Tag Archives: social justice

The Immortal Hamster

I’ve been back from Ethiopia now for nearly a month. I’ve thought about a lot of things in that time, from the things I’ve seen and the people I’ve met, to the vision I have for what God is doing. It’s very exciting, but also upon returning, I can’t help but feel as if I’ve come back to an American church that is fast asleep. The bible says that “my people perish for lack of knowledge.” Well, without knowledge, you can’t move on to wisdom. And without wisdom, there is no vision. Without vision, we have no purpose. Without purpose, we start chasing all kinds of crazy things, and the church gives up the gospel in exchange for prostituting itself to the world in the hope of finding “cultural relevance.” The bride of Christ is searching the street corners, looking for someone to tell her she’s beautiful.

I often teach a class on missions and poverty alleviation, and one of the questions we open with is, “Why did Jesus come to Earth?” The two most common answers I get are, “So my sins could be forgiven,” and “so I can go to Heaven.” Though both answers are technically correct, they are both tertiary reasons and completely egocentric.

In Luke 4, Jesus himself states why he came. “So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,

Because He has anointed Me

To preach the gospel to the poor;

He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,

To proclaim liberty to the captives

And recovery of sight to the blind,

To set at liberty those who are oppressed;

To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Jesus came to restore what was lost, and to put us back into relationship with God. He set in motion a restoration of relationship between God and creation. It wasn’t just so we could be saved from Hell but continue to do what we were already doing. It states right in the beginning of Genesis that men and women were created in God’s image. That being the case, we ought to imitate Christ as he imitates God the Father. If we accept Jesus’ sacrifice without accepting this second part, we have reduced ourselves to God’s immortal pet, his hamster, if you will, existing for God’s amusement but with no purpose, born only to consume.

I believe that this is why the American church is largely devoid of men. Men are designed and built to serve a larger purpose, to take hold of a challenge and to serve a greater purpose than themselves. But if we accept a Christianity that says “I’m saved now. Just sit in the pew on Sunday and listen to a watered down message of meek and mild Jesus,” a great injustice has been done. Do we need to be reminded that Jesus drove the money changers out of the temple with a whip….twice?

Jesus gave us a lot of instructions, most of which we aren’t following. Sure, we follow the ones about keeping ourselves pure…..sometimes, but what about all those ones about going out like sheep among wolves? What about all those instructions about feeding the poor, standing up for the widow, the orphan, and the alien? What about blessing those who curse us, or showing love to our enemies, or were those instructions for somebody else? What about dying to self?

I have to ask these things, because if we say we’re going to be Christ followers, then certainly we should take a cue from Jesus, who “made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.” (Philippians 2)

God is looking for men and women of purpose. The Church has got to wake up.

“Awake, you who sleep,

Arise from the dead,

And Christ will give you light.” (Ephesians 5:14)

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The Difference Between Liberation And Eviction.

The past week or so, I’ve been thinking a lot about the harder aspects of some of the things I’ve seen over the past several years. I’ve been thinking about things like poverty and setting the captives free. I’ve been particularly thinking about why some people and some cultures have been successful at dealing with theses things and why some have gone down tragic roads, when from the outside it looked like many of them had similar origins.

These are particularly hard subjects to understand for the western mind, because we live in a culture where we get most of our information about poverty and oppression from movies and a media that sees these subjects as sufficiently distant from personal experience to understand them in the kind of visceral way that people in South Sudan or the Congo would.

We believe in a number of things that, though possibly politically correct, when tested turn out to be factually false. We believe things like; poverty is mostly a problem of lack of resources, or that all oppressed people are naturally angelic, or that if people could just have oppression removed they would thrive. We believe these things because they are the subject of so many feel good stories. I would like to believe them to, but my experiences in parts of Africa have taught me that even though these things can happen, life is usually far more complicated and usually much messier than this.

My time in South Sudan was a huge eye opener for me. The South Sudanese were oppressed horribly by the Northern Sudanese for decades, in ways that for brevity I’m not going to get into. I first went to South Sudan in 2010, right before they achieved independence from the North. I saw the hope and the excitement on people’s faces as they prepared for the vote that would free them from their oppressors. Surely this was the Hollywood story everyone wanted and expected to see. Not quite.

Over the next three years, I went back three more times, and got to personally see the situation devolve into chaos. The South Sudanese went from fighting against the Northern oppressors to fighting against each other. If you’d like to read more about that, you can go back into some of my blog posts from 2013 and 2014 particularly. So what happened?

To say I can explain all of the aspects of this in a single blog post would be naive and foolish, because it’s an incredibly complex subject, and entire books could be written about it. So I’m going to focus on just a small part.

I want to start by drawing some parallels between the situation in South Sudan and the written account we have of another oppressed culture that was freed from its captors around 3400 years ago. I’m speaking of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt as written in the book of Exodus. There are many things written that can give us insight into the kind of things that happen when an enslaved culture is freed, particularly if you know what you’re looking for. The great thing about Exodus is that is quite comprehensive, and conveys a complete timeline.

