t be doing what you are doing because justice requires it; if you act as you do because justice requires it, you are not acting out of love. No doubt part of what encourages this view is the identification of justice with criminal justice. But consider primary justice. I hold that Scripture clearly teaches that love is not in tension with primary justice but incorporates it. One way of expressing your love for someone is seeing to it that they are treated justly. The second of the two love commands that Jesus issued, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” is a quotation from Leviticus 19. If you read Leviticus 19 and take note of the context in which the command occurs, what you see is that the love command is preceded by a number of more specific commands, including commands to do justice.
The main point of my book, Justice in Love (Eerdmans, 2011), is that when justice and love are rightly understood, love is not in conflict with justice but love incorporates justice.
KW: How do you see the role of justice and proper function playing out in the development of happiness and human flourishing?
NW: What one also finds in Scripture is that justice is over and over connected with what the Old Testament writers called, in Hebrew, shalom. In most English translations of the OT, shalom is translated as “peace.” I have come to think that that is a very poor translation. Shalom is flourishing, flourishing in all dimensions of one’s existence: in one’s relation to God, in one’s relation to one’s fellow human beings, in one’s relation to the natural world, in one’s relation to oneself. And over and over when the prophets speak of shalom, they make clear that shalom requires justice. Human flourishing requires that we treat each other justly.
KW: How do the concepts of art, beauty and goodness intersect with justice and education?
NW: Art and justice, beauty and justice, are often seen as different spheres of life having little or nothing to do with each other. That’s due, in part, to how we think of art. Most people, when they think of art, think of museum paintings and sculptures, concert hall music, and so forth. I have just finished the manuscript for a book that I call Art Rethought in which I argue for expanding our perspective on art; I talk about memorial art, about social protest art, about work songs, and so on. In all three of these, justice lies at the very heart of that form of art. That’s obviously true for social protest art. But it’s also true for memorial art. The point behind a memorial is to pay honor to someone who merits such honor; to pay honor to someone for their worth or dignity is to treat them justly. And as to work songs: what strikes one in the testimony of those who sang work songs while working, especially under oppressive conditions, is that it was an expression of their human dignity; they refused to be reduced to animals. In expressing their dignity, the singers were treating themselves justly.
These comments only touch the surface of the relation between justice on the one hand, and art and beauty on the other. In my home city of Grand Rapids, Michigan there is a wonderful organization called the Inner City Christian Federation. ICCF builds and rehabs houses in the inner city. And it insists that every house it builds and rehabs be beautiful—not elaborate beauty, simple beauty. It sees that as part of doing justice to those who live in the inner city.
KW: How have you seen the conversation on justice change over the course of your teaching career?
NW: When I first began speaking and writing about justice in the late 1970′s and early 1980′s, I found very little interest; audiences for my lectures were invariably small. Things have changed drastically; witness 5,000 people showing up for the 2012 Justice Conference. The attitude has especially changed among young people; I had the impression that the average age of those who attended the 2011 Justice Conference was about 26. I don’t know what accounts for this change. But it has been wonderful for me to watch it happen and to be part of it. I hear some people expressing the worry that justice has become a fad among young people. I’m not sure that’s true. But if it is, I can think of worse fads!
Guest Post by Justin Kron
Then came the Festival of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter… (John 10:22).
To most followers of Jesus who read their Bibles, it is very easy to miss the importance of what the gospel writer, John, just shared and move on to the rest of the story. But I’ve learned to stop and consider the significance of timing and location when it comes to understanding the meaning and purpose in many of the stories I read about Jesus’ life and ministry. This one in John chapter 10 is no different.
John informs us that the story he’s about to tell occurs at the Festival of Dedication, which is Hanukkah—or Chanukah, Chanukkah, Chanuka (take your pick). This might be the first time you were aware that Hanukkah was mentioned in the New Testament, but don’t be too surprised—Jesus was Jewish.
In case your Hanukkah history is a bit fuzzy, let me catch you up to speed.
Hanukkah is an 8-day festival of the Jewish people that commemorates when the Temple in Jerusalem was liberated and rededicated in 165 BC on the 25th day of Kislev (usually coinciding with the month of December) following their military victory over Greek occupation led by Antiochus Epiphanes IV, the king of the northern Greek kingdom known as the Seleucids, which was based in Syria.
