“Future-Present” Tension and Gospel Ambassadorship

American Christians, especially those that identify as evangelical, love to “share the Gospel”. In many small group circles and among friends, weekly check-ins may include a delighted, “I shared the Gospel 3 times this week!” or a dejected “I didn’t share the Gospel with anyone. I need to do better.” We keep a scorecard, like golf, or bowling.

I was reflecting with my friend Dan Crain, a pastor and community leader I’ve co-led a Be The Bridge group with and become good friends with, today about what it means to be a peacemaker on behalf of Christ. I had a revelation in that moment. Those of us who profess Christ in this particularly American way think of ourselves as ambassadors of the Kingdom of God, bringing good news to the people of Earth. But this model separates us from the people who we wish to see join us in our understanding of who Christ is. In order to fully understand our purpose, we have to get a bit transcendental. We have to step outside of the present tense and operate with multiple views of time. In this way, we obtain a fraction of the view that a God that lives outside of time has.

Romans 5:6-8 talks about how Christ died for us while we were still weak, while we were still sinners. Christ’s act at one point in time in the past reaches into our present, pulls us out of a present depravity into a future hope of reconciliation of all things. Most of us accept that truth and rejoice. We gleefully report, as Paul did in Galatians 2:20, how “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

But we don’t follow the next step. As we declare ourselves peacemakers and ambassadors, we proclaim we are already citizens of Heaven, and we’re coming to broker a deal with those unfortunates that haven’t filled out their applications yet. To get a complete understanding of this, we must combine our perceptions into a “future-present” view of reality.

The future tense speaks of things that will be. The present tense speaks of things that are, right now. As Christians, we live in the intersection of the present, our flesh with its infirmities, the brokenness of the world we see around us, and the future, a kingdom and family that we will be a part of for eternity. Christ mediates this transcendent breach in the order of time’s arrow and allows some portion of us to live in that future as if it were the present! We get to experience glimpses of the full acceptance of God and the completion of our future hope in our present.

This is undoubtedly good news. However, the part that we miss is that we are also still beings of the present. We are not God’s diplomats, sitting at the table overseeing the reconciliation between some sinful “other” and God. We are the rebellious, haughty party sitting at the other side of the table from our neighbor. We have been wronged, yes, but we have also done much wrong. And we are in need of an external mediator to complete the reconciliation to our neighbor and to receive the wisdom our neighbors have.

When we approach mission or literal evangelism in this way, we carry a humility and an openness that allows us to experience more of the fullness of God. We gain the capacity to learn how to more rightly see God from our neighbor rather than educating them on our narrow and limited glimpse and attempting to snuff out their light or make it shine on our particular frequency. We can meet needs without thinking we are the Provider of Good Things. We can carry the layers of our intersectional identity in the present while neither giving them primacy over our future identity nor diminishing them to irrelevance when they shape so much of how our present is experienced.

We are each carrying different, infinitesimal sparks of that incomprehensible glory, and only by recognizing our true position, as a member of a warring faction that is only now learning to lay down their arms, as a humble creature that has far more to learn than it has to teach, can we share a true Gospel laden with future hope that speaks to a present reality.

Anecdotes from The American Healthcare Front

teacher-kidney.jpg
Teacher at exit ramp looking for a kidney donation

I have some issues with my ears periodically, and over the past week, it felt like one was developing a minor infection. It felt full a lot and started to become painful. I knew that I was going to need to give it some medical attention. I thought about going to my primary care team at Emory, formerly Harken Health. In the Harken days, primary care appointments were included in your insurance and you could schedule to go by any time. They also managed patient load so providers would have time to develop relationships, and they partnered with health coaches that could deal with the para-medical stuff so the medical pros could focus on things requiring their specific skill set. Now that Harken’s gone, Emory still has great staff, but works like a regular doctor’s office – scheduling visits always takes a few days, visits are shorter, and the health coaches, where they exist, are swamped and can’t give the individual attention my Harken coach gave.

The ER was out of the question, that’s a minimum of $2K spend and a distraction from people who need truly urgent, serious care. (Don’t believe me? Stop by an ER and try it for yourself. A friend of mine had stress-related chest pain due to the amount he was working and how little pay he was receiving to cope with the other stressors in his life and got slapped with a $5K bill.)

Urgent care is probably the best option, but that was going to run me a bit as well. Not too much, maybe a hundred or so. But of course I already pay several hundred a month for insurance, so that’s frustrating that my insurance is really more “hit by a bus” insurance than health care.

I ended up repurposing some antibiotic ointment I had for a recent eye injury that unequivocally required a doctor’s visit (that I’m sure I’ll get a hearty bill for soon), and it worked. I’ll keep at it for a few days to make sure it’s good.

Now, I have the means to get decent health care, even if it’s not convenient and a little pricey. What are people who have no flexibility in their schedule doing? What do you do when taking a half-day off work means you may be eating ramen next week, or nothing, because you’ll be fired “at-will”? And what happens when you face a real challenge that’s out of your control, like the teacher above who needs a kidney to live? If he can find the kidney, he will probably have decent health care as a state employee, but what if he didn’t have great insurance? Who would pay for that?

