when religion again challenges me to stop spinning my wheels, but I don’t know how

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Last Sunday I heard a wonderful sermon about how Jesus was wanting to bring changes here on earth, right now, not in heaven in some futuristic time. I was amazed at the courage of the (guest) speaker for being willing to pose challenges quite directly. Jesus was persecuted for his beliefs. Why aren’t we? Is it because we’ve toned our beliefs down, created a nonthreatening religion?  He talked briefly about some of the injustice in the world – I think one of his examples was the plight of the First Nations in Canada – and said, ‘how does what we do here change any of that? How, if we continue doing what we do today, do we expect change?’

The sermon reminded me of the various things I’ve read about Jesus as a radical. I remember reading somewhere that when people hear that Joseph was a carpenter they tend to think of a skilled cabinet maker, when in the time a carpenter was probably more a landless labourer, a very low-paid construction worker. He grew up in a time when wealth was being concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people. People were losing their land. Was he a rabble rouser? Was he executed because of overturning the moneytables in the temple? Was the march into Jerusalem a form of street theatre in mockery of the emperor? Way he rejecting the whole language of empire by taking on the term Son of God, a term that belonged to the emperor? Was his acceptance of ‘sinners,’ bleeding women and foreigners a statement of solidarity with political and economic implications? I don’t know, and the sermon didn’t go into any of those details, only asserted that Jesus’ Kingdom of Heaven was meant to be here on Earth, aided by God’s people, and not in some otherly world or afterlife.

It was an encouraging sermon and frusturating at the same time. I am eager for change. Eager to figure out how to bring about change and frusturated at my own inability to do more. It reminded me of when I was a teenager and I first heard that NATO was dropping bombs on Bosnia, and I wondered, how do we just accept life the way it is with this happening? Shouldn’t the bombing there effect everyone here? Shouldn’t we do something? I quickly realized it didn’t change anything around me and life could go on just as before but that bothered me. Since then an uncountable number of wrongs have slipped into my awareness and then faded away. Life goes on.

I know a powerful moving sermon like that isn’t really meant to spur a person to action, at least not in the way I’d like to take action. I know the socially acceptable response is to acknowledge it as inspirational, perhaps sign a couple of online petitions or make that donation to a political group or something, but not say, wait a second, really, given how Jesus lived and what he died for, how can we who would claim to follow him go on with our lives?

But then the challenge is how to live for justice. How do we embody it in our everyday lives, here and now? Except then I turn to this wonderful essay “Getting Past Purity.” Its content is very similar to that of the book Rebel Sell. Consumer and lifestyle politics have their limits.

This brings us to one of lifestyle politics’ big accomplishments. The work that goes into conscientious consumerism and voluntary simplicity, and lifestyle politics more generally, serves to create a bubble around its practitioners. An illusion is created where one feels disconnected from the consumer ties that link one to injustice and thus a feeling of absolution – the shedding of complicity – is possible. In effect, a household that successfully integrates various components of these solutions (recycling, no driving, buying organic, buying second hand, buying from companies that are better “corporate citizens” ) can wash its hands of problems without actually affecting the conditions of those struggling against the worst parts of labor exploitation, ecological destruction and pollution – not to mention totally failing to work on replacing the system of relationships that make these problems possible.

At its worst, progressive lifestyle politics over-emphasize the importance of largely white and middle-class buying habits while marginalizing the work of poor communities, particularly those of color, around the world to gain power in struggles against the same injustices our buying habits are supposedly addressing.

I recognize I’m part of the white middle-class. I’m part of the group of people so comfortable that we don’t want to recognize what’s going on, and however much I can change my lifestyle, sign petitions, or attend protests, or whatever, I still spend half my time feeling like I’m spinning my wheels. We need collective action, huge collective outcry to create real change, but how do we build that? I wish I could believe that Christians would see their faith as a reason to step up to the plate – for good, and not evil.

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6 thoughts on “when religion again challenges me to stop spinning my wheels, but I don’t know how

  1. May I suggest that the type of change taught by Christ is instituted one individual at a time? Large changes involving the masses often spring from and propagate pride, not humility as taught by Christ. Consider making it your goal to truly become friends with one disadvantaged person. It was not a simple task, but after I did it once, the path toward caring for the disadvantaged became clearer and more compelling.

