Category: Service

the common good

Early in the book of Acts, we are given a glimpse of the Jesus movement in the city of Jerusalem in the weeks and months after his execution. Their life together reflected the contours of the ministry Jesus proclaimed among the peasants of Galilee: love one another, care for one another, support one another, and share generously with one another.

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at one house after another and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.[1]

Later, we read this similar account:

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the possessions belonging to him was his own, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.[2]

It appears from these texts that community members were not required to sell everything and become homeless. They met and ate in one another’s homes, indicating that they still maintained private home ownership and their furnishings, but sold other land and income property beyond what was needed for their own shelter. The message of Jesus was that the accumulation of personal wealth for one’s future was a spiritual problem. It can lead to self-concern and selfishness. Sufficiency for the day was the goal. Everything beyond that was dedicated to a common purse to help clothe, feed, and house the less fortunate in the community and those who fell on hard times.

He invited them to share their resources generously with others, even with strangers, trusting that this generosity would be shown to them in return. The followers of Jesus could do this because they were surrounded by a new family of brothers and sisters who would willingly support them in difficult times. The paradigm of Jesus only works within the context of a caring community.

For several hundred years after the death of Jesus, it was their distinctive behavior—the sharing of goods, the welfare of the destitute, a radical social equality, and a commitment to nonviolence—that set Christian communities apart from mainstream culture. From the first small peasant communities in rural Galilee and urban Jerusalem to the rapidly spreading house-churches of Paul in the trading towns of the Mediterranean and Aegean seas, the early Christian movement consisted of countercultural groups existing on the margins of society. In the beginning, they were composed of marginalized people—tenant farmers, fishermen, day laborers, slaves, and social outcasts—although soon they attracted artisans, merchants, and a few wealthy elites to their ranks. They became communities of radical equality that cut across class differences, economic status, ethnic backgrounds, and gender roles. These communities developed a lifestyle outside of accepted Roman norms that offered their members security in an insecure world without social safety nets. Each tight-knit community of compassion provided its members with food, shelter, and material support when necessary.

Pope Clement I (birth date unknown) served as an early bishop of Rome from 88 CE until his death in 99 CE. He described the motivation of the early Christian movement in this way:

He [the Christian] impoverishes himself out of love, so that he is certain he may never overlook a brother in need, especially if he knows he can bear poverty better than his brother. He likewise considers the pain of another as his own pain. And if he suffers any hardship because of having given out of his own poverty, he does not complain.

A very early manual of Christian living, the Didaché (dee-dah-KAY), written sometime in the mid to late first century, stated that a Christian must never claim that anything is their own property, but must share all things communally with their brothers and sisters.

You shall not turn away from him that is in want, but you shall share all things with your brother, and shall not say that they are your own.[3]

These fictive families were simply kindred spirits who were to be as close as or closer than any biological family. The Didaché (Greek for “teaching”) was a brief overview of the lifestyle of the Way—just sixteen concise chapters (really no more than sixteen short paragraphs or lists)—that was most likely used as a catechism for those who sought membership in the fledgling communities. It did not include a set of beliefs, but instead a compilation of behaviors and actions that were the essence of the Jesus movement. Topics included humility, compassion for others, radical generosity, helping the poor, welcoming strangers, loving and praying for one’s enemies, control of anger and jealousy, and nonviolent resistance to oppression. It is reported that the adult catechumens often studied for two years before being admitted to the ritual mysteries of Christianity—baptism and Eucharist—indicating that becoming part of the movement was nothing to be taken lightly and that there would be significant expectations and demands once one entered fully into fellowship. The Way was not about accepting a set of beliefs, but about embracing a radical lifestyle. Completion of catechumenal study led to adult baptism and inclusion in the Eucharistic rite (commonly known as the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion).

Justin Martyr (100–165), a second-century apologist (meaning he was a vocal advocate of the faith to Roman authorities), described the Christian lifestyle this way:

We who used to value the acquisition of wealth and possessions more than anything else now bring what we have into a common fund and share it with anyone who needs it. We used to hate and destroy one another and refused to associate with people of another race or country. Now, because of Christ, we live together with such people and pray for our enemies.

Irenaeus (130–202), a second-century bishop in what is now Lyon, France wrote:

Instead of the tithes which the [Hebrew] law commanded, the Lord [Jesus] said to divide everything we have with the poor. And he said to love not only our neighbors but also our enemies, and to be givers and sharers not only with the good but also to be liberal givers toward those who take away our possessions.