One of the things that many Westerners don’t have a grasp of is the mental, emotional, cultural, and spiritual damage that is caused by institutionalized oppression, particularly slavery. This can manifest in people as hopelessness, a feeling of powerlessness, depression, and sometimes even paranoia. The end result is that when an opportunity comes for people to be free, they often don’t take it. Oppressed people often choose the miserable security of keeping your head down and staying alive than taking a chance at freedom. This is evident in Exodus 6:9. Moses is interceding on behalf of his people, and he goes to give them instruction. Their response is in Exodus 6:9. “So Moses spoke thus to the children of Israel; but they did not heed Moses, because of anguish of spirit and cruel bondage.”

Later on there are a series of events that happen that as I read them, made me initially think about these parallels. The Israelites have been set free and are crossing the desert when it dawns on the Egyptians that they’ve lost their free labor. The Egyptians send out their army to retake the Israelites. As the cloud of dust rises on the horizon from the Egyptian army, there is a record of what the Israelites say, and it is surprisingly fatalistic and even has a hint of longing for the land in which they were enslaved.

Exodus 14:11 Then they said to Moses, “Because there were no graves in Egypt, have you taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you so dealt with us, to bring us up out of Egypt?

Exodus 14:12 Is this not the word that we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us alone that we may serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than that we should die in the wilderness.”

And in another situation, later on, Exodus 16:3, And the children of Israel said to them, “Oh, that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat and when we ate bread to the full! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

Their response is puzzling until you realize one thing, and this is the key. Moses interceded on the Israelites behalf because it was God’s will that they should be freed. For many of the Israelites, they were content with the security of the situation, miserable as it was. After God sent the plagues, the Israelites became a stench in the nostrils of Pharaoh, and there was no longer a choice to stay. This is why it’s so important when we’re working with oppressed people to allow them ways to empower themselves. Many of the Israelites were not so much liberated as evicted from Egypt, and it’s when we realize this that their responses suddenly make sense. The Israelites continue to act like slaves even though they are physically free people for the next forty years. Moses was able to take the Israelites out of slavery, but he was unable to remove the slave from the Israelites. In fact, it is not until the next generation grew up, a generation that never knew what it was like to be a slave, that they are able to enter the promised land, because you can not build a nation with people that are still slaves in their heart.

This is what I found in South Sudan. A nation that knew nothing but oppression and slavery and warfare, and doing what each person needs to do to survive on a daily basis, has walked into freedom with the same attitude. Whereas the common enemy used to be the North, now the common enemy is every man’s neighbor. No one has a plan for the future, because people are still living to survive the current moment. I understand that it is hard to change an entire way of thinking and living, but I hope and pray that the South Sudanese don’t have to wander in the desert for forty years until a generation is raised up that know how to live in freedom.

Social Systems Are Like Tofu.

I was having a phone conversation recently with one of our partners overseas. He has been doing some evangelistic work with a very poor tribe of people. He has not been working with this particular group of people for very long, and he was conveying to me the conditions they are living under, and the social structures they’re forced (for now) to live under. It essentially boils down to medieval serfdom. A family will work the fields for the landowner. After they’ve harvested 80 kilograms of cotton, they are paid about $2.50. In addition to the meager wages, they are also in debt to the landowner. They are living in legalized slavery.

Throughout the world, this is not an uncommon thing, much as we’d like to tell ourselves that the world has advanced and moved on from such things. There’s a lot of talk lately about social justice, and particularly about evil governments, and evil corporations, and evil politicians. In all cases we are talking about social systems, from small local systems to national governments.  All are social systems, but the evil part is where people get hung up.

Social systems are not evil in themselves, nor are they good. Social systems are amoral, meaning they have no morality in themselves. Social systems are like tofu. Just as tofu takes on the flavor of whatever you cook it in, so social systems take on the character of whoever is running them. If you have evil people running the social system, the social system will be evil. If you have good people running the social system, you will likely have a good social system, unless the good people lack knowledge or wisdom, or are incompetent, which happens.

Social justice activists are spending an awful lot of time trying to dismantle evil systems, and in many cases this is a good thing. However, if you dismantle an evil system but the hearts of the people are still evil, you are wasting your time.

I have spent a good amount of time this week pouring over video footage I shot last time I was in Africa. (I finally have the time to do so.) We interviewed several pastors, many of whom came from a background where in their younger years, they were part of the evil systems we are talking about in their respective societies. They were persecutors, drug addicts, witch doctors, people who were cruel to their wives and families. The common thread between them was when they had an encounter with the living God, and he changed everything. Now these people are out risking their own lives in a dangerous land to tell others about what changed them and their families, and gave them hope. I hear people say sometimes that their faith is a personal thing. That’s hogwash. If your faith doesn’t make a tangible difference in yourself and the world around you, what good is it? As James says, “Show me your faith without works, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You say you believe in God. Good! Even the demons believe, and shudder!”