In 167 BC, eight years following Antiochus’ rise to power, he attempted to eradicate Jewish worship and identity by formally imposing Greek culture and philosophy—referred to as Hellenism—upon the Jewish people, some of which was in direct conflict with the teachings of Torah, including the worship of Zeus—“the Father of gods and men.” Epiphanes was actually a self-inscribed title meaning “god manifest,” and in fact, Antiochus saw himself as a physical manifestation of Zeus and demanded that he be worshiped as such.
What Antiochus was doing is good old-fashioned colonization and religious discrimination. Many of the Jewish people acquiesced to the expansion and implementation of his Hellenization program, but many did not.
Introduce the Maccabees, led by a Jewish priest, Matthias, and eventually his son, Judah—a band of religious guerilla fighters determined to regain their freedom of worship at any cost and rescue their nation from assimilation and extinction.
The spark for their revolution came when Matthias killed one of his countrymen who agreed to make a sacrifice to the Greek gods after he himself had refused to do so. The lines in the sand had been drawn. Jews against the Greeks and Jews against each other.
Long story short—the Maccabees eventually prevailed and took control of the Temple. (You can read all about it in the Apocryphal writings of 1&2 Maccabees.)
Their victory led to what was known as the Hasmonean Dynasty (140-37 BC), but it did not cure the internal tension among the Jewish people over how Judaism and Jewish nationalism would unfold. The eventual conquest and occupation by the Romans in 63 BC exasperated these tensions even further, leading to different religious and political sects within early first century Israel, including the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and Zealots. (No doubt that the Zealots would have been inspired by the stories and tactics of the Maccabees.)
It was a divided kingdom.
And this was the backstory to the story John was about to tell.
It’s Hanukkah. It’s winter. Year 30 AD (give or take a year). The days are short and the nights are long. But for those living in the land of deep darkness, a light is dawning. (Isa. 9:2)
Jesus shows up at the Temple.
And he is asked—“If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” In other words, are you the liberating king who is going to liberate us from Roman oppression and restore the kingdom to Israel? A simple “yes” or “no” is all they were looking for. But that is not what they got.
I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me,but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. (Jn. 10:25-26)
Apparently Jesus had already answered that question and this was not the question he had in mind to answer on this day. So like any skilled debater he turns the conversation toward the point he wants to make. Something far more important is on his agenda, and it’s what eventually pits him against many within his community.
Jesus claims to be God.
I give…eternal life. (vs. 28)
I and the Father are one. (vs. 30)
A claim he would eventually back up after three days in a tomb, but to those in the crowd on this day it was “Blasphemy!” (vs. 33)
No wonder John begins his gospel account with—The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not understood it. (Jn. 1:5) Jesus’ declaration of divinity and the kingdom he was revealing is not an easy message to get on board with. Doesn’t Jesus recall what happened to the last self-proclaimed demigod, Antiochus Epiphanes IV, who turned the Temple into a sanctuary for himself? It didn’t end well for him. Physically speaking, it didn’t end well for Jesus either.
It was Jesus’ proclamation of divinity that eventually led several of his countrymen to hand him over to the Roman authorities and condemn him to a Roman cross. Jesus did not appear to be delivering on God’s many promises to eternally restore His kingdom to Israel in the style of King David or Matthias or in a way we typically understand regime change to occur, where one political ruling party is kicked out and replaced by another. But this was not the kind of regime change that Jesus was after.
Jesus was after a different regime change. He was after the regime that we set up in our hearts. The one you and I struggle with the most.
The Kingdom of Me.
Because let’s be honest…the kingdoms and the strongholds we set up within our own hearts are always the most challenging to surrender. Power. Prestige. Position. Pleasure. And sometimes we will do whatever it takes to get more of it.
You see, a heart at odds with the God of this universe always leads to self-aggrandizement. We become our own version of Antiochus. The Kingdom of Me. And the only cure to the Kingdom of Me and all of the internal and external damage that comes with it is a heart that is fully dedicated to the Kingdom of God and the Good Shepherd who guides it. The Good Shepherd who is building a temple of people and a kingdom that is characterized by shalom, sacrifice, love, compassion, justice, and grace.
This was Jesus’ Hanukkah message.
My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. (Jn. 10:27)
The Kingdom of the Good Shepherd.
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