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Compelled by Love

Guest Post by Rick McKinley

Last Fall I preached a sermon series at Imago Dei called Compelled by Love based on the text in 2 Corinthians 5 where Paul explains his ministry as being driven by the love of Christ. The scriptures always call us back to love as the starting point and the ending point of everything.

So many times we get trapped in duty, which is a place we may need to start from but it’s a horrible place to end. Jesus started with love. Love that he experienced and expressed from his relationship with the Father, and love that pours over into our lives through his death and resurrection.

What are you compelled by? It’s a tough question but one that we need to wrestle with.

There are three things that get in the way of being compelled by love: Self-protection, Self-reliance, and Self-centeredness.

Self-protection causes us to see love as something we have to go get, and when we get it we have to keep it, but that never works. The nature of love is self-giving, not self-protecting. Jesus didn’t protect himself from us; he gave himself for us. Big difference.

Self-reliance causes us to depend on our own skills and resources to accomplish the life that is put in front of us. We never end up compelled by love when we are self-reliant because we are too busy dealing with our own skills and resources. How do we make ourselves better so we don’t have to depend anyone or anything? Jesus was dependent on the Father and trusted the father with every ounce of his being. He laid down those skills and abilities that he could rely on when he took on our humanity. Jesus made himself in the form of a servant and trusted the Father to take care of the rest. He relied on the father not on himself. If Jesus needed to do that how much more do we need to?

Self-centered people don’t have time to be compelled by love for other people because they are spending all their energy looking at themselves. If anyone could have been self-centered it would have been Jesus. He was the Creator of the universe, the beloved Son of the Father, the only sinless human to ever walk the earth. But he wasn’t self-centered. He was other-centered, and that compelled him to live a life of sacrificial love.

Jesus was compelled by love for you, and when you taste that revolutionary power of love then it overflows from you to others. It builds a fire in you that burns with love for other people and compels you to love with boldness.

Antioch Internship: Application Deadline April 1st

How do you keep up the energy to run an active and thriving church?

Easy. Bring in 20-30 college interns every summer who minister, ignite and champion the mission and vision of the local church.

March is the time of year when Antioch receives applications from students spread across the country who are eager to be a part of what God’s doing here in Bend, OR. Each summer for the past seven years, a group of twenty-somethings move to Central Oregon to give an entire summer (or year) of their lives serving as part of the local church, gaining purposeful ministry experience, and being mentored by the church leadership team.

When I became a Christian as a college student while at Clemson University, I spent several summers in leadership at a youth camp in the San Bernadino Mountains outside of Los Angeles. So when we started Antioch, the internship idea was a simple way to provide a platform for Antioch to stay engaged with college students and for college students to have a life changing summer – much like the summer camp counselor experiences were for me in my twenties.

As a result, the internship began almost the same time as the birth of Antioch in an attempt to offer a progressive context where students could gain hands-on experience in ministry from a new and creative church plant in the heart of the Northwest, which is the most un-churched part of the country.

Now in its eighth year, the Antioch Internship program has been going strong and has pulled close to 200 students from over a dozen colleges and universities from all over the U.S. and Canada – many of which are now on staff at the church, and another dozen who have moved back to Bend for the sake of remaining in the Antioch community.

Amidst a generation of youth that many say is growing more apathetic toward God and his church, there are still those who believe in devoting their lives to the work of the Kingdom. There are still those who have a hunger to seek God and grow into spiritual maturity.

It’s exciting to witness, year after year, the passion and eagerness of young people across the nation as they come to be a part of as well as shape the Antioch community.

Jesus revitalized the message of God by calling and empowering youth. Likewise, I believe the energy and passion of young people is essential for keeping up the energy and fire of active and thriving churches.

Learn more about the Antioch Internship

Strong Children

It is easier to build strong children
than to repair broken men.

Frederick Douglass

Jenny Yang on What Biblical Principles Apply to Immigration

What Biblical principles apply to immigration? from :redux on Vimeo.

