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The Grace to Do Nothing: On Social Justice in the Neighborhood

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WontYouBeMyNeighborRecently I saw a book project flash across my FB feed entitled “Refuse to do Nothing” and I grimaced. I know nothing about this book or its message.  It’s a book by good people. The abolishing of modern human trafficking is a worthy goal to gather round as Christians. I call for all Christians to join together to alleviate it! I recommend this book and the cause. I’m sure it’s good. But the reason for my discomfort was the “Finding your Power” part of the subtitle. I’m sure it makes sense in the book. (Nothing worse than judging a book by its cover! Sorry IVP) But recently, I found myself advocating the exact opposite idea. Thus my grimace.
We were in the middle of a discussion at one of our missional communities. We were talking about the challenges of being a missional community in the neighborhood and the subject turned to finding “what we are supposed to do next.” How do we locate places of need, situations of distress, places where the “least of these” are where we can devote some of our time and energy for the Kingdom? How about the domestic violence shelter down the street, can we help there? How about a project to help the community rally around improving the park? How do we locate where the needy are so that we can put our resources to work? (I’m not recording this conversation word for word, just trying to give you the sense of things).

After listening for a while, I felt prompted to say “maybe the best thing we can do is do nothing.” I then revealed a bit about my own mistakes in trying to go out and find “justice/mercy projects” in the neighborhood. I’ve had to learn gradually that by trying to find the “next project to do” I lead people into the following mistakes:

  • We end up turning people into an object, a project, which takes a lot of effort and resources, and ends up making us feel better about ourselves but actually ends up (because we come as visitors with resources to apply) promoting the existing structures that may have been the cause of the injustice itself.
  • We end up “colonizing” people: making people do things or accepting our help out of a power position that does not change the person, context itself, but imposes our will on them. Some mercy has been given, some respite from suffering has occurred and this is a good thing as long as it does not colonize. But often, in the end, nothing really happens in terms of justice. Things stay the same.

So, opposed to looking for projects, I offered that maybe what we are supposed to do is the opposite: Do (emphasis on :”do”) nothing.  Instead, our main task is to be “with” people in and around our lives long enough, years maybe, to listen and become friends, partners in life, sufficient to offer who we are and what we have become in Christ in exchange for their friendship and their support and who they are. These relationships should be characterized  by

  • Long term presence within everyday life. Being with people at same place same time each week, hanging out in same places, working alongside them, raising children in the park, sharing resources over long periods of time
  • Listening, helping and receiving help just as you would any other friend. Developing a mutual vulnerability
  • Developing trust.

The marvelous thing that happens out of these rhythms of being “with” people in the neighborhood, work, children’s clubs, school parents meetings etc. is the Kingdom is promised to break in (Jesus promises Matt 25). Opportunities shall be birthed, the way made clear for :

  • Proclaiming the gospel
  • Inviting into reconciliation
  • And of course “local group projects” in the neighborhood. Because out of local presence “with” people comes the opportunity to join together with the neighborhood to do group projects , bring the resources of the church together with the community’s to tackle a project that needs attention in the neighborhood, the local school, a distressed family on the block, a project to restore a park, hurting persons etc. etc. And the gospel of the Kingdom takes root.

This is what I mean by “The Grace to Do Nothing.” As far as I’m concerned the same rules about developing relationships, working through relational channels, inhabiting out of a posture of “withness” (incarnation) applies to how we participate in justice efforts around the world as well. But that might be a post for another time.

Much has been written about this way of inhabiting the world, the rhythms of “presence.” I encourage you to read books by Jon Huckins, Karen Wilk , the resources at Parishcollective and many more! I am convinced more and more the practice of “withness” as an extension of the Incarnation is the central theme for mission in our day. What do you think? What are your experiences? How has this dynamic of “being with” played out in your missional community?

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