To do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.
Micah 6:8. But also the motto for the Back Bay Mission where 14 of us will be headed on Friday for a week’s worth of work helping to feed the hungry, clothe the tattered and house the homeless, to paraphrase Jesus.
That said, I do not plan on talking about Back Bay mission before I’ve been there. Instead I want to talk about the common cause for justice which we all share as fellow citizens of humanity and suggest that the usual distinction or division between the realm of the sacred and the realm of the secular only helps to perpetuate the abhorrent condition of poverty around the world. If we are to win the battle against poverty, we will have to take upon ourselves, whether we be Christian or Jew, Buddhist or atheist, responsibility for the task. In other words, I want to suggest that there can be no meaningful division in the meaning of morality between the religious and the non-religious, or in our case today, between those of us heading south to minister in Biloxi and those of you staying home to minister at home.
A usual criticism leveled against mission trips like the one we will be taking next week is that we might better use the money we have spent on our plane tickets by staying home and putting that money to work in our own communities.
The criticism has some merit to it. No doubt, if all of the money and energy that is spent by groups like us to travel to far off locations were spent in actual projects more might be accomplished.
But the fact of the matter is that the sum total of our average plane ticket, if we were to donate it to the recently constructed Habitat House, would have paid for a third of the plumber’s bill. Like the misplaced effort of trying to balance our church budget by holding tag sales — it quickly becomes apparent that this is misplaced criticism, too.
Furthermore the criticism misses an important, and for me, decisive point: mission trips build a sense of inclusion. More than travel, though travel does this too, mission trips help us to see that people who are not apparently like us, people we might consider our enemies, people we might not other-wise consider as members of the great human race, love the same things we love, care for the same things we care for: happiness, community, family, children, meaningful work, peace. A sense of inclusion prevents us from becoming purely self-interested, and frees us to act on behalf of the 1.2 billion people who live in abject poverty and dehumanizing conditions.
Despite our country’s generally self-interested stance toward the world, a stance clearly expressed by Arizona Senator John McCain on a talk show last weekend regarding the announced timeline of troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, “You don’t fight and conduct wars that way. You win and then you leave,” there are many countries of the world who are taking the opposite stance — that in order to win the war on poverty, you do not simply throw money at it and then leave. Poverty is a complex social phenomenon, and it takes people committed to engaging these phenomenon and helping others engage them where it exists.
Poverty is neither inevitable nor immutable. Poverty is a constructed social and economic reality. The poor are not poor because they are physiologically or mentally inferior to those of us living in better conditions. Nor are they poor because the have a different set of values than we do. What we begin to realize, when we put our feet on the ground in mission, or in the battle against poverty, is that the poverty of the world is often a direct consequence of society’s failure to establish its social and economic relations on the basis of equity and fairness.
The Assistant Director-General for Social and Human Sciences at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, a French African man named Pierre Sane, has noted that many factors contribute to poverty and that these factors exist at every level from the global to the most local. He says,
At the national level, two factors are among the most complex and politically controversial. The first is the distribution of power, authority and resources among different levels of government; second is the quality of ‘governance’ in terms of its responsiveness, accountability, transparency, and the quality of its engagement with civil society. But what can be done, he asks, to make governments in both developed and developing countries more accountable toward the poor?
I do not have the time to delve into the details of Sane’s solution to the question of poverty. I do, however, find it generally persuasive. The argument is based on the idea of civil rights and he concludes by saying: “If we were to abolish poverty on the grounds that it is a systematic and continuous violation of human rights, the condition of poverty would have a new status. Instead of being a deplorable consequence or accepted status quo, it would become an injustice.”
Sane’s last statement is worth repeating, “Instead of being a deplorable consequence or accepted status quo, it would become an injustice.” Jesus, in his first public sermon makes a similar statement.
You recall the story. Jesus comes to his hometown to deliver his inaugural sermon. Everything started out well for him. In fact the crowd was fairly bursting with pride that their young fellow could speak so eloquently. But, as we all know this pride quickly turned into deadly anger. Jesus’ text for that first sermon was just the kind of text that can easily make a people seeking to feel good about themselves — feel good. He chose the prophet Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Ah, yes, they all thought to themselves — our religion does a lot of good. And they patted themselves on their backs and purred like happy cats while he spoke.
But then Jesus turned a critical lens on his country’s record in dealing with the poor and the imprisoned. Instead of merely repeating that old adage that poverty and landlessness are deplorable consequences of the economy, but nevertheless the way things have to be; instead of praising his contemporaries for holding an ideal which they love to love, Jesus proclaims that poverty is an injustice and that to the extent that poverty exists, we live and trade and pay taxes unjustly, criminally.
What about today’s stories though — a series of anecdotes of Jesus healing by casting out demons? Aren’t they proof that in fact Jesus wanted to leave the politics to the politicians and the act of being kind to the poor by doing justice to spiritual people like us? Aren’t they proof that Jesus proclaimed an ideal that could only be attained in and through religious means, never meant for widespread, legal enactment?
To begin with, as a modern person, I cannot and do not believe in the existence of spirits and demons. But I can understand that ancient people did believe in such things. And to understand that is to begin to understand what these stories mean. Such beliefs made sense of mysterious bodily functions and dysfunctions. Health and illness were understood to have a social component. To be ill was to be unfit for society. So society cast them outside the community until they were somehow exorcised of the demon.
To be clear about the context is to begin to understand what Jesus is about when he “heals” people. “Jesus engages in battle the things that render one unclean and outside the company of God and humanity. His ministry meant inclusion for the ostracized.” (Stephen Patterson, The God of Jesus) Jesus was involved in something more than simply healing people — he was exposing the injustice perpetrated knowingly by a society in order to maintain its status quo and calling it criminal.
Last weekend, in Baltimore, Bishops from around the United States Roman Catholic Church gathered for a conference on exorcism. The New York Times reports the bishops as saying: “There are only a handful of priests in the country trained as exorcists, but they say they are overwhelmed with requests from people who fear they are possessed by the Devil.” As I said, I don’t believe in spirits or demons, so I find this curious and a little disturbing.
While it is certainly plausible to believe that Jesus viewed himself as a supernatural healer or shaman, modern expressions of exorcism seem to me only a variation of the kind destructive dualism that shunts off real social problems to the religious realm, which has no hope of ever actually doing anything more than band-aid mission, all so that we might ease our consciences and maintain the status quo in our political, economic and social realms.
Instead Jesus envisioned that we might all be ministers of the kingdom of love: mechanics, tax advisors, politicians, attorney’s at law — all each and every day seeking to follow the prophet’s injunction to do justice, to love kindness, to walk with God, in the work we do.
So, while some of us are making new friends in Mississippi next week, in the hopes of building bridges across the chasms of fear that keep us from our best communities, those of us not going to Biloxi, engage in ministry to no less a degree because we are called in all we do to love God with our whole selves and to open our eyes to the kingdom of God breaking upon us even now. Amen.