Bob Bouwer on the U-Turn Church

Bob Bouwer, Senior Pastor of Faith Church (RCA) in Dyer, Indiana led his congregation through a U-turn experience in 1994, shifting the church’s focus from personal preferences to biblical principles. Under his leadership and by God’s grace, the average weekend attendance has grown to over 5,000 worshipping at six different locations. Bob has a heart for reaching the spiritually disconnected, encouraging struggling church leaders and supporting third world missions. He has recently written a book with Kevin Harney entitled U-Turn Church, The: New Direction for Health and Growth. Bob and his wife, Laurie have four children and two grandchildren.

KW: What led to the writing of The U-Turn Church?

BB: Stories help. Starting a church is very exciting but is also difficult and hard. With the vast majority of churches in America starting over 50 years ago (sometimes going back hundreds of years), it is safe to say that most are not what you would consider stimulating. In fact, the following adjectives are probably more accurate: stuck, declining, rigid and depressed. I wrote the book praying that our story may help churches whom these adjectives describe because that was our story.

KW: By looking at 2 churches who experienced significant turnarounds, what are some key principles for a U-Turn?

BB: The book tells the story of two churches, one a suburban Chicagoland church and the other a rural Michigan church, and the process they went through to turn around.  God used holy zeal, intense prayer, high risks and the obstacle of overcoming people’s personal preferences vs. biblical truths to achieve this “u-turn”.

KW: How can pastors and leaders ensure that their changes and growth are led by the Spirit, not simply attempts to increase programming and numbers?

BB: Spiritually healthy pastors, leaders and servant volunteers lead churches and ministry where their by-product is fruitfulness. Numbers do matter. Each number is a soul. Each soul is a person Jesus suffered, died and rose again for. If numbers matter to God (He gave numbers in the book of Acts) then they matter to us.

KW: What are some of the challenges along the way of making these changes in a church?

BB: The challenge is change. Change is often treated like a four letter word by Christians. Any close analysis of the gospel displays change. Where there is change, there is emotion. Where there is emotion there may be anger, division and sin. However, change is a good thing. Change can bring health. The key is to change well. Address church change with the fruit of the Spirit, not the fight of the flesh.

KW: Can you share some stories of lives and communities changed in these examples?

BB: A great story: We recently launched a church site in Highland, Indiana. This was a church that was declining and stuck. They invited us to take them over (enfold) them. On the grand opening, a little boy about 6 years old came running up to an outside greeter. The greeter shook his hand and commented how nice the little boy, who was in a suit and tie, had looked. The little boy responded how this was his very first time at a church. You see, his mom and 2 brothers lived for years across the street from the church. She saw all the buzz changes going on around the facility. She thought she needed to give God a try. Just recently she professed her faith in Jesus Christ and she and her boys were baptized!

KW: What’s your latest insight God is teaching you about His Church?

BB: If it’s alive it multiplies! I believe from Genesis to Revelation God’s physical and spiritual plan for the Church is to multiply. This biblical principle is meant for individual Christians, ministries and churches. Whatever God is blessing, reproduce it. Reproduce disciples, ministry leaders, churches, prayer, etc. It’s endless when Christians get this!

The Only Thing Worse Than Bad Leaders

A good friend of mine and mentor once said, “I’m not a big fan of my peer group.”

It was a wild comment.

My friend is in his sixties, has been a pastor for some thirty plus years and is a mentor to many younger pastors—yet, he is one of the biggest critics of his peer group: pastors or Christian leaders.

I often feel the same way.

I lead a lot of people who are disillusioned with pastors and Christian leadership; and, as hard as I want to tell them they’re wrong, I think I might be just as or more disillusioned than them.

It’s easy today when the news of moral failings and ethically questionable tactics in running or growing big churches are commonplace.

My friend and I differ, however, with the typical Christian response to poor or disappointing leadership. We believe in the pastoral call and the need for good leaders, whereas the common cultural phenomenon seems to be to dismiss church and Christian leadership altogether as the proper reaction to the presence of poor leadership in the church.

But does rejecting Christian leadership really get at the issue?

I believe the only thing as bad as poor leadership is no leadership at all—just as the only thing as bad as an unhealthy family is no family at all.

