The worldwide financial and economic crisis seems to highlight their distortions and above all the gravely deficient human perspective, which reduces man to one of his needs alone, namely, consumption. Worse yet, human beings themselves are nowadays considered as consumer goods which can be used and thrown away. We have begun a throw away culture. This tendency is seen on the level of individuals and whole societies; and it is being promoted! In circumstances like these, solidarity, which is the treasure of the poor, is often considered counterproductive, opposed to the logic of finance and the economy. While the income of a minority is increasing exponentially, that of the majority is crumbling. This imbalance results from ideologies which uphold the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation, and thus deny the right of control to States, which are themselves charged with providing for the common good. A new, invisible and at times virtual, tyranny is established, one which unilaterally and irremediably imposes its own laws and rules. Moreover, indebtedness and credit distance countries from their real economy and citizens from their real buying power. Added to this, as if it were needed, is widespread corruption and selfish fiscal evasion which have taken on worldwide dimensions. The will to power and of possession has become limitless.
For a number of years Maggie and I lived in Chicago’s suburbs. On our evening walk from the parsonage we would pass beautiful old homes and newer McMansions that gobbled up most of their available lots. In contrast to our current city neighborhood those walks were notable for how few people we saw; life was lived at work, school, or deep within the recess of those beautiful homes. Suburbia was a new experience for me and endlessly perplexing. Not that I somehow existed above or outside of it – we experienced significant relationships and rhythms of life – but the strong appeal of the suburban life still remains a mystery to me.
Of course, there is no such thing as “the suburban life” and this became clear the longer we lived there. Suburbia’s cracks first became visible when we lived in an apartment across the railroad tracks from the Christian graduate school I was attending. Our neighbors in this as-cheap-as-it-gets complex didn’t fit the suburban profile: borderline homeless; single, working mother; drug addict. These were friendly people who occasionally came to church with us, but they understood their barely visible place within the suburban hierarchy. Life with our neighbors was interrupted by the occasional dramatic moment – a fist punched through a window, an ambulance summoned for an overdose - but most of the time we were all occupied with the mundane things of work and family. I came to see though, that many of our neighbors lived with the real possibility of falling from suburbia’s ledge.
Later Maggie would work with a social services agency whose building was located within a concentration of low-income apartment buildings. Though by then we’d lived in the area for five years, often passing within a stone’s throw of the apartments, I’d been ignorant of their presence. It was as if these buildings and their residents had been purposely hidden so as to not disrupt suburbia’s narrative of prosperity and comfort.
Even later a friend who knew the area far better than I ever would tell me stories of what went on in many of the perfectly-kept homes of our neighbors. Behind the imposing doors, in the beautifully finished basements- these were the scenes of excess, abuse, neglect.
When we think of the location for violence it isn’t the suburbs but the city that fills our imaginations. Yet suburbia is hardly immune from violence, whether the physical type that plagued our apartment neighbors, the violence done to family stability by hidden pockets of poverty that are isolated from necessary resources, or the violence covered over and made to seem harmless by an excess of money.
I’ve been thinking about violence recently and mean to consider it here from a few different angles. Here’s the first:
Last week I sat at a table at our public radio station’s South Side bureau with a diverse collection of people from around the city. Our conversation topics – expertly led by one of my neighbors, a teacher, and one of his high school students – were violence and peace. By way of introductions we were to give our names, neighborhoods, and a word to describe those neighborhoods. We adults around the table chose mostly benign adjectives for our neighborhoods while the students – the co-facilitator and two of her peers from different neighborhoods – were less delicate: tension and dangerous were their chosen descriptors.
These young people don’t live in areas that are more dangerous than the adults do; a mother and her child share the same home but used noticeably different words to represent their neighborhood. Perhaps we who are older were simply more careful with our words, wanting to paint with a finer brush to create a more accurate representation of the activities that characterize our place in the city. Neighborhoods may be dangerous but they are never only dangerous. They may be filled with tension but also with other emotions and experiences.
Or maybe these high schools students were speaking from more recent experiences, growing into the inevitable realization that the world is not a safe place. Of course, the adults have known this for a while but steered away from outlining violence with the same preciseness as did the students.
Violence – the word itself – conjures words, emotions, and memories I prefer to avoid. We Americans may welcome scenes of violence on our television screens but we prefer to think of our real lives as largely absent of that terrible word. When we do think about it, most of us think about violence as something that happens occasionally. It’s an act, something done within a moment of time to someone. However horrific it is, the violent moment passes and we return to normal as quickly as possible.
Or do we? One way to interpret the student’s blunt adjectives at the radio station is that they know that violence is not incidental but pervasive. It is less the frightening moment that happens to us and more the ground we walk on.
Ed Cyzewski and Derek Cooper have written a very helpful book about discipleship. Hazardous: Committing to the Cost of Following Jesus could almost be considered an introduction to discipleship, though the authors push beyond the introductory to describe a way of living that is as compelling as it is risky. Ed was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book. Leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of Hazardous.
Throughout the book you make the case that discipleship to Jesus is risky and unpredictable. What is it about much of American Christianity that requires this reminder?
Speaking for myself, I’ve gone back and forth between doing the bare minimum as a disciple of Jesus and feeling guilty about not doing enough. I’ve had my times when I’ve reduced discipleship to the bare minimum of Bible reading and church attendance. However, when I hear about Christians making huge sacrifices to serve the poor or to travel around the world, I feel guilty and overwhelmed, unsure about where to start.
