The Church’s Vision Problem

3528661Last week, I was privileged to attend the Christian Reformed Church’s 2013 Multi-Ethnic Conference. The keynote speaker was Rev. Alexia Salvatierra, an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and former Executive Director of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice. She is a leader in the faith-based economic justice movement in the United States among evangelical Christians.  I want to share some highlights from her wonderful keynote speech at the conference.

(Side-note: Yes, I know I had not blogged for a few months and I apologize for missing my commitment. A combination of ministry busy-ness, a major writing project, and unforeseen family stressors have conspired to keep me away from blogging.)

Jesus saw … and had compassion

Drawing from Matthew 9:36 – “When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (NRSV) – Salvatierra made a number of observations.

First, she said that the church does not have a compassion problem. It has a vision problem. Christians and the church, in general, are compassionate and willing to help when there is a need. The problem is that they sometimes fail to see certain groups of people who are in need. The church fails to see the economic justice needs of people of color, in particular.

When I brought this point up in a friendly gathering with fellow pastors, one of them brought up the recent Tim Bosma tragedy. Bosma, a member of my Christian Reformed (CRC) denomination, was found senselessly murdered while trying to sell his truck to some strangers. And almost the entire CRC denomination rallied to support and pour out their sorrows to the Bosma family. And this is wonderful, indeed. Yet, as my CRC pastor friend pointed out, hundreds of such senseless deaths occur to people of color across the US and Canada all the time, but where is the church’s outpouring of grief and rallying of support for them? This is an example of how the church has a vision problem: it has selective vision of whose needs are seen, and hence, where compassion ends up being given.

[Note: In hindsight, it was foolish of me to use this example. The time is probably too fresh and too close to the tragic death of Tim Bosma. I do not mean to disrespect the Bosma family. This is not meant to criticize anyone who has helped the Bosma family, nor to the families and friends of Tim Bosma, nor even to the local church that Tim Bosma belongs to. I apologize for any unintended hurt. Tim Bosma’s death is tragic – as I wrote, senseless and should never be. And, like many in the CRC, my prayers have gone out to the Bosma family. The point here is that the denomination as a whole acted without precedent, especially in asking all the CRC churches to sing “In Christ Alone” in memory and honor of Tim Bosma, in showing support and grief to the death of one member. That, as I said, is a wonderful thing. But why doesn’t the denomination pour the same amount of energy and resources into making all the churches mourn and grief for the plight of ethnic minorities, the sex trafficking of women across the globe, the tragedies of countless undocumented migrant workers, many who are Christian, many who are forced to be undocumented by unfair economic practices, and many who also worship in the CRC in the USA? That is where the blind spot, the vision problem, is.]

It is ironic how visible minorities can sometimes be invisible to the majority! And at other times they can be so conspicuous! To be sure, this applies not only to ethnic minorities but to all marginalized groups, e.g. women, youth, people with disabilities, and even seniors. But since this is a multi-ethnic conference, the focus here is on ethnic minorities.

This vision problem, Salvatierra continues, is spiritually dangerous for the church. It is dangerous because the church will miss it’s calling to help those in need, and it will miss the blessings that people can bring. Ethnic minorities, for instance, should not only be seen as victims or people in need of help. Ethnic minorities are also blessings to the church.

This can be another version of the church’s vision problem. We only see certain peoples in one-dimensional ways. If ethnic minorities (or any marginalized group) are always seen as people in need of help or charity, we fail to see the blessings they bring to us if we allow them to serve us too. Salvatierra cites Hebrews 13:2 – “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (NRSV) – as a reminder that blessings or “angels” might come from surprising sources.

Ultimately, it is spiritually dangerous because if Christians do not see and, hence, do not show compassion to those who are different, then they are not following Christ in a full-orbed way. “If we don’t care for people who are not us, then we cannot be disciples of Christ,” says Salvatierra emphatically.

Jesus saw the crowds

Thirdly, Jesus did not only see individuals and had compassion on individuals. He saw the crowds. There is a difference, according to Salvatierra, between seeing individuals in need and whole crowds of people in need. They often elicit different responses.

For example, if you see an ethnic minority child struggling with her studies in her school, what would you feel compelled to do? Often, you might offer to tutor that child and help her in her studies. But if you see a hundred ethnic minority children struggling in the same school, you would probably ask, “What’s wrong with the school?” Seeing the crowds in need elicits and demands a different response.

This is often another vision problem among North American Evangelical Christians. They tend to see individuals in need, rather than the crowds. Hence, their responses of compassion tend to focus on charity to and empowerment of the individual, not on systemic and structural solutions.