Just because some or many families can be abusive, we don’t take the position that orphans should remain alone. Rather, we focus all the more on finding healthy—not perfect—families to adopt or take guardianship of orphans.

Likewise, the corrective to our contemporary frustration with leadership isn’t to do away with leaders, but to focus more intently on finding and promoting healthy leadership.

The bible has a lot to say about bad leaders—warnings and woes against them, but it also has a lot to say about working hard to select and promote good leaders.

Here are three things to look for in healthy Christian leaders:

Leaders Who Follow

One of the most powerful things about Psalm 23—the wonderful hallmark song declaring “The LORD is my shepherd,” is that David was himself anointed King or chief shepherd of Israel.

In short, David was a shepherd who saw himself first and foremost as a sheep.

In contemporary leadership we need to celebrate this type of posture more than we celebrate celebrities.

Peer into someone’s prayer life with God. Find ways of seeing what he or she really thinks of themselves before a holy God. Is God infinitely big and they small or are they distracted with the illusions of their own bigness or the grandeur of their visions for church buildings and successful programs?

Leaders Who Are Blessed

Scripture makes it clear that a chorus of godly and seasoned leaders should be behind and “laying on hands” (symbolically blessing or anointing) the promotion of men and women into Christian leadership.

What is the history of this leader?

Is there a pattern of blessing in their life? Is there a record of character that is evident to other leaders in their life, marriage and family?

As Paul argues, someone’s capacity to lead in the church is first proven and measured in their leadership within their family.

He who is faithful with a little, will be faithful with more.

Instead of charisma, it’s character.

Instead of looking at the audacious dreams of would be leaders, we should be looking for relational health and the ability to navigate conflict.

Leaders Who Are Teachable

The greatest of all virtues—in my mind—is teachability.

Teachability is another way of saying humility and it is different in kind than most others character traits we look at.  Most things are fixed realities along a spectrum—someone is either gentle or not.  A leader is either patient or not. We could plot them on a scale going from -10 to +10: saying something like, “Joe is a +5 in terms of patience.”

Humility and teachability, however, are the capacity or propensity for growth along the spectrum for the various virtues. A -5 can grow to a +5 if he or she is teachable.

One characteristic many bad leaders share is a form of pride or rigidity to their own shortcomings or needed areas of growth. Transparent, honest, humble and teachable leaders may not be perfect, but they are willing to be wrong and to learn.

I’ll take a teachable person who sees their own flaws over a strong leader who sees only the flaws in others any day of the week.

I want to be a fan of my peer group again. But I have a stronger desire to see Christians in America confident in those who have been given leadership gifts by God, who work under the weighty call of shepherding and teaching, and who have the teachability, transparency and accountability necessary to grow healthy families and churches. I long for those who would come back to church to see shepherds who first and foremost see themselves as sheep under leadership of the Chief Shepherd.

In the face of so much press about bad Christian leadership, I pray our reaction isn’t to reject leadership altogether, but to find, cultivate and celebrate good leadership.

Can Money Buy Justice?

Guest Post by Paul Louis Metzger

There are many things that money can buy, but can it buy justice? I thought of this question as I was reading What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael J. Sandel. When we think that something can be bought and sold, we end up treating it like a commodity. We must guard against turning justice into a commodity: we cannot buy justice or pay for it; the only way to guard against turning justice into a commodity in a market system is if we live justly in community.

Certainly, we can put money toward issues of justice, such as supporting someone who works for a non-profit organization attending to justice concerns. Money can also be used rightly for the sake of reparations for wrongs committed against various peoples in the past and present. Moreover, we can give financially to children in need here and abroad. All these uses of money are important and beneficial. But giving money can never replace or exhaust opportunities for us to spend ourselves in caring for those in need in just ways. I am struck by the words of Isaiah 58:10: “and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.” Ultimately, we must not simply spend money, but also ourselves if we are to be just. What is entailed by spending ourselves for others?

If I am spending myself on behalf of others, I am not reducing them to commodities from which I profit. I need to make sure that all my relations—even financial ones—do not entail reducing people to commodities through which I profit. People are ends in themselves, not means to my profit margin and self-advance even in justice circles. That is not to say that we cannot or should not profit in relation to one another in business and in other spheres; but profit margin must never replace person margin; otherwise, we end up marginalizing people where we run over them like bulls in a china shop. What are some ways in which we commodify people and marginalize people today?

