I’ve discovered that for many people, it’s best to take Peter Rollins in small chunks! In that spirit, here is a clip that gets at an important piece of Pete’s work. One of the critiques I hear of Pete’s work is that it’s not practical. I disagree. I think Pete’s work is immensely practical, it’s just that we don’t want to fully consider what it might mean to take him seriously or to admit that he has a point!
Here’s an example that’s relevant to this clip: Last evening my daughter came home excited about a summer service project through our local YFC Campus Life! I was excited to see her excited about service for all the reasons most of us get excited about such things. She will get a chance to serve others, make a difference, grow in her faith and perhaps it will make her a more compassionate and engaged adult. In other words, I hope that the service project will serve as a sort of “saint” training. However, if I really think about all of the kids I’ve taken on such trips through the years, something else is more likely to occur. What the trip will likely teach her is that service is something that you do, over break, for a week. At best it’s an add-on to your life and faith, not a way of life.
What I’ve discovered is that most people that participate in short-term missions projects don’t give their lives to building a world where, in Pete’s words, saints aren’t needed. In fact, quite the opposite is true, especially in white, well educated, upper middle class communities, with hip seeker churches. Most young people in this context learn to follow the American dream in a “Christian” way. They aren’t taught to live counter-cultural lives. They are taught to get a good education, land a good job, get married, have a wife/husband, 2.4 kids, a dog, a nice house and a stable 401k. And, they are taught to do all of that in a “Christian” way. That usually means don’t steal, cheat, curse too much or drink too much. Avoid overt expressions of racism (even if you church is all white), sexism (unless they are fundamentalists then it’s called Biblical womanhood or something like that), or any other isms. If you are going to hate anyone go with gay people or Muslims. Make sure you vote Republican, go to church, join a small group, listen to Christian music and tithe. And, once in a while, go down to the soup kitchen or local food pantry or disaster area and help others. While you are there try to forget how you actually live while you are not there. Of course, that’s a caricature, but It’s pretty close to the way I hear good “Christian” folk talking about life.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a misanthrope. Our church runs a local food pantry and I can see that in many cases it serves a need. But we’re honest about the limits. We know that we will never “food pantry” our community out of poverty. Our food pantry is a stop gap measure to a much bigger problem (affordable housing, living wages and affordable healthcare among them). We’re committed to working at those things too. We would love nothing more than to close the doors of the pantry – no Saints needed – because people had work, stable incomes, access to affordable housing, basic education, and access to healthcare.
So the question is, what good is the service project? It really depends on what they do, doesn’t it? More than that, it depends on how mom and dad live, doesn’t it? At the same time it matters what kind of church they go to and what they teach and model.
But when we are honest, too much of the time our service projects cover up the reality that our way of life is what makes the service project necessary to begin with. In that way service projects don’t function to change the status quo, or even push against it, they actually function to maintain it. They are what makes it possible for us to continue to live in consumptive patterns that are destroying the ecology, social fabric and other people’s lives while at the same time telling ourselves that we are good, generous, compassionate Christians.
The best service projects tell the unvarnished truth. They don’t manipulate folks out of guilt. They don’t sugar-coat the root causes of poverty. They let people experience the impact of their way of life on others. And they provide hope for a way forward. That way forward doesn’t involve more projects, it involves new ways of living! It involves people with power and wealth laying it down on behalf of the poor and marginalized. As followers of Jesus, we should be about making a world where the Mother Theresa’s and Martin Luther King Jr.’s have nothing to do. To the degree that our service projects can help do that, I’m all for it. To the degree that they help to obscure reality and maintain the status quo, they aren’t helpful.
This is where we, in the church, could learn a thing or two about community development. Often times church leaders, and youth guys who lead these churches, have absolutely no training in what it takes to transform a community from the ground up. We do service projects without thinking more deeply about how time, energy and money could be best used to help solve grass-roots problems. Too often, youth pastors unwittingly play the role of facilitator in covering up the ways we maintain the status quo.
We aren’t asking enough hard questions about the root causes of poverty, both locally and globally. Until we do, we will be part of the problem, not part of the solution.