Lucius Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius (240–320) was a third-century Christian thinker and writer who became an advisor to the Roman emperor Constantine and served as a tutor to his son. He described the Way of Jesus in this manner:

If we all derive our origin from one man [Adam], whom God created, we are plainly all of one family. Therefore it must be considered an abomination to hate another human, no matter how guilty he may be. For this reason, God has decreed that we should hate no one, but that we should eliminate hatred. So we can comfort our enemies by reminding them of our mutual relationship. For if we have all been given life from the same God, what else are we but brothers? . . .  Because we are all brothers, God teaches us to never do evil to one another, but only good—giving aid to those who are oppressed and experiencing hardship, and giving food to the hungry.

Basil of Caesarea (330–379), a fourth-century bishop of Cappadocia in what is now Turkey, spent his family inheritance to benefit the poor of his diocese. He bought grain from wealthy landowners and then organized a soup kitchen, hospital, and shelter, distributing food to the poor during a famine that followed a drought. He wrote passionately that:

The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry man; the coat hanging in your closet belongs to the man who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the man who has no shoes; the money which you put into the bank belongs to the poor. You do wrong to everyone you could help, but fail to help.

The second-century Christian writer and theologian Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, known as Tertullian (160–220), writing from Carthage in North Africa about 170 years after the death of Jesus, explains that members of early Christian communities contributed to a common fund to aid their work with the poor in their town or city. It is in marked contrast to the radical economic sharing of the Jerusalem community as recounted in Acts a century earlier, yet it still shows a commitment to provide funds for the common good and care for the needy.

On the monthly day, if he likes, each puts in a small donation; but only if it be his pleasure, and only if he be able: for there is no compulsion; all is voluntary. These gifts are, as it were, piety’s deposit fund. For they are not taken thence and spent on feasts, and drinking-bouts, and eating-houses, but to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined now to the house; such, too, as have suffered shipwreck; and if there happen to be any in the mines, or banished to the islands, or shut up in the prisons . . . One in mind and soul, we do not hesitate to share our earthly goods with one another.[4]

Throughout the first three centuries of the Jesus movement in its many forms, people were more attracted to the early church communities for how they lived than for what they preached. It was compassionate service to those in need, not a theology of personal salvation leading to a heavenly afterlife, that attracted people to the faith. Tertullian wrote:

What marks us in the eyes of our enemies is our loving kindness. “Only look,” they say, “look how they love one another.”[5]

The very earliest communities were communalistic (even communistic in the truest sense), composed of persons who were willing to risk their economic future—income, wealth, and possessions—in a common venture. At first, they did not just make contributions at their comfortable discretion, but radically put everything they had into a pool to maintain the common welfare. That is a risky way of living, relying on the community to respond generously in turn when one’s own needs are on the line.

Throughout history, nearly every society has favored an elite group of individuals and families at the expense of the majority of less-fortunate inhabitants. For thousands of years, economic elites have rigged society in their favor by crafting systems that would benefit their prosperity and ensure their control over the nation’s political and economic affairs. Historically, they have used unjust economic systems to extract wealth from the sweat of slaves, peasants, serfs, laborers, and the working class while contributing little to the common welfare. Social control has been maintained with violence and military might, often supported by religious institutions. These societies have invariably been patriarchies where the authority and desires of men have dominated the lives of women and children. The system has frequently favored one race, tribe, or ethnic group over others.

Biblical scholar Walter Wink (1935–2012) has referred to these societies as manifestations of an enduring domination system that has been part of the human story since the rise of civilization in the ancient Near East. Wink describes the domination system in this way:

It is characterized by unjust economic relations, oppressive political relations, biased race relations, patriarchal gender relations, hierarchical power relations, and the use of violence to maintain them all. No matter what shape the dominating system of the moment might take (from the ancient Near Eastern states to the Pax Romana to feudal Europe to communist state capitalism to modern market capitalism), the basic structure has persisted now for at least five thousand years, since the rise of the great conquest states of Mesopotamia around 3000 BCE.[6]

We easily observe the domination system in the structure of kingdoms, empires, and dictatorships. It has been embodied in traditional customs and religious teachings throughout history. But when democratic systems in a largely secular culture are controlled by wealthy and powerful forces, the same results occur. Massive tax cuts for the wealthiest, bloated military budgets, welfare for giant corporations, vast prison systems, and cuts to social services for the poorest Americans are all signs of a domination system.