In view of Trinitarian theology’s emphasis on God as a community of persons and its related conviction that we image God relationally, we must move beyond commodification to communion if we are to model well God in whose image we are made. What is one thing that you can recommend that would help each of us today act in just ways toward others that cultivate communion rather than commodification of people and relations?

Matt Knisely on How Art Can Advocate

How can art advocate? from :redux on Vimeo.

Faith-Rooted Organizing with Alexia Salvatierra

Rev. Alexia Salvatierra is currently the Special Assistant to the Bishop for Welcoming Congregations for the Southwest California Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  She also serves as a consultant (training, facilitating, organizing and leading strategic planning) for a variety of national/international organizations,  including World Vision USA/World Vision International/Women of Vision, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, the Christian Community Development Association the Womens’ Donor Network, Auburn Theological Seminary, Interfaith Worker Justice, PICO and Sojourner’s.  She is adjunct faculty at the New York Theological Seminary and Biola University, and has lectured at Fuller Seminary, University of Southern California and UCLA.  She recently wrote her first book along with Peter Heltzel called Faith-Rooted Organizing: Mobilizing the Church in Service to the World.

KW: In the midst of increased emphasis on justice your book asks an important question, ”What if Christians were to shape their organizing around the implications of the truth that God is real and Jesus is risen?” How do you see that as different from the ways Christians currently organize?

AS: Most Christians who engage in organizing do so in the context of one of the national organizing networks. The granddaddy of these networks is the Industrial Areas Foundation, which has its roots in the theory and practice of Saul Alinsky. Saul Alinsky was a secular Jew whose core assumptions about human nature and society were based in his observations of a world without God (at least without a God who makes a difference.) As a result, he identified motivation with self-interest, power with force/wealth and numbers, and asserted that those who say that means are not justified by ends are those with the means to enforce their will. While some of the networks that began with his model have made significant changes (and the PICO network in particular uses a much more faith-rooted approach in many places in the country), we do not start with or modify Alinsky. We ask what organizing looks like if it is completely shaped by faith. How do we understand human motivation, power and the relationship between means and ends in the light of the Gospel? For example, Jesus teaches us to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. That means taking seriously the worst and most carnal aspects of people but also taking seriously that the Holy Spirit is alive and active, at work on the hearts of believers before you get there.

KW: How does Christ transform the way we approach justice and advocacy?

AS: The whole book is an answer to this question! However, just to give you one quick teaser—to follow Jesus is to walk the way of the cross. We recognize that sacrificial love can lead to victory when it is in obedience to God’s call and part of the process of redemption. Mercy is not the opposite of justice; mercy lived out as intelligently and effectively as possible leads us to justice. The cross and resurrection also teach us that we can hope for much more than we can see with our natural eyes. This has concrete implications; when the great farmworker organizer Cesar Chavez had lost contracts covering 150,000 workers to a conspiracy by the growers and teamsters, he did not follow the counsel of his secular advisors to fold up his operation because he believed that the Risen Christ was with them in their struggle against extreme poverty and for fair wages; he said that it is in the moment when all seems to be lost that we most need to walk by faith and not by sight. They were ultimately able to defeat the conspiracy and recover the contracts.

KW: What are the principles of Faith Rooted Organizing?

AS: Organizing is bringing people together to create systemic change – the kind of change that individuals cannot create on their own. Faith-rooted organizing is organizing that is shaped and guided in every way by our faith and designed to enable people of faith to contribute all of our unique gifts to the broader movement for justice. These principles take on different forms in distinct historical contexts; we seek to connect all of those who are engaged in faith-rooted organizing around the world for the ongoing exchange of best practices and new discoveries.

KW: What are some of the biggest things you learned as you wrote the book?

AS: I never thought I could write a book; I am an organizer, evangelist and pastor, not an academic. However, I learned along the way that it really does matter to me to share all that God had given me in 35 years of organizing and community transformation with the young people that I mentor. The book helps that process. I now actively encourage other pastors and organizers to write books!

