I am getting ready (a minute here and a minute there) for leading a discussion at the evolving church conference in a few weeks. My subject will be “Justice at a distance.” Or how can we resist making justice into another church program. Actually this is an extension of my chapter on “Community in but not of Capitalism” in the Great Giveaway.

It is always easier to do justice at a distance. Normally evangelical churches do justice “down in the city” (because often we’re suburban churches) or far enough away that it does not come into direct contact with our lives. It’s a program. I don’t mean to demean these efforts. I’m just saying this is the way we do justice. Or we defer to the government, or to social agencies or parachurch organizations all of which we support in some overt monetary and prayerful way. Yet this too strangely keeps justice at a distance. And again justice is a program.

The battle we are in … is to recover a connection between the church and the poor, to bridge the distance, to see Christ’s justice as a way of life. To not allow the poor to be technologized or become a digital image splashed on a screen at a fundraiser, to not allow the poor to become a program that distances us, somehow we must seize opportunities to be with the poor, talk to the poor and have them be with us. For as much as these acts of mercy are truly needed, I believe it is only in the “physical” connection that speaking truth, showing love, spiritual and physical healing and real justice can take root in people’s lives. I hope to explain why in the posts to follow.

The kinds of things I hope to propose are so modest, so local and so basic that any church can do them. They are things that might seem all too obvious. We have done them in the past. We are so capable of doing them again. These kinds of acts are not going to threaten the whole structure of anyone’s life. But they may challenge how we live and open our hearts to the poor. These small acts may chase some more well off and “can’t be bothered” types from your church. But there is no need for great dramatics, no great programs that only a church of 2,500 could do. Rather I hope to propose some things that every small church could do with little or no money and just a little time, love and kindness and generosity. Yet I see these things being revolutionary if every evangelical church in N. America could make them part of our way of life.

Of course national politics has its place. Social agencies and para church groups are awesome. But in order to undercut the social fabric that under girds the evils, the sin and destruction of certain social structures, another socializing force must first exist to show the way. It must be face-to-face embodied presence of Christ that isn’t afraid to touch. It must be the Body of Christ inhabiting the world in His distinctive way of justice.

This approach to justice in the end asks that justice not be a program at our local church, but the virtue of a people that gather there, not something we do, but rather something we are.

Dostoevsky illustrates why justice cannot ultimately done at a distance in Brothers Karamazov (Part 2, Book 5 chapter 4 “Rebellion”) Here Dostoevsky has cynical Ivan wax eloquent to Alyosha about the plight of the poor and the suffering. He point blank says he has never been able to understand how it is possible to love one’s neighbors.

… and I mean precisely one’s neighbors, because I can conceive of the possibility of loving those far away. I read somewhere about a saint, John the Merciful, who, when a hungry, frozen beggar came to him and asked him to warm him, lay down with him, put his arms around him, and breathed into the man’s reeking mouth that was festering with the sores of some horrible disease. I’m convinced he did so in a state of frenzy, that it was a false gesture, that this act of love was dictated by some self-imposed penance. If I must love my fellow man, he had better hide himself, for no sooner do I see his face than there’s an end to my love for him.

A little later in the conversation Ivan says …

Beggars, particularly well-born beggars, should never show themselves in person, but should do their begging exclusively through newspaper advertisements. The idea of loving one’s neighbor is possible only as an abstraction: it may be conceivable to love one’s fellow man at a distance, but it is almost never possible to love him at close quarters. If life were like a theatre, the ballet where the beggars come out in silken rags and beg while they perform the graceful steps of a ballet, then I suppose we could enjoy looking at them. But even then, to enjoy looking at someone is still not the same as loving him.

This eloquent piece of cynicism reveals how far we fall short when we do justice at a distance. It is the struggle for all of us evangelicals whose first move has often been to do justice separate from the regular on going life of the church. When we pay others to do our justice, when we argue for policies that help people we never knew, when we send teams down to the urban landscape to help build homes for the poor we don’t really know, we are left untouched. And the gift is often impersonal and spatialized by the existing structures which overwhelm it. None of this denies the importance of these ways of doing mercy. It is just that they leave us separated from the poor. And many times these efforts don’t transform the structures because of this.

All of these other efforts should not be discarded. They should just be built upon the foundation of the church as a living embodiment of God’s justice taking shape in the world. I hope to make three posts about three urges we must resist if we would see justice take shape in/around the local neighborhood church.

Any helpful comments?

PS Did you see the news piece about the suburbs now having more people in poverty than the city, they’re just harder to find? whoah …

(sorry to everyone for wiping out the comments from this post when I retitled it)

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