It happens when you peer down a winding, third-world alley to see skeletal children bathing in buckets and widows begging for food. It happens when you receive yet another letter from your favorite charity, with the word EMERGENCY stamped in red across the front.
It happens when you turn on the TV to see tanks rolling, cars exploding, and effigies burning. It happens when your insides grind at the site of a needy friend or a supposed enemy.
It happens when all the sin and pain inside of you and around you and beyond you rushes into your awareness in one awful moment, and all you can do is throw your hands up and say, I can’t fix this. This is too much. It is beyond me.
For followers of Jesus, these are the moments that test our hope and temper our pride.
On the one hand, there are those who respond with a shrug of the shoulders and a pithy comment about how the end is near and how they can’t wait to hightail it out of here when Jesus comes back to call them home. On the other, there are those who grit their teeth, clinch their fists and say, “It’s okay. Things are getting better overall. We’ve just got to work harder, get more politically involved, and stay strong until we’ve successfully achieved justice and peace on earth.”
Both responses are distortions of the gospel. The first all but ignores Christ’s teachings about the kingdom that is among us here and now. The second arrogantly assumes we can bring such a kingdom to completion all on our own.
I’m always a little surprised when folks ask me if I’ve sold out to the so-called “social gospel.” I never really know how to respond to that question. If by social gospel they mean the notion that mankind will eventually evolve out of evil and create a utopian society all on its own—then certainly not! If by social gospel they mean the good news that God loves the world and intends to redeem it, that God is building a new kingdom in our midst under the authority of Jesus Christ, and that we show our allegiance to this kingdom whenever we love our enemies, serve the poor, turn the other cheek, pursue holiness, preach the gospel, and care for the least of these—then yes, I suppose I have. As I see it, the gospel was never meant to be merely intellectual, but has always had a social implications.
So what do I do when I turn on the TV to see news of another shooting, when I realize that neither political party comes close to representing the radical teachings of Jesus, when I get tired of receiving emails from “Save Darfur,” when I look in the mirror and see the worst sinner who has ever walked the earth, when I honestly have no idea how to resolve the question of how pacifism could ever be justified in light of Auschwitz and Buchenwald?
On bad days, I keep trying—to prove myself, to come up with all the right answers, to fix what God can’t seem to fix.
But on good days, I give up on trying to change the world, and get back to living like Jesus—in this moment, in every moment.
Shane Claiborne put it this way: “’Leaving things in God’s hands is an often abused and quaint phrase that many seem to think means ‘don’t bother with doing anything, because Jesus will come someday and undo all your work anyway’…Leaving things in God’s hands’ should rather be used to mean ‘do what Jesus did.’ Follow Jesus’ example without regard for whether you are effectively changing the world. Jesus demonstrated what it means to leave things in God’s hands.” (Jesus for President, p. 283)
This is not to say that alleviating poverty, pursuing justice, and supporting peace are not part of being like Jesus. Jesus certainly healed the sick and cared for the poor, and any community seeking to reflect the kingdom should be involved in addressing the root causes of poverty, war, disease, injustice, ignorance, and fear. .
But the thing about living like Jesus is that it doesn’t always feel like changing the world. In fact, often the easiest, most practical, and seemingly effective solutions for changing the world are not even options in an upside-down kingdom. Power, control and violence may seem like good ideas when we have as our goal ridding the world of evil. But when we have as our goal living like Jesus, we have to get more creative. We have to think outside-the-box. We have to work together.
Keep in mind, the cross did not look like a victory. It looked like a complete failure.
“Into your hands I commit my spirit,” Jesus said.
He was faithful to the point of death.
Three days later, Jesus rose from the dead, and someday, Jesus will return again.
Until then, we may have to settle for looking like failures. We may even have to settle for feelinglike failures. But if we commit our spirits to Jesus, there will always, always be hope.
How do you respond when you feel overwhelmed by all the evil in this world? What does it mean to be part of Kingdom that is both here and yet to come? What is your response to the term “social gospel”?