KW: If someone wanted to get started in organizing, how would you counsel them to begin? Where can people get started?

AS: There are a number of groups and organizations around the world who are now doing faith-rooted organizing. Anyone is free to contact us so that we can figure out together if someone close to you is engaged in this way. If there isn’t anyone doing it yet, join a community development ministry in your area and add an organizing and advocacy component (or start with a more faith-based rather than faith-rooted or broader organizing effort in your area and bring a faith-rooted approach and toolbox.) We have a national un-network of leaders who are doing this work that you are welcome to join for advice and support.

KW: Who are some historical examples you look to for informing Faith Rooted Organizing?

AS: We do spend some time in the book describing and citing our elders and inspirations on this road. Of course, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders are key as well as the leaders of the farmworkers’ struggle and Sanctuary and other faith-rooted immigration movements in the U.S., and Christian leaders of movements for justice in the global South.

KW: What do you say to people who feel organizing or activism is for liberals only or is too radical a challenge to authority? In other words, if this is something someone didn’t grow up with, are there biblical examples and advice to help open their eyes to a faith rooted form of activism?

AS: While there are many more directly justice-related scriptures, I always like to start with Matthew 9:35-37. In Matthew 9:35-37, Jesus looks at the crowd and has compassion. Compassion is an English word consisting of two Latin words, com (with) and passio (feeling). Jesus looks at the crowds and he feels with them – he feels their pain as if it were his pain, their hopes and dreams as if they were his hopes and dreams. Many of us have experienced the compassion of Jesus for us, and we have understood that we must respond by having that same compassion for others. In this scripture, before responding with compassion, Jesus first had to see the crowd; he had to understand the suffering, hopes and dreams of the people around him. The church doesn’t have a compassion problem; we have a vision problem. It also isn’t enough to see individuals; Jesus saw the crowd. We see the problem and the solution a little differently when we see the crowd. For example, if we see a boy struggling in school and we have compassion, we would naturally tutor him. However, if we see 300 boys and girls struggling in the same school, we might ask what is wrong with the school and we might seek to improve the educational system. When Jesus acted on his compassion, he gave everything that he had. It is not enough to give our hearts, we also have to use our minds – to love as intelligently and effectively as we can, being good stewards by employing all our resources in the cause of the kingdom. This means going from giving a fish to teaching to fish – and then when the fishermen discover that there is a wall that keeps them from access to the pond, finding a way to take down the wall. Advocacy is one of the gifts of democracy – the right and responsibility to participate in the process of public decision-making (the decisions that often create or remove walls.) If we are not using these great gifts for God’s purposes, we are like the servant in Luke who buries his gift in the ground. The practice of biblically-based advocacy is all about being good stewards of our influence.

Clouds Without Rain

When Faith Works

[Sketch of Peter sinking, by Rembrandt]

I’ve been thinking a lot about hardship lately: hardship in relationships, hardship in the work place, hardship with critics, difficult people or challenging circumstances.

Hardships, as frustrating as they are, seem to be commonplace in scripture.

To me, as I reflect on the way the heroes of the faith dealt with hardship one thing emerges—their faith worked.

For Nehemiah, his faith worked through a stick-to-it attitude and organization gifting he passionately put to work.

For David, his faith worked through poetry—articulating his anguish, despair and desperation through prayers directed to God and concluding them by calling to memory the faithfulness and unfailing love of his Good Shepherd.

For Jesus, his faith worked through absolute obedience and submission to the plan of God and his call to continue to give himself away for those he loved—despite the critic, the difficult people and the overwhelming circumstances.

Whatever the hardship, it doesn’t box us out from the possibility of moving forward in faith. Challenging people or circumstances can never fully be dead ends in life—faith always works its way forward as it follows the Good Shepherd.

We can experience anguish.

The circumstances can require all of our energy and ingenuity.

The trials can cost us our comfort and bring pain and persecution.

But we always have the choice to focus on the presence of problems or the possibility of solutions.

We always have the choice, like Peter walking on water, to see the chaos swirling at our feet or, just beyond that, the savior calling us forward.