For example, we often heard of the saying, “Give a fish to a person you will feed him for a day. But teach him to fish, and you will feed him for life.” But Salvatierra goes further and points out that if there is a wall that surrounds the pond and limits access to the fish, knowing how to fish will still not feed anyone. We would also need to break down the walls that prevent them from fishing.

It is this third step that so many evangelicals fail to see is a necessity. Giving a fish is equivalent to direct service, charity or aid. And teaching to fish is analogous to community development and empowerment or equipping work. But breaking down walls is analogous to organizing and advocacy for more just policies and systems. This third step is often disparaged by evangelicals as social justice and as too political. But if we fail to break down the walls that prevent people from fishing, how are we really helping them? Can we truly say that we have cared, have compassion, and helped?

Changing our Vision

So how do we solve this vision problem? How do we see differently? How do help others see differently?

In response to these questions in the Q and A time, Salvatierra suggests that we unleash the power of God’s Word. She believes that Scripture has the power and the teachings to change people’s views. We need to have the courage to unleash its power and to challenge people on justice issues. We should not always be “too nice” in our approach. Like Jesus, who often offended people with his forthrightness, we may at times need to be bold in proclaiming the truth.

Secondly, Salvatierra suggests that Christians, especially pastors and leaders, from different ethnic backgrounds work together and spend time together. In this way, there is mutual learning, and both groups might see each other differently. She emphasized that these gatherings must be for common mission – for working together on some projects – and not simply gathering together to fellowship and to share stories. It is only by working together in mission that deeper relationships and deeper mutual change can occur.

Which of Salvatierra’s points connect with you or strike you the most?

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About Shiao Chong

Editor in Chief of The Banner, official magazine of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). Formerly CRC Campus Minister serving at York University in Toronto, Canada. (All postings here are my personal opinion and does not necessarily represent the views of the CRC or of The Banner.)
This entry was posted in Cultural Diversity, Evangelicalism, Leadership, Social Justice and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to The Church’s Vision Problem

  1. shek1na says:

    Heard about Balthasar Hubmaier? The martyr?

    Hubmaier did not care so much about his own career and future life. He cared for the Truth and the mission given unto him. He had been married for a few years when he had the choise of deny Jesus or be burned.

    Please have a look at my article regarding martyr Balthasar Hubmaier: http://wp.me/p3tGFm-3N

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  2. Hi Chong, I am preaching on this text on Sunday, so I read these comments with interest. While I appreciate the need to look at structural issues, the “wall that keeps people away from the fish,” structural issues are not addressed in this text. The crowds were harassed and helpless (or put down, or scattered as KJV puts it). The verbs are passive perfect participles, this leaves the agent undefined. The agent could be the corrupt Roman system, or these could be divine passives. Given that Jesus is teaching in their synagogues, vs 35, we assume a Jewish audience. This makes it likely that God in Christ is having compassion on his people, whom he judged and scattered at the end of 2 Kings. They were left without a shepherd, and now the great Shepherd has come. The workers go out, not to overturn the Romans, but to find those who bear fruit worthy of repentance, so they can be gathered into his kingdom.

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    • Shiao Chong says:

      Hi Nate. Thanks for the comment.
      I think your exegesis is likely correct. Remember, in the blog, I was passing on Salvatierra’s points in her speech. These are not my points. And she was doing more application than exegesis in her talk.
      But I do agree with her about structural issues, even if she did take liberties to applying it to this text. Perhaps we might not be able to draw that structural point from this particular text, but we can definitely make a case for it from the Bible’s teachings as a whole.
      So, I did not take issue with her use of the text at this point.

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      • I guess this is why I preach on Sunday and not Tuesday. The description “sheep without a shepherd” is a critique of Israelite leadership. It shows up in Numbers 27, when Moses prays for a successor so that the people won’t be “sheep without a shepherd.” It shows up again in 1 Kings 22, where the people under King Ahab really are “sheep without a shepherd” – a critique of Ahab that lands prophet Micaiah in jail. And famously in Ezekiel 34 where God promises to be the shepherd. Structural issues, represented by the failures of Israelite leadership to provide both justice and true religion are the reason why the crowds are helpless and harassed, stimulating King Jesus’ compassionate response. Jesus the promised King, however, does not offer an overt political solution, rather orders prayer that the workers will be sent out. Basically, structural issues give rise to compassion, but the passage does not speak to how or if workers in the harvest will resolve structural issues. Maybe the Bride of Christ is the solution to the structural issues, by providing an alternative kingdom to the kingdom of Caesar. As Rev. Salvatierra puts it, “Scripture has the power and the teachings to change people’s views.”

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      • Shiao Chong says:

        Thanks for sharing all your grunt exegesis work, Nate!

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  3. Ricardo Tavarez says:

    Thank you for sharing. This certainly gives some food for thought.

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