I wrote Hazardous as much for myself as anyone else because I knew there were a lot of American Christians who had been told the same things I’d heard: Jesus as your Lord and Savior makes life meaningful, peaceful, joyful, etc. Joy and peace do come from a Savior, but a Lord who can direct your life can ask you to do some pretty tough stuff or make some huge sacrifices. Hazardous is my attempt to look at the risky and difficult parts of following Jesus that American Christians are less likely to consider.
In the book you point out that discipleship involves our personal, family, and public lives. By public you especially have in mind work and vocation. Of the three, our public lives often seem the most incongruous to discipleship, requiring a lot of pragmatic decisions that may or may not align with our discipleship to Jesus. What have you seen that makes you hopeful that we can live robust public lives of discipleship, especially for the majority of Christians who don’t serve in vocational ministry?
The story of Zaccheus has proven hopeful for me as I try to think about following Jesus in my work. We don’t read about him making a profession of faith. He changed his work practices, redirected his money to those he’d exploited, and then invited Jesus over for dinner. That’s what prompted Jesus to say salvation had come to his home. Zaccheus didn’t necessarily leave his job. He changed his priorities, using his work to bless others rather than to exploit them, showing he understood that God’s approval mattered more than financial gain. And even the Roman soldiers who came to Jesus or John the Baptist didn’t have to turn in their swords.
Living as a disciple in the work place in particular means we follow different rules than everyone else, but we can still do the jobs we feel led to pursue. In my own work as a writer and an author, I have every confidence that I’m doing what God has called me to do, but I don’t operate my business like others who may overcharge clients, pay for fake reviews on Amazon, or hire ghost writers to pen endorsements for their books. I’ve seen many friends make “costly” business decisions in order to serve their families, churches, or communities. They have made decisions that made no sense to their colleagues, but have ensured a clear conscience before God and neighbor–which is one of the key measures I see Paul using in his epistles for faithfulness.
You don’t spend much time on the church. Any particular reason for this? What role does the church play in discipleship?
That’s a good question. In part, the church is implied. For instance, when I write about listening for God in prayer, one of the most important steps is verifying the direction of God with others. If someone can pray with me, then I’ll feel better about taking a risk or a challenge for God. That isn’t something that you can program into a church. It’s more of a relational dynamic in Christian community, so I think we just assumed that Christians living as disciples would work within personal relationships.
There certainly are ways that a church can foster a discipleship culture and create opportunities and guidance for following Jesus, but that’s an area where we don’t have expertise about what would work and what wouldn’t. My current church has been working hard at integrating service to others as part of our monthly rhythm, and that has been a good challenge for us as a community, but even that approach is only a few years old. We’ll see how it goes!
You strike a really helpful balance in portraying discipleship as both a risky way of living and completely possible at whatever location we find ourselves in. How might the reputation of American Christians change if more of us lived into this balanced vision of discipleship?
American Christians are probably most criticized for being highly individualistic and focused on themselves. I would argue this comes from having Jesus as a Savoir but not as a Lord who leads his followers to costly discipleship. As we learn to hear God’s voice, care about the things he cares about, and see the world through his eyes, we’ll start to be moved to care for the people around us. In addition, I would suggest that we’ll also see our language of “personal fulfillment” change as we derive our joy from blessing others and building God’s Kingdom rather than trying to write our own self-serving stories of personal fulfillment.
I have also found that listening for God’s voice and obeying his leading has made it significantly easier to live a holy life. When I’m stepping into God’s calling for my life, I need him involved in it from start to finish. You better believe I pray a lot more when I’m taking a leap of faith! Paul’s comparison of discipleship to a soldier’s focus is helpful here. If following my “commanding officer’s” instructions are most important, I won’t have time to get into trouble.
My thanks to Ed for answering my questions. Be sure to leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of the book.
I’m preparing a series of talks for an upcoming retreat on the topic of life transitions. I’ve been mulling this word – transitions – over in my head for the past month or so and two observations have consistently come to mind. First, I don’t like transitions. In many ways the past three years of my life have been characterized by a series of three major life transitions that happened within the span of a year: adopting our son, buying our first home, and helping plant our church. Clearly these were all really important, good transitions but I’d be fine with never again experiencing that much transition in such a short period of time.
Secondly, despite my allergy to them, transitions are normal. The word itself gives a sense of impermanence but life is really just a series of transitions, one after another. Accepting this is tough, especially within a cultural milieu built on moving past transitions. The reasons for this are fairly obvious: transitions are times of vulnerability and uncertainty, undesirable traits in a society that values strength, stability, and savvy. What passes for political discourse betrays these negative sentiments; our country is meant either to return to an idealized past or evolve to an enlightened future. In both cases the point is to arrive; transitions are to be transcended.
Christians, without downplaying their challenges, are those with the spiritual resources to acknowledge the persistence of transitions while also thriving in the midst of them. The transitions of career, family, and the many others brought on my opportunity and, more often, crisis are simply the stuff of life for the Christian. More accurately, the stuff of the abundant life promised by Jesus. We don’t wait to make it through the in-between times in order to live well; the good life, when defined differently than the American dream, is available now, regardless of which transition(s) we currently exist within.