We’ll never deal with hardship perfectly every time or even in every season.

But “…though the righteous fall seven times, they rise again.”

Let’s Stop Empowering and Start Inspiring

Guest Post by Rachel Goble

I’ve been using the word ‘empower’ for years. It’s a great word – one that implies giving dignity to others; the whole ‘give a man a fish and he eats for a day, but teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime’ type story comes up when I hear the word empower. It’s even in my organizations mission statement – we seek to empower individuals. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it’s the hot word of today’s non profits. We all want to empower others: the poor, the apathetic, the girl child, the slave, even ourselves! By definition it means “to give (someone) the authority or power to do something” or “to make (someone) stronger and more confident, especially in controlling their life and claiming their rights”. It’s a great word.

I graduated with a masters degree in Cross Cultural studies where my focus was on children at risk and international development. I joke that after three years of talking about everything I could possibly do in my life and work (in context of working with the poor) there would be no escaping that I would screw up at some points. We were warned of everything that could go wrong: from the language we use being offensive or not up to date (should ‘at-risk’ come before or after the word child. If it’s put after, then they are first and foremost defined as a child, But if put before, they are defined as being at-risk. Therefore it is politically incorrect to say ‘at-risk child’ but somewhat acceptable to say ‘child at-risk’), to the organizational structure we implemented not having that perfect balance of both empowerment (see, there’s the word again) and accountability. I had a degree in cross cultural work and yet the fear of God put in me that nothing I would do could ever be right (this might be a slight exaggeration but truly, I graduated with a sense of deep humility that development work was not something to be taken lightly).

The word ‘empower’ never raised red flags in these years so I used it confidently and frequently.

Until a dear African American friend enlightened me. It had never crossed my mind before that what this word implies is that I have the power and you do not. Therefore, let me give you the power. This also goes against my theology of humanity: that no matter our circumstances we are all uniquely created in the image of God, with our own thoughts, our own beliefs, our own strengths and weaknesses. A beautiful messy collection of broken and poor people, this word ‘empower’ implies a giving of my strength to your weakness, rather than a mutual exchange of dignity. Thereby degrading you and elevating me.

I believe that we need to stop empowering and start inspiring. The word inspire is to fill someone with the urge or ability to do or feel something (especially something creative). We inspire by living an inspired life ourselves. It is natural to be attracted to and want to spend time around inspired people. People passionate about life, creative, honest and fully present. I am inspired when I am with these people to be a better me. So what if, instead of seeking to empower, we began to seek to inspire? To focus inward in an effort to live our own lives fully, to love deeply, to be conscious in our mistakes and present to our pain.

John Perkins on Bringing About Change

How do we bring about change? from :redux on Vimeo.

The Cleverest

The cleverest of all, in my opinion,
is the man who calls himself a fool
at least once a month.

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Remember What You Saw

[Partially adapted from Chapter 7 in Pursuing Justice: The Call to Live and Die for Bigger Things]

In the spring of 1963, civil rights protestors in Birmingham, Alabama, sought to end Jim Crow laws by participating in mass sit-ins and marches. The government’s response included tear gas, arresting children still in high school, and—captured in iconic imagery that is now part of our nation’s psyche—deploying dogs and water cannons against peaceful demonstrators. Opinion among formerly disinterested members of the public, in the South and across the nation, began to shift as newspapers and televisions showed images of men, women, and even children being attacked unjustly.

Neutrality or ambivalence is harder to sustain in the face of such evocative images of suffering. When our empathy is engaged, our empathy can move us toward justice.

Empathy is a part of the Imago Dei in us, the Image of God in which we were created and which all humans possess. Experiencing empathy is a characteristic of the God who created us and allows us to be social, relational, and caring human beings. The gift of empathy is the capacity that allows us to be in relationships that include the physical but also move into the spaces of emotion and spirit. The ability to empathize is what makes it possible for us to truly love one another. If God had not designed us to understand the felt reality of others, it would be impossible to live justly on behalf of others. Without entering into another’s story, we are left to help from the outside, relying on our best intentions, which is often a recipe for doing more harm than good.