Walter Wink notes that the teachings of Jesus were a prescriptive remedy to the domination system of his time. The kingdom of God that he described is an antidote to the disease of the domination system. The vision of Jesus stands in direct opposition to the political and economic aims of these pervasively unjust social structures. It is a vision of the domination system turned upside-down. Therefore, every act of resistance to the domination system, every protest of its unjust laws and structures, every effort to transform it for the common good is a sign of the coming kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed.

A radically loving, generous, sharing, and serving kinship became the hallmark of the early Christian communities. For over 300 years, these innovative small groups, based on the teachings of Jesus, remained as distinctive communities of generosity, justice, nonviolence, and hope in an oppressive world. Then, in the fourth century, the Roman emperor Constantine invited the church to participate in the power of global empire and everything changed.

Today in America, thanks to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, we have minimal government to help the poor, the elderly, and the infirm. But conservative Christians claim that Jesus would not have wanted us to support them this way. They point to the fact that Jesus never called upon the despotic governments of his time to play this role. But this fails to take into account that governments of his day never played a role in helping the poor. Rather, the rich took all the tax money and distributed it among themselves, spending on lavish palaces, public buildings, roads, and armies. The alternative communities of Jesus had no choice but to help themselves.

But things are very different today. We established a government to provide for the common welfare. And ask any Christian social service agency and they will tell you that without government aid, they could not meet the overwhelming needs of suffering people. Christians who think that they can do it on their own are simply dreaming. Christians these days are just not that radically generous anymore. We must all contribute out of our common purse, and that means using our tax dollars to benefit the common good.

We cannot eliminate the dark side of our human condition, but we can summon the better angels of our nature to make us a more humane, kind, and decent people. Even if persistent social selfishness cannot be eliminated, it can be mitigated and minimized by people of good will. The hope of the reign of God is that a transformation of the politics of selfishness is possible through the efforts of transformed individuals who are committed to nonviolent social change and motivated by love and compassion.

 

[1] Acts 2: 43–47

[2] Acts 4:32-37

[3] Didache, Chapter 4.

[4] Tertullian, Apologeticus, Chapter XXXIX.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Wink, Powers That Be, 39–40.

Compassion in action: charity, service, and justice

Compassion is a feeling of empathy with the suffering of others, the capacity to feel how others feel. The Latin root of the word compassion is a compound of com (with) and passio (suffer), which gives us the meaning to suffer with. Compassion is entering into the pain of another. It is feeling the suffering of someone else—experiencing it, sharing it, tasting it. It is identifying with the sufferer, being in solidarity with the sufferer.

True compassion is being so moved at a gut level that we are moved to the point of action. Jesus was moved by compassion for the poor. We are told that, “He had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36) And in the parable of the Good Samaritan he demonstrated that the one who loves the neighbor is the one who shows compassion on the one who suffers, even if that person is culturally defined as the enemy.

Marcus Borg (1942–2015) has said that, “For Jesus, compassion was the central quality of God and the central moral quality of a life centered in God.” The Pharisees represented a theology of holiness, according to Borg, which was based on holiness as a defining characteristic of God: “Be holy for I, Yahweh, am holy.” (Leviticus 11:44) Jesus proclaimed a theology of compassion based on an alternative characterization of God’s essence: “Be compassionate as your Father in heaven is compassionate.” (Luke 6:36) These differing theologies led them to different ways of living.

compassionate action

Compassionate action usually takes three forms: charity, service, and justice. Although some would include service under the first category, charity more specifically involves gifts of money, clothing, food, or other material goods, but does not necessarily involve an investment of our time and talents. Charity is important, but writing a check to a worthy does not really change us in a fundamental way. Although charitable giving demonstrates a generous nature, we often remain distant from those we seek to help. Service, however, involves us face-to-face with those in need. It can be an immensely transformative experience that can change us from our natural state of self-centeredness into increasingly selfless people. Perhaps it is the only thing that will. Although generosity sometimes leads to self-satisfaction, service often becomes a very humbling experience.

Charity and service are both personal forms of compassionate action. Their objective is to alleviate the effects of suffering in the world. Justice, on the other hand, seeks to eliminate the root causes of suffering. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968) said:

We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey through life. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understands that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring.

