Thursday, November 11, 2010

Righteousness AND Justice: A Truly "Bohemian" Christianity

A while back, I raised some issues with James K.A. Smith's rather uncharitable denouncement of Brett McCracken's exploration of Hipster Christianity, claiming that his defense of "bohemian" Christians leading radical lifestyles and service, couched in a self-defensive reactivity against Evangelicalism's focus on "personal piety," contributed, even if unintentionally, to the increasing tendency to separate "righteousness" from "justice." I tend to agree with McCracken's sustained claim that often, the desire to be cool, relevant, or activist, is framed as somehow antithetical to a life of holiness and discipleship. The vitriol of Smith's polemic is itself a kind of performance of the lack of charity and patience which are the foundations upon which truly prophetic critiques and action can be built - actions that witness to the love and justice of Christ. While too often self-righteous Christians have given piety a bad name, there is no reason to see them so diametrically opposed, as both Smith and McCracken seem to do - especially when so much is at stake for the life of the Church and the transformation of the world. The prophet Micah seemed to think both righteousness and justice to be essential - and inseparable.

Ancient history and hipsters aside, I have been greatly encouraged to see these two dynamics reconciled in, not surprisingly, the latest addition to the "Resources for Reconciliation" series, put out by Duke Divinity's Center for Reconciliation via IVP Press, entitled Friendship at the Margins: Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission, co-authored by Christopher Heuertz and Christine Pohl. I don't usually like to comment on books I haven't finished reading, but this little work is simply too powerful to be contained in a single posting. Heuertz is the international director of Word Made Flesh, a missional organization that practices the ministry of accompaniment and friendship in the name of Jesus among the world's most vulnerable and poor, while Pohl is a scholar whose work focuses on the ethics of hospitality and poverty. Together, they have penned a moving manifesto calling for a different kind of missionary activity, a subversive evangelism, based on friendship rather than results:

What is it that we are subverting, and what kind of subversion are we called to, especially in relation to the mission of reconciliation? Part of the subversion involves restoring relationships to the center of our lives, ministry and mission. Friendships that open into reconciliation validate the message of the good news. Our practice becomes inseparable from our message, and affirming the divine imprint of God in each human being compels us to love as an extension of God's love at work in us.

Locating friendship at the heart of mission involves certain assumptions - that reconciliation with God is something for which every human being is made and that relationships are reciprocal. Mission, then, is less about our efforts to help evangelize 'them,' and more about how we can live in the kingdom friendships on the streets and neighborhoods (grow), we (come) to understand that we are not ministering "to" our friends, but in ministry "among" them. We ourselves are being ministered to as authenticating and humanizing relationships emerged. (Friendship at the Margins. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2010, 32-33).

While at first this might sound like standard mainline Protestant jargon for the substitution of missionaries with social agencies, Heuertz and Pohl want to challenge and call disciples far beyond mission efforts built around business, career, or even communitarian models, all of which tend to treat results, ideals, ideologies, and theologies as ends, and place relationships and personal sacrifice either as means, on the margins, or simply impractical. is particularly critical of what he calls "hunger pornography," the practice of voyeuristically snapping pictures of slums and poor people while on short-term missions trips or for the sake of supplying "results," "promotional materials," and testimonies for the sake of moving hearts, minds and wallets back home. Such activities are, incidentally, also common among many theologians and ethicists who incessantly declaim about "the poor" as a category rather than as persons with whom they have experience relating (read: the so-called "homelessness" chic, fashionable among many would-be hipster bohemians). Relationships are sacred because they are between sacred children of God, and missions should be carried out in such a way that, should one have to write a report about what one does, she would have no qualms whatsoever allowing her friends and neighbors to read what has been shared about them. Simple as this sounds, such a standard of integrity would greatly alter the landscape of rhetoric employed in so much progressive writing today - and would also challenge each of us to re-consider how the content of our words is supplied by the materiality of our actions, and the richness of our relationships.