In Romans, Paul talked about God’s Spirit living within us, and how the Spirit understands, feels, and knows our struggles and pain even better than we do. That’s a concise definition of empathy: to enter into and share another’s feelings.

The word empathy has roots in the Greek word empatheia (passion, state of emotion), which comes from en (in) and pathos (feeling). Whenever we enter into another’s feelings, something important happens: we value that person more. The converse is true: if we cannot participate in the unique feelings and life experiences of another person, we tend to devalue that individual, viewing him or her dispassionately or as an object.

When we slow down, engage, and are able to enter into the pain and suffering of other people, justice can follow. That often occurs when our empathy is kindled.

Certain images are so iconic, so emotive, that they kindle deep empathy and move us outside ourselves. Eighteenth-century abolitionists made effective use of empathy. A small, emblematic image of a kneeling and shackled slave was created in 1787, ringed by the now-famous question, “Am I not a man and a brother?” This powerful combination of image and text was stamped into pottery, jewelry, and medallions. The logo was designed to help people make the connection between goods they consumed, such as sugar, and the unjust system that produced those goods. As this logo and other empathetic propaganda from the abolitionist movement became more widespread, collectively they began to move public sentiment in favor of the abolitionists’ cause.

Empathy was what carried such people out of the sphere of their own concerns and into an engaged concern for their fellow humans.

Empathy enables us to enter into and share another person’s grief and sorrows, and ultimately stand with the sufferer in his or her need—just as God shares our grief and sorrows. Isaiah 53:4 prophesied of Jesus, “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering.”

Having placed the capacity for empathy in humanity as a part of His image, God calls on His people to activate it. We see it often in the Old Testament, especially when God commanded the Israelites to look after the foreigner or the alien—what we might call the immigrant. When God asks His people to care for the foreigner or the alien, He often gives a specific reason such as in these verses:

Do not deprive the alien or the fatherless of justice, or take the
cloak of the widow as a pledge. Remember that you were slaves
in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. That
is why I command you to do this. (Deuteronomy 24:17–18)

God knows that remembrance of Israel’s own past will provide a way to empathize with vulnerable people in their own land. God legislated rules for the nation of Israel to ensure that such vulnerable and dislocated people were treated fairly and had their needs met, based on Israel’s own empathetic understanding of what it is like to live on the margins of a society.

The repeated theme of remembrance was vital.

There is a great deal of empathy in the world. Some have characterized this generation as a “social justice generation,” and in many ways it is easier than ever before to empathize with the victims of injustice in the world.

We need to be cautious of a potential downside, however: empathy can be something we settle for. Empathy is not the goal; it simply carries us into actions that are just. Empathy, when used well, leads to unity and partnership while merely feeling another’s pain can result in paternalistic pity. When that feeling motivates us to extend a hand in friendship, rather than extending handouts, empathy is acting as a means toward the proper end of justice and shalom.

The danger is that we view empathy as the end of our engagement with injustice, rather than the entry point. We can believe that simply feeling another’s pain is the extent of our call.

The connection between empathy and ongoing action is clear in the life of Auschwitz survivor and Nobel Prize–winning author Elie Wiesel. Wiesel has spent his life fighting for justice, writing more than fifty books, speaking, and conducting leadership camps for students designed to break down the ethnic or national barriers that exist between them.

Wiesel has been instrumental in galvanizing the message of genocide prevention around the act of remembering. He believes that some things that happened cannot be allowed to happen again; we cannot stand by and watch. “My goal is always the same,” he has said: “to invoke the past as a shield for the future.”

This is made explicit in a striking piece of art embedded in the stone exterior of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The bold text implores,

Think about what you saw
(While smaller lines of text spell out our responsibility to remember.)
The next time you witness hatred
The next time you see injustice
The next time you hear about genocide . . .
Think about what you saw

Wiesel understands the importance of empathy as we address injustices in all their forms. There is no finish line where we can stop thinking about others, stop empathizing with others.

Empathy is an engine that powers justice. It is ingrained in us because God placed it there, and it is designed to help carry justice forward.

