12.28.2017

Respect Context

Picking up on a post from earlier this week, let me continue on this thread of "context is everything."

Consider the topics of gentrification in particular, or social justice more broadly.  We can speak, even eloquently and thoughtfully and precisely, from a place of contemplating the current dynamics of economics and criminal justice and human behavior and race, and yet ring hollow to many in the conversation.  How can that be?  It can be so if we do not pay some respect to the historical context in which such issues have emerged.  If we have not acknowledged the injustice and the violence that preceded and created our current times, and the state-sponsored complicity of it all, then for many we have missed the thing right in front of our eyes, and our interpretations and interventions are of no good.  Past motives and actions may not baked into present ones.  But to ignore them is to have no validity in the eyes of many to be able to speak to present ones.

I think about this a lot as a Christian, and not just because it is my hope that I can speak to issues of gentrification and social justice in a way that is eloquent and thoughtful and precise and also that is respectful of the injustice and violence that preceded and created our current times.  But I think about this a lot too because I think about what is an effective Christian witness in today's society.  And I worry that much of what passes for Christian witness in today's society is ineffective, because it comes across as intolerant, tone-deaf, and privileged, and I am particularly pointing a finger at myself and others who are well-educated and affluent Christians.

Sounds harsh, no?  But think about it.  When we describe the Christian life, how often do we speak of a closed community within which we have adopted a set of norms that work for us but provide no grace or goodness to others?  Would our prayers offer any point of connection to people different from us, or are they the sickly sweet petitions of someone who has never faced any real kind of adversity or oppression or want or pain?  Do we even have any real intersection with "the world out there"?  We describe "the world" as dark and lost and needy and dead, and we conceptually understand that it is not "out there" but all around us; and yet when do we actually connect with it, dine with it, really talk and touch with it?

The terrible irony is that it isn't actually that much of a stretch to provide that sort of context in our Christian witness.  After all, we follow and represent a God who is "well acquainted with sorrows," who wept over a lost city, who lost His only son, who endured betrayal and injustice and violence and abandonment.  And, many of us, even those who live in upper middle class comfort, are not strangers to sorrow.  We have lost loved ones, made terrible mistakes that have visited ruin on ourselves and others, and struggled with unspeakably dark emotional issues.

And yet in much of modern day Christianity in affluent communities, our outwardly lived life is one of near-perfection, our only "flaw" being how hard we are on ourselves for striving for such near-perfection.  Do our Christian circles accommodate people who are falling apart, whose marriages are fraying, whose prayer requests are the ones that cause people to step back and say "whoa"?  Again, the terrible irony is that our pride keeps us from living in this way, and from creating Christian communities that are this welcoming, and yet it is this very sense of deep imperfection and resulting desperation that is the best and most context-laden witness to the world around us.

When those who do not believe in Jesus see us parade around like some well-choreographed country club, there is disinterest or even disdain.  But when we are our true selves before each other and before our God, and when we speak of a God who was mocked and whipped and railroaded through a dubious trial to suffer an outrageous and publicly humiliating execution, then we may hold some relevance to their real pains and their real issues.  Let's hope for that kind of Christian witness today, the one that is true to the context of the God we worship and the flawed and broken condition in which we worship Him.
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