Justice is focused on transforming the social structures and systems that produce poverty and suffering. Justice is the social form of compassionate action. It is the political means of caring for the least of these. The difference between charity and service on the one hand and justice on the other is this: charity and service seek to heal wounds, while justice seeks to end the social structures that create wounded people in the first place. William Sloane Coffin (1924–2006) has said: “The bible is less concerned with alleviating the effects of injustice, than in eliminating the causes of it.” Still, all three of these are necessary components of what German martyr and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) described as righteous action in the world. Together, righteous action and contemplative prayer would form the essence of a  “religionless Christianity” in our day.

Our being Christian today will be limited to two things: prayer and righteous action among [humanity]. All Christian thinking, speaking, and organizing must be born anew out of this prayer and action.

Continue reading

follow Jesus: a hymn

Music: “Untitled Hymn (Come to Jesus)” by Chris Rice

 

Hear the call of Jesus
Stirring in your heart
A voice of love that calls to you today
So follow Jesus
Follow Jesus
Follow Jesus with love

In a land of plenty
Children cry in need
Stir up your love to feed them every day
So feed the hungry
Feed the hungry
Feed the hungry with love

Living without shelter
Lost and all alone
Stir up your love to house the homeless ones
So house the homeless
House the homeless
House the homeless with love

Standing on your doorstep
Not a friend in sight
Stir up your love to welcome strangers in
So welcome strangers
Welcome strangers
Welcome strangers with love

Listen to their voices
All around the world
Stir up your love to serve all those in need
Go serve the needy
Serve the needy
Serve the needy with love

Call upon this nation
Brothers, sisters all
Stir up your love for justice in our world
And work for justice
Work for justice
Work for justice with love

Go, follow Jesus
Follow Jesus
Follow Jesus with love

 

 

© 2015 Kurt Struckmeyer

For more background on this hymn see a previous post titled “writing new lyrics

advent: the waiting is over

The season of Advent is upon us. For most people it is a flurry of activity to prepare for the Christmas and New Year holidays: a time of decoration, a time of shopping, a time of baking, a time of lights and candles. For some, it is simply the most stressful time of the year. But historically, advent has been a time of inward preparation in anticipation of the birth of Jesus. It recalls the themes of a late-term pregnancy: waiting and suspense, hope and expectation. Advent literally means “arrival.”

During the season of Advent, the church celebrates Christ’s coming into the world and watches with expectant hope for his return. We are reminded that we live in a time between Arrival One and Arrival Two.

In the biblical story, especially in readings from Isaiah, Advent reflects a people waiting for a messiah—an anointed conquering king—who will save them from oppression and despair. Themes of darkness and light, of night and a new dawn, provide metaphors for a dramatic change to come. In Christian theology, Advent reflects the idea that God is coming into our midst, that a divine child is arriving who will restore creation and set things right—to make us better individuals, to heal our broken relationships, to transform our world with justice and peace. Those were the promises of Arrival One.

However, things are not better—injustice is the norm, wars persist, the poor continue to suffer, the planet is in crisis. The world is still mired in darkness and despair. Arrival One was insufficient. So we wait for Arrival Two—for Jesus to return and set things right. Ultimately, we are looking for a supernatural messiah to save us from the toxic mess we  created. And so we wait. And we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

But perhaps we have it all backwards. Instead of waiting for God to act to set things right, perhaps God has been waiting for us to act. The message of Jesus is that we are the ones who are called to make a better world. If you are looking for a messiah, wait no longer; simply look into the mirror.

The readings for Arrival Two remind us that Christ will come again, and we are to prepare for the momentous day. But perhaps the return of Jesus is not found in the future. Maybe his return is found daily in those who follow him and embody his message and mission. Christian theology, beginning with the Apostle Paul, reminds us that we are the body of Christ. Jesus has returned in us and through us and among us. We are the hands, feet, and voice of Jesus. If the spirit of Jesus is to be manifested in the world today, we are the divine actors who will play the role. The truth is that Christ is always coming—through us.

The message of the Arrival Two lessons is one of preparedness. Be vigilant, we are told. You are to be the light of the world. Keep your lamps trimmed and burning. Prepare for the task ahead, and do so quickly. For soon the seasons of Advent and Christmas will be over and as Howard Thurman wrote, then “the work of Christmas begins.”

“When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.”

God is waiting. We have much work to do. What are we waiting for?

prayer for discipleship

God of love,
source of mercy and compassion,
weave your dream for the world
into the fabric of our lives. 