Jesus at the Center

Justice is About Reality

Guest Post by Sam Adams

Reality. Justice is about reality: on the ground, gritty, bloody, tear-stained reality. The work of justice is determined by the concrete realness of bodies and violence; it is determined by the reality of social structures, communities, governments, and institutions. Theology, on the other hand, can be abstract, spiritual, theoretical, and intellectual; theological work tends to be determined by the abstraction of ideas constrained only by the theologian’s familiarity with arguments contained in two millennia worth of books. But theology, too, is about reality.

How might these two realities converge?

This is the challenge that I forced myself to confront this past fall as I offered a course for the Kilns College graduate program titled “Systematic Theology for Social Justice.” How do you teach theology and social justice together?

My attempt to do this was grounded in one core rejection: The relationship between the two, theology and justice, is not analogous to the relationship between principles and their application. Theology does not give us abstract principles that need to be applied in concrete situations.

The positive articulation of this is grounded in the faithful affirmation of classical orthodox Christology: God reveals himself to us in the person of Jesus, fully human, fully divine. Theology, in this view, is not the abstraction of principles and propositions from the biblical source, but rather the thoughtful articulation of the reality that confronts us in the event of God revealing himself to us as Jesus of Nazareth.

One theologian who articulates this with profound gravity precisely because he was a theologian for whom the reality of theology was inseparable from the concrete demand for social justice, is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In the final years of his life, while he was actively working for the the resistance movement in Germany during the height of World War II, he wrote what would become his last book, a collection of manuscripts he simply called, Ethics. It is a work grounded in the reality of the incarnation.

Bonhoeffer writes: “What matters is participating in the reality of God and the world in Jesus Christ today, and doing so in such a way that I never experience the reality of God without the reality of the world, nor the reality of the world without the reality of God.” [1]

What is at stake in Bonhoeffer’s Ethics is reality. Both the reality of the world and the reality of God are disclosed in the singular reality of the incarnation, where God becomes human without ceasing to be God.

With respect to our concern for justice, we might say that theology without justice is not a realistic theology. And, conversely, justice without theology misses the essential point that reality has been disclosed in Jesus Christ. Reality is not revealed in a theory, an ideology, or a set of principles. Rather, reality is revealed in a person who is “the way, the truth, and the life.” Theology and social justice are not to be held apart but brought together, united, as they actually are, in the reality of the One who calls us to follow him. Theology and social justice, therefore, look like discipleship. Teaching them together, therefore, must always begin with the question, again from Bonhoeffer, addressed to Jesus, “Who are you?” [2] The answer will be found wherever he answers, in the classroom, in the world.


[1] Bonhoeffer, “Lectures on Christology” in Berlin: 1932-1933, DBW Vol. 12 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), 302.
[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics. Transl. by Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Stott. Edited by Clifford J. Green, Vol. 6 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 55.

Dorothy Sayers on Literature (and the Church?)

Check out what Dorothy Sayers, a contemporary of C.S. Lewis, writes about the diminishing appreciation for literature in her time.

I couldn’t help thinking that the same line of reasoning could be applied to the decline of appreciation for “church” within the Christian community in our time.  It is amazing how we ride the tides of fashion.

What do you think?

Now, when a whole department of literature is thus unanimously and, as it were, automatically condemned for the mere crime of being itself, and excluded from serious critical attention, it is pretty safe to say that we have simply forgotten how to judge it.  It is extremely improbable, to say the least of it, that a genre that, in the past, produced such acknowledged masterpieces as The Divine ComedyThe Faerie Queene, and The Pilgrim’s Progress, is altogether worthless.  Neither is it probable that a genre that enjoyed so many hundreds of years of popularity corresponds to no fundamental need in human nature.  It is much more likely that we have fallen out of touch with it, so that we no longer remember how this particular literary game should be played—what its intention is or what its rules are—and thus are in no position to tell whether it is well or badly done, or what it is all about.  We are in the same situation as an American, who, not knowing the first thing about a cricket, is planked down in the pavilion at the Lord’s to watch a test match.  The only impression he is likely to carry away is that this is a slow and formal game, and not in the least like baseball.  He will have only a vague notion of what everybody is so earnestly trying to do, and the finer points of the play will escape him altogether.

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