There was once a fiery preacher who possessed a powerful but unusual gift. He found that, from an early age, when he prayed for individuals, they would supernaturally lose all of their religious convictions. They would invariably lose all their beliefs about the prophets, sacred Scriptures, and even God. So he learned not to pray for people but instead limited himself to preaching inspiring sermons and doing good works.
However, one day while traveling across the country, the preacher found himself in conversation with a businessman who happened to be going in the same direction. The businessman was a very powerful and ruthless merchant banker, one who as honored by his colleagues and respected by his adversaries.
Their conversation began because the businessman, possessing a deep, abiding faith, had noticed the preacher reading from the Bible. He introduced himself to the preacher and they began to talk. As they chatted together this powerful man told the preacher all about his faith in God and his love of Christ. He spoke of how his work did not really define who he was but was simply what he had to do.
“The world of business is a cold one,” he confided to the preacher, “and in my line of work I find myself in situations that challenge my Christian convictions. But I try, as much as is possible, to stay true to my faith. Indeed, I attend a local church every Sunday, participate in a prayer circle, engage in some youth work, and contribute to weekly Bible study. These activities help to remind me of who I really am.”
After listening carefully to the businessman’s story, the preacher began to realize the purpose of his unseemly gift. So he turned to the businessman and said, “Would you like me to pray a blessing into your life?”
The businessman readily agreed, unaware of what would happen. Sure enough, after the preacher had muttered a simple prayer, the man opened his eyes in astonishment.
“What a fool I have been for all these years!” he proclaimed. “It is clear to me now that there is no God above, who is looking out for me, and that there are no sacred texts to guide me, and there is no Spirit to inspire and protect me.”
As they parted company the businessman, still confused by what had taken place, returned home. But now that he no longer had any religious beliefs, he began to find it increasingly difficult to continue in his line of work. Faced with the fact that he was now just a hard-nosed businessman working in a corrupt system, rather than a man of God, he began to despise his own activity. Within months he had a breakdown, and soon afterward gave up his line of work completely. Feeling better about himself, he then went on to give to the poor all the riches he had accumulated and began to use his considerable managerial expertise to challenge the very system he once participated in, and to help those who had been oppressed by it.
One day, many years later, he happened upon the preacher again while walking through town. He ran over, fell at the preacher’s feet, and began to weep with joy. Eventually he looked up at the preacher and smiled, “Thank you, my dear friend, for helping me discover my faith.”
Question: What if the very things we do to demonstrate that we are good Christian people, who care about others, are the very things that keep us fully participating in the injustice and oppression of the world?
While in a conversation with church leaders in Colombia, I shared that I felt like the challenge before me was to be as faithful to Jesus in my context as the Colombian Mennonite Church is in theirs. Another member of our group shared that they felt we were doing that and listed a number of good things (feeding programs, Mennonite Central Committee, etc., etc.). Their answer was the answer I have always been taught. Then I began to wonder – the painful curse of a curious mind. How many years have we been engaging in all of those good things? We measure them in decades. If those good things truly are what it means to be faithful to Jesus, as co-laborers in his Kingdom, ushering in a tidal wave of justice then why is it that nothing changes?
I think I know why! It’s because most of the good things we do don’t challenge, resist or offer an alternative to the status quo. Quite the opposite, they ensure that the status quo continues untouched. Those good things, in reality, are the status quo. So we can keep on sending checks, and canning meat, and having relief sales and the powers-that-be aren’t the slightest bit anxious. As long as we keep on funding our 401K plan, buying new cars every 3 – 5 years, investing in homes, remodeling those homes, getting the latest fashions, drinking Starbucks coffee, and ordering our lives around our material wants and desires, everything will be OK. If we need to give money to charity, spend time on a work trip, go to a Bible study to convince ourselves that we aren’t on the upper end of a socio/economic food chain; that we don’t benefit from the suffering of others; that we aren’t participants in an unjust, corrupt, violent and oppressive global economic system, then so be it. As long as we keep participating, the system will give us some room for these impotent gestures of solidarity with the poor, the marginalized and the outcast.
Questions: What would happen if we stopped all forms of charity? Is it possible that we would see the world, and our place in it, more clearly. Would we have an epiphany like the man in Peter’s story? Would we be horrified by our own actions if we didn’t have the good stuff convincing us that we are OK? Would we then give ourselves fully to making the world a truly better place, where living out God’s shalom is our work?