The book's chapter takes this call to a truly radical discipleship much deeper by linking such calls to friendship-centered justice to the pursuit of righteousness. After recounting particularly painful memories of having worked with escaped victims of the sex trafficking - mostly young boys and girls - in Southeast Asia, Heuertz challenges us to move beyond the simple proxy conversion of being "shocked, troubled, horrified," and emotionally moved. "Is there," he asks, "a way we can help in bringing an end to such outrageous expressions of evil and injustice," in which "the misuse of money, sex, and power is inscribed on those little bodies, again and again?" His answer: "well, we could start with not buying products that make sexuality and sexual experience a joke." (ibid 48-49) Heuertz is not naive to the naivete of such a simplistic statement. Its the reasoning behind his choice to focus on the personal rather than on causes or donations that is in fact prophetically subversive of much prophetic subversiveness:

In our hunger to be liberated and to throw off some of the stereotypes of uptight, narrow Christians, many of us have forgotten how to blush. Advertising and much of the current entertainment world continually invite us to trivialize and misuse the God-given gift of our sexuality...Followers of Jesus could be far more attentive to the bridges between our personal lifestyle choices and the injustices around us, between our individual righteousness and our work for justice. A wholesale loss of the capacity to blush, personally and in society at large, contributes to an environment in which the ripple effects are devastating for the most powerless among us. Being friends with Jesus and with those who are poor requires that we give up being friends with "the world"...Sure, it is just a shampoo commercial, and it has little if any bearing on sexual exploitation in Sri Lanka. But when those boys or girls are our friends, and they bear the scars of sexual misuse, it makes us take a second look at how our imaginations have been shaped by careless views of sex and power. (ibid 49-50)

Heuertz and Kohl go on to discuss the interrelatedness of righteousness and justice in the Book of Job and in the work of liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, and they could have added the names of such radical heroes as St. Francis, St. Vincent de Paul, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, and also most of the New Monastics practicing today.

What is so striking about Heuertz's account is that for him, righteousness, holiness, purity, chastity, and so forth, are not disciplines to be pursued for one's own sake. Rather, if Christians are truly living out their ministry of reconciliation in the midst of the new creation come (see 2 Cor.5.16f), then such faithfulness is demanded for the sake of friendship, relationship, and love - in short, what Martin Luther meant when he attempted to turn the medieval system of penance and merit away from self-centeredness and towards the radical orientation of the Christian as "servant to all." Indeed, it was these Reformers who were first termed "Bohemians" by their opponents for their association with Jan Hus and the Bohemian reformers, who were closely linked with the creation of a more relational form of church polity. True Bohemians are not those who obey only Luther's first mandate - that "a Christian is the free master of all" and thus allowed to participate in any cultural form or expression for the sake of the idols of relevance, popularity, reactivity and subversion. Rather, true Bohemians might be those who pursue both righteousness and justice, those who know that the proclamation of the Gospel begins with the life one is living, and that, as St. James warns us, "friendship with the world is enmity with God." (4.4) In this sense, I can half-agree with Smith when he touts as new Christian bohemians those who are making great sacrifices for the sake of the kingdom, its mission, and the poor. But the pietistic sins of our fathers need not prevent us from hearing the call, not of Heuertz, but of those with whom we are called into friendship, that the luxurious narcissism of our North American experience is an insult to their scars, and thus, to the scars of the One in whose image they come to us.

I am challenged and convicted to my core by Heuertz's account, because I know that even the time to read such books and write such blog entries is itself an expression of the gap that exists between my friends in poverty and myself. Despite living in close community with such friends in both Denver and Durham, how often do I find myself referring to them as feathers in a cap, rather than referring myself to them in letters, phone calls, and consistent friendship? Heuertz himself confesses that despite the knowledge that many of his clothes were made in factories where his Indian friends labor for minimum wage, he struggles to know how to disentangle himself from hoarding the "plunder of the poor" in his house (Isaiah 3.14-15). I can count on one hand the instances where a professor or classmate in seminary, enraged by injustice against women, raised the issue of sexual ethics and pornography addiction; but I have heard endless self-congratulatinons about how we are no longer obsessed with sexual foibles, curse words, and personal piety like our puritanical and ultimately narrow-minded predecessors. I suspect that one way forward for those of us who consider ourselves enlightened post-liberal, post-evangelical - perhaps, even, hipster Bohemians? - is to begin to prayerfully wrestle with the vocation to holiness to which we have been called, a vocation which is simply the other side of the vocational coin of justice. The issues are complex - but the time for the reactivity and subtle violence of simply "being against" has past. It is time to decide what and who we are for - as well as whose we are whose we are for - truly Bohemian Christians, reconciling righteousness and justice in ourselves and pursuing both in the world; not for the sake of our own piety, our own progressiveness, or even our own relevancy, but for the integrity of our Gospel, and for the sake of those with whom we have yet to become friends, and those who are always already our brothers and sisters in Christ's kingdom, this reconciled reality of new creation.

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