Remove the scales from our eyes
and lift the indifference from our hearts,
so that we may see your vision –
a new reign of justice and compassion
that will renew the earth.

Transform our lives,
so that we may accomplish your purpose.

Anoint us with your spirit of love
that we might bring good news to the oppressed,
bind up the brokenhearted,
and proclaim release to the captive.

Give us a new urgency
and a new commitment
to feed the hungry,
clothe the naked,
shelter the homeless,
and visit those who live in isolation.

Help us to reach out to those
whom no one else will touch,
to accept the unacceptable,
and to embrace the enemy.

Surround us with your love,
fill us with your grace,
and strengthen us for your service.

Empower us to respond to the call of Jesus –
to deny ourselves,
to take up our crosses,
and to follow.

Make us your disciples.

Amen

 

© 2010 Kurt Struckmeyer

some thoughts on loving-kindness

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
– The prophet Micah (NRSV)

I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.
– Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire”

Can kindness save the world? That is the question I posed as I reflected on the theme of ‘transforming the world through loving kindness.’ Are we really talking about changing the world through small acts of kindness, perhaps from one stranger to another? If so, are we discussing a movement like London’s ‘Kindness Offensive,’ known for orchestrating large-scale ‘random acts of kindness?’ Although kindness is an important virtue, and the world is all the better for it, can friendly, gentle, caring, considerate, and helpful people change the entrenched systems of domination, poverty, and violence that we face in our neighborhoods, nation, and the global community? Kindness may give pleasure to others and make us feel better in return, but I suspect that transforming the world will require more than simple acts of kindness that lift someone’s spirits.

Perhaps the answer to my question can be found by exploring the meaning of the phrase ‘loving kindness.’ That intriguing expression offers new insights. There are two ways of looking at this phrase and it turns out they are interconnected. The first, and perhaps the most obvious, is in reference to the poetry of Micah 6:8 in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation—“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” In this context, it is important to grasp what it means to ‘love kindness,’ (a verb with an objective noun), particularly in partnership with such concepts as ‘justice’ and ‘humility.’ A second way of looking at the phrase is by examining the peculiar hyphenated word ‘loving-kindness’ (a compound noun), invented by Miles Coverdale (1488-1569) when he created the first English translation of the Bible in 1535. If this is the case, one wonders why ‘kindness’ needs a modifier. Is there any other kind of kindness than the loving kind? Continue reading

beyond ritual: a life of prayer and action

Go and learn what this means, “I desire compassion, not sacrifice.”
–Jesus (Matthew 9:13)

In March 1943, the Gestapo arrested and imprisoned Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young Lutheran theologian and pastor, because documents linked him to subversive activities against the Reich. Two years later, just a few days before the end of the war in Europe, he was hanged at the Flossenbürg concentration camp.

A year before his execution, as he sat alone inside cell 92 in Berlin’s Tegel prison, Bonhoeffer reflected on the state of the church to which he had devoted his adult life. In a letter to his close friend Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer wrote about the seeming ineffectiveness of Christianity—and religion in general—in contemporary life.

We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as ‘religious’ do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by ‘religious’…

And if therefore man becomes radically religionless—and I think that is already more or less the case (else, how is it, for example, that this war, in contrast to all previous ones, is not calling forth any ‘religious’ reaction?)—what does that mean for ‘Christianity’?

In light of the depravity of the Nazi state and the horrific violence of the Second World War, perpetrated by religious people on all sides, the church had proven to be either incapable or unwilling to deal with the evils of the modern world. For many, the religious practices of Christianity had become personal and private, and were largely divorced from social ethics and politics. The mainstream churches in the so-called “Christian nations” proved to have no prophetic voice.

Bonhoeffer was disturbed that religious people were not speaking out and their social and political struggles were conducted without drawing on their faith—or more likely, that their faith had become so disjointed from social and political conditions that they saw no connection. If religious institutions in every nation were willingly transformed into servants and chaplains of their respective states, and if Christians were not raising a prophetic voice for peace and justice, Bonhoeffer asked if there was some other way that one could be a Christian in a world of continual injustice, suffering, and violence.

Are there religionless Christians? If religion is only a garment of Christianity—and even this garment has looked very different at different times—then what is a religionless Christianity?

Bonhoeffer was struggling with what remains when the typical traits of a religion—clergy, religious institutions, sacred rites, orthodox beliefs, and a rigid moral code—are eliminated. How would that redefine Christianity and what would become of the church as a result? Continue reading

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