    • I hesitated in responding to this comment. I wasn’t sure how to. I dislike the presumption that I wouldn’t already truely be friends with disadvantaged people, like they’re some group of other people out there rather than all around me. I’m middle class, but that doens’t mean my friends all are. There isn’t a magic attached. Knowing people who struggle bit by bit doesn’t make the path clearer or the need for big economic changes less intense.

      I think it works the other way. I think huge changes involving the masses are less likely to be led by pride than the individual “I’m following Christ’s teachings” changes. Changes brought about by masses is going to involve people rubbing shoulders, recognizing their own insignificance within the crowd, as opposed to the belief that following one’s interpretation of Christ individually is going to bring about magic changes.

  2. You have touched on so many areas in this blog … however, I will answer one of your questions at least … and maybe work on others in the meantime …

    Yes, Jesus was born into a poor family … In the book of Luke (American Standard Version used throughout) it says:
    And when eight days were fulfilled for circumcising him, his name was called JESUS, which was so called by the angel before he was conceived in the womb (21) …
    and to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons (24)

    the Law of the Lord is the law given to Moses (the Mosaic Law Covenant) which states in Leviticus 5: 7 And if his means suffice not for a lamb, then he shall bring his trespass-offering for that wherein he hath sinned, two turtle-doves, or two young pigeons, unto Jehovah; one for a sin-offering, and the other for a burnt-offering

    and

    Leviticus 12: 8 And if her means suffice not for a lamb, then she shall take two turtle-doves, or two young pigeons; the one for a burnt-offering, and the other for a sin-offering: and the priest shall make atonement for her, and she shall be clean

    so poor people, wo couldn’t afford a sheep, offered turtle doves or two young pigeons …

    Jesus was executed for far more than just turning over the tables of money … he primarily upset and took on the religious leaders of his day … he challenged them and exposed them …

  3. I came across your blog while researching for confirmation why I felt funny about Operation Shoebox. (So..no..we aren’t participating but instead going to make school kits for Mennonite Central Committee http://mcc.org/get-involved/kits/school)
    I felt like I was maybe on the “same page” as you…so been stalking your blog for a bit. I see this was written nearly a year ago…and I would like to know where you are now. I feel stuck on this topic. Stuck in every bit of the sense that you mentioned. And it stresses me out. I’ve done things in my own little world…been making my homemade gifts from up cycled items found our purchased secondhand…talk often to my kids about oppression and racism and systems in our society that perpetuate it…try and buy local and fair trade… But, I can’t stand listening to the news because there is so much more that needs to happen and I feel helpless. Pray? Ok.. But, what else? considering I live in a small midwest town where my vote won’t count. (I’m the minority in the political world here). So, what have you learned in the last year? If nothing…that is ok…just curious.

    • This past year has left me stuck in a slightly different place.

      I’ve been involved with an anti-poverty organization that has made some very small but concrete gains. The problem is the size of the gains in proportion to the size of the problem makes the gains feel ridiculous… even while we can look and see that they matter to the individuals. On top of that, it feels like being involved means I’m regularly connected with people who view overthrow of the whole economic-political situation as the only solution. I get frustrated, because I don’t think we’re anywhere near being able to completely transform things and obsessing about that leads people away from the smaller progressive changes, turns away those who would support smaller changes but not wholesale revolution and actually slows things down. So on one hand, I feel like we need to be making bigger changes, and on the other I get frustrated when people aim for impossibly big changes. I think we need to bring more of the middle class on board with wanting change.

      Probably the thing I’ve learned most in the last year is to value myself more, and to recognize that I don’t need to give up all sense of self and happiness for the causes I believe in. (I had big problems with the idea that working for the causes I believe in means I have to put up with people being angry and rude to me because hey, they also believe in those causes and are hurt by it and they can’t help themselves. I’ve been getting firmer at saying no, I count too. Even if I’m white and middle class. Even if others are suffering. My suffering doesn’t make others better off.) I need to trust that the little I do matters.

      Really, I’m waiting for others to get on board. I’m waiting for others to want to make change. I can do what I can, but I can’t do everything, and that’s what I’m recognizing. I don’t want to do everything either, because I’d probably do it wrong.

      I don’t agree with the sayings about how the only thing that ever changed the world is a small group of people, because I think when a small group of people want to change the world without regard for others or against others wishes, they end up doing it badly. We need to get others on board too.

      So I wait. I take care of my kids. I write when I can. I choose a municipal election candidate and do what I can to try to help him get elected. I do what I can with the local organizations. And I care for myself in the meantime, trying to learn everything I can, to build what networks I can, and to develop the understandings that will help carry me through whatever comes.

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