My conversation with our overseas partner was informative for me, but also really got me thinking about how we are to handle these situations. In regards to the social systems already in place, the bible is very clear about it in many places. 1 Timothy 2 says, “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—  for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” First we need to pray for a turning of the landowner’s heart. If his heart is turned toward God, and it’s genuine, his attitude toward the people working his land will change. The second part of this is what praying for unjust leaders does in us. Jesus talks about this in Luke 6. “But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

You see, everyone is running around trying to change everyone else, but change starts with us, and with the attitude of our own hearts. We pray for our enemies both because the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective, but also because when we pray for our enemies, we cannot simultaneously hate them.

There may be other strategies we need to take to alleviate the slavery these people are living under, but to start them prematurely or to do them in lieu of praying for their enemies undermines the reason Christ came, that being “to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives, And the opening of the prison to those who are bound;” (Isaiah 61). Many are under the assumption that if people are oppressed, they are somehow angelic. I can tell you from personal experience from some of the places I’ve worked in that if you release a slave from his oppressor without taking the spirit of the slave out of the man, he will do worse atrocities to both his oppressor and the people around him than his oppressor ever did to him.

In closing, I’d like to relay a story from one of the interviews I did in Africa this year. The man I was interviewing hated Christians when he was younger. He would attack them and throw stones at them. One day, he came across a Christian and started beating him. The man he was beating continued to tell him about Jesus even while he was beating him. It’s this kind of self-sacrifice that changes the world. Not and eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but praying for our enemies and telling them the good news even while they are beating us.

When Virtual Activism Causes Hardship to Non-Virtual People

I’ve debated in my own mind how to write this, because I don’t want to sound like I’m judging people’s intentions. But there comes a time when there comes a chasm between truth and untruth, and between real life and life that becomes in practice an unintended satire. We have reached that point.

I’m speaking today about virtual activism, which has become extremely popular with the advent of social media. It used to be that when people were passionate about something, they went out and did something about it. If you wanted to save the dolphins, you might do anything from boycotting fish products that also killed dolphins in their nets, all the way to getting on a zodiac in the middle of the ocean and interfering with fishing vessels. (This is just an example. I’m not a Greenpeace activist.) Those days for many people are largely gone. Now, when someone wants to be an activist, they share an often misguided Facebook post full of half-truths or flat out lies, or they might tweet a hashtag. These are all attempts to sway public opinion, which is fine. But that’s where it ends. The event that bothered me more than most others was when over two hundred schoolgirls were kidnapped by Boko Haram, an Islamist terrorist group in Nigeria. They oppose Christians and western education. They raid villages, kill anyone who will not convert to Islam, and kidnap the women and children to put them up for sale as slaves. A hashtag was created called #bringourgirlsback. For people who feel powerless to do anything about a situation 5000 miles away, it’s something. But when Michelle Obama got involved, with her sad picture holding up the sign with the hashtag, it truly was nothing. If only she, I don’t know, slept next to someone every night with the power and resources to do something about it……  It’s now been over six months, and none of the girls have been returned. The United States sent “advisors” to help. There’s quite a bit of arrogance to sending advisors to a nation that deals with this kind of event literally almost every day. Exactly what were we going to advise?

Which brings me to my point. As we have become more insular and self-centered as a nation, we’ve latched onto the notion that opinion is everything. We’ve begun to believe that if enough of us give the stink-eye to Boko Haram, they’ll just return the girls. I’m going to lay the hard truth out.  Boko Haram doesn’t give a load of dingoes kidneys what your opinion of them is. In fact, as Islamist terrorists, every time someone repeats the mantra “Islam is a peaceful religion”, they’re going to do their best to prove you wrong, because they are not going to have their identity dictated by a bunch of infidels, (which is their opinion of YOU). This goes for Boko Haram, and Isis, and Al Kaida, and Al Shabab, and Hamas, and Abu Sayyaf, etc, etc, etc.

Opinion only matters if it brings people to action, and this is where the breakdown is. People who, before the advent of social media, might have gone out and done some small part to make things better, now feel that simply by sharing the post, or the hashtag, or wearing the t-shirt, they have done some good. People’s idea of making the world a better place now involves sitting in a circle staring at their navels and agreeing with each other that something should be done about this. Their social conscience is sated even as nothing is done. It’s time to log off of Facebook. It’s time to get off of Twitter. It’s time to really find out about the issues of the world out there, because it’s a very big place, and MSNBC and Fox News are not going to tell you ANYTHING about what it’s really like. There is so much social injustice out there that your choices are almost unlimited, and there’s something that almost anybody can do about it, in either a big or a small way. Just remember, opinion is nothing if it doesn’t lead to action.

This woman would and her children would have been dead of starvation in three months if real, non-virtual action had not been taken.
This woman and her children would have been dead of starvation in three months if real, non-virtual action had not been taken.