Revisiting Christ in missions and service in the age of selfies
Bec Cranford serves as the Director of Community Relations and Volunteer Services at the Gateway Center, and supervises a contextual education course at Candler School of Theology.
Poverty pornography, charity charlatans, and self-serving service versus relational missions honoring Christ in the least of these
As we mature in Christ, many of us will become dissatisfied with churches that have a mentality of country clubs, and market places. We will desire to be more missional. (Go Ye, not Sit Ye. Matthew 28.)
But often times, our mission/service/charity can take on a form that is unknowingly, about us instead of about others. In this little post, I will talk about the example of Christ in mission, how we can miss the mark in serving, and how we can better follow Christ when we serve at the food bank, at the homeless service agency, or at the soup kitchen.
The Example of Christ
Christ time and time again, demonstrated that his calling consisted of others, and ultimately died because he dared to defy religious and political powers to stand up for others. His preaching centered on what is translated as “the Kingdom of God,” or an other-worldly regime in which loving kindness, justice, and righteousness obliterates racism, sexism, and other human made systems of separation and schisms that injure others. Christ hung out with those who weren’t often welcomed into the religious hierarchy and those who were oppressed by the Empire.
His ministry was not only to 12 men of varying trades, classes, and ideologies, (These 12 were often diametrically opposed theological and cultural-political beliefs), but to women of means, women who had been pushed into prostitution for survival, and to others who ached for new life apart from their own sins, and the corporate sins of the world. Additionally, he ministered to others marginalized by the empire and religious systems. Many law-abiding people were so afraid of being defiled by association, that they called others evil, and further pushed the abused and the disparaged to the edges of society. They had lifted up purity codes and small minutiae over the greatest law to love one another. (That last line should remind us of how the church now often gets confused about the lesser things, and forgets to love one another)
Christ treated each person with equity, except early on in his ministry when he encountered some of those who stood in power, or those he considered to be the oppressors. We see him being snarky in conversations with the religious leaders, the rich, the political leaders, and even to the Canaanite/Sumerian Woman.
(One theory of the reason Christ becomes snarky with this woman is because of her nationality, that formerly oppressed the Jewish people. Perhaps, he was testing her faith as someone who was not the tribe of Israel, but more likely, he was thinking of her as a descendant from an empire who had formerly enslaved the Hebrew People.)
Yet, he grows in compassion for all people as he grows in power and wisdom. And we find Christ in places that the religious would fear to tread. He offers relationship and healing with the very poor, widows, orphans, prisoners, the sick, refugees, beggars, those with mobility differences, the old, the young, scandalous women and men, tax collectors, lepers, and even a roman centurion with a slave boy. Ultimately, he even dies for those religious, oppressors, and persecutors, saying “father forgive them for they know not what they do.”
We see Christ heal the blind, when the disciples desire rather not to engage in relationship, but offer a theological debate about sin and suffering. Christ shuts this down. And quickly rebukes the newly prideful disciples, by saying “Neither but that the Glory of God be revealed.”
We see Christ ask for water from a woman who had previously had five husbands, in a time when a Jewish man talking to an ethnically mixed woman of questionable sexual purity could elicit a hateful reaction.
We see him always going towards the fringe.
But it wasn’t so that people could glory about him. As a matter of fact, he fled from the crowds often. He pointed to his “father” and he warned about letting people see your good works. In addition, Christ humbled himself to death, even death on a cross. (death on a tree, or wood, or being naked existed as a shameful and cursed thing according to some who were clothed in religiosity). He even told many not to tell anyone. Yet his fame spread, and people wanted to be close to him.
How did Christ handle this temptation for fame and power? He quoted scripture back to Satan, during his temptation- because his identity was in the “beloved,” not in his fame or power. How to we find our identity? How do we avoid the temptation?
So if we aren’t to seek recognition or sound a trumpet before we do good works, how are we to proceed?
Christ’s ministry was about relationships. His message of the “kingdom” wasn’t about a few having esoteric knowledge, but a transformational gospel that challenged everything- available to everyone.
And if we take Instagram pictures of those we are serving, are we objectifying that person as a project?
There’s a fine line between public relations and hurting others. I have many friends named “Madison” who grew up in the suburbs, who move to Africa, and then post pictures of little brown children all over facebook. Do the little brown children know they are on facebook? Are they excited to be thought of as co-learners, and co-conspirators of the gospel taking place in Africa, or are they being looked upon as a project. Confession: early in my Christian journey, I thought I had the message and I was bringing it to others. Little did I realize God was already alive and active in a place. So Am I a hypocrite? Yes and maybe. But I am committed to continuing to change from glory to glory, and following those dangerous and subversive teachings of Christ.
Are we lifting that person up? Maybe. If Shelia is a crack head, and we take pictures of Shelia getting a sandwich from Bob, and it looks like its all about Bob, than it’s probably at Shelia’s expense. Yet, If Shelia desires to share her story, and wants to do it to bring glory to God, than how do we do that ethically, without Bob stepping in the way?
How can Bob pass the microphone to Shelia? How can Bob honor the Jesus inside of Shelia?
What is poverty pornography, charity charlatans, and self-serving service?
Don’t get me wrong, I take selfies all the time. I love feeling Good about myself. I love to have people hug me. BUT, am I using someone else to feel good? Do they know that they’ve been my token recipient of charity? If i am turning someone into a thing-or object- to make me feel good, isn’t that a form or pornography? Does it bring forth life, or is it masturbation?
What if we took Matthew 25:31-46 serious?
What if we treated people with dignity?
Why do the prophets continually rebuke the religious? What forms of idolatry are in our hearts? Where do we forget the outsiders? WHY are there outsiders?
Is our service about how we feel, or is it as much about transforming our hearts as it is about helping others?
Frameworks to bring Christ back into mission
I think the parable of Matthew 25:31-46 provides an excellent framework for service. Also, Philippians 2. The Kenosis passage reminds us that while we have God inside of us, we can be like Christ who humbled himself to serve. And if we think about Matthew 25 and its implications, that means we begin to see those marginalized not as sinners needing salvation, but as Jesus, whom we will serve and also-
DARE I SAY, ask to learn from.
Imagine if we saw those pushed to our edges as God-in-the-flesh? How would that change our service work.
How do we teach our missions team group this?
There’s a lot more to be said about this. But it’s my ramblings for today.
Here’s a poem, loosely based off of Matthew 23:
Rather, I prefer right-relational-Justice and Equity. When you finally realize that Christ among you might smell like urine or sleep under a bridge,
when you finally see that Christ among you, may have had to hustle to get food.
When you finally open your eyes, and say “I will serve the other as if s/he is the Christ.” That is what I desire.
Woe to you, who disenfranchise your prophets and murder them. Woe to you, who Blow the trumpet of a youtube video before you go do good works, for you have your reward. You are like the fake religious. Woe to you, who turn people into objects for you to feel good about, you are pornographers.
Take advantage of them, and hurt them, you wicked. You have no idea what you do. When will you repent? When will you learn?
I have longed to hold you close, and you would not have me.
If our ideas of missions, charity, or service make people into projects, than we have missed the mark.