Those who support interdependent community do ourselves a disservice by allowing Medicaid for all, or any of the other public options, to be portrayed as an altruistically valuable but optional program, a gift to the neediest among us. It’s not a matter of kindness and convenience, without which life would be a little less pleasant but still bearable. People are choosing between medical bills and house payments, between medical bills and food. And it doesn’t take a significant condition or a bad decision.

We in the middle class especially make the mistake of thinking that we are where we are because of good decisions. The rich are lucky, sure, accidents of birth, right place, right time, but not us. We scrimp and save. We plan. We forego instant gratification for the long term, and look at our lives as a result. If we can do it, anyone can.

The truth is, we make the same bad decisions as the poor all the time. We buy a car that’s a hundred a month more than we should be paying. We spring for that dessert, or that hotel upgrade, or that extra night out on the town. The only difference is that we are not on the line between sustainable and unsustainable, and have a bigger cushion to absorb those mistakes. If you are making just enough to live on, springing for dessert could make you miss a payment. Missing a payment causes you to hit fees that push up your effective interest rate into triple digits. And the spiral begins.

I listened to a couple on NPR a couple of years ago that ran a food truck in Wisconsin. They were struggling, as the spouse with a corporate job had lost it, and lost their benefits along with it. When asked how they would deal with the cost of health care as they aged, they shrugged (with indecision rather than indifference) and finally stated that their children would take care of it.

I don’t believe this couple was intentionally so selfish as to burden their children with such a responsibility. But the language of American self-sufficiency has backed us into a corner. We cannot conceive of a world where a public good is actually, well, good. However, we readily imagine that a giant corporation motivated by profit will take care of our needs as well as our consumer desires. We respond with a sort of Stockholm Syndrome, where anyone on the wrong side of a law that protects the right to profit without regard to human cost deserves nothing, deserves to be cast aside. We are the worthy ones, because we currently have what appears like favor, but instead is simply utility to a soulless, unfeeling set of economic machinery.

As usual, any critique of the current order by an American must be met with “but I’m not talking about socialism!” So let’s get that out of the way. Public goods controlled by elected or especially appointed authorities who are not accountable to the people is just authoritarianism. This is what we saw in every single country that we love to hold up as inevitable outcomes of socialism. So no, I’m not talking about turning America into a giant commune or turning everything over to the government, certainly not while we have an apathetic republic that won’t hold its elected officials accountable in any consistent way. I’m also not talking about eliminating inequality. Human nature is to be rewarded in a proportion to effort, and any system that doesn’t allow that will eventually be overthrown by one that does.

But why do we think that this relentless pursuit of profit is the best of all possible worlds? We generate money printing machines that consume the landscape and crush the spirits of the people, and aggregate more and more for the machine’s makers. More importantly, we have created a mythology around poverty that causes us to see it more as damnation from a god that has refused your feeble sacrifice, while wealth is a blessing and a reward from a god that respects your hard work. This mythology is why we have the IRS losing money to chase small debts while corporations that evade billions in taxes are ignored. It’s why we won’t pay for Medicaid for All and are trying to dismantle food programs, quality public education, and other portions of the safety net, even though evidence keeps coming back that these investments are cheaper than the alternative.

Where the Christians have it right is that this is a heart issue. America loved the social safety net when it primarily benefited white men in the New Deal era. When the program was expanded to benefit more Americans through the Great Society, subsequent administrations quickly set to work dismantling them. Beyond the cost savings many properly implemented programs could bring, we have to ask ourselves what intangible cost our individual lack of accountability to our community brings. Are we safer when everyone is on their own financially? Are we less stressed when everyone has to work long days in cold environments? Are we happier when our neighbor cannot be counted on to care for us if we’re in need? Are we freer when every gift we give has conditions?

Who is my neighbor? And what is my obligation to them?

Y.N.D.

“Your nigger dead.”
Checkmate. A King just got shot.
“Your nigger dead.”
I had to shoot. He was smoked out on that pot.
“Your nigger dead.”
He had a gun, crowbar, toy, a cell phone.
“Your nigger dead.”
He shouldn’t have carried that in front of his home.
“Your nigger dead.”
He was twelve, but he looked like a grown man.
“Your nigger dead.”
He left me no choice. It wasn’t my plan.
“Your nigger dead.”
She shouldn’t have mouthed off at that cop.
“Your nigger dead.”
If you weren’t a criminal, the violence would stop.
“Your nigger dead.”
He shouldn’t have tried to run away.
“Your nigger dead.”
He was a threat, even still as he lay.
“Your nigger dead.”
Selling loosies is a crime.
“Your nigger dead.”
It’s better that we skipped the judge this time.
“Your nigger dead.”
Stop saying you didn’t do nothing, you lie.
“Your nigger dead.”
You come for me, it’s gonna be “Die, Nigger! Die!”
“Your nigger dead.”
You can’t treat Samaritans with respect.
“Your nigger dead.”
She’s a slut. We stone. What else did you expect?
“Your nigger dead.”
Talking about some, “I am”! Who are you?
“Your nigger dead.”
He should spend some time with real Jews.
“Your nigger dead.”
Enemies of the state get crucified.
“Your nigger dead.”
“Your nigger dead.”
“Your nigger dead.”

Naw, death’s gon’ die. We still alive.

-C. G. Brown
4-5 April 2018

“God Is In Control.”

Advance Note: You’ll see me use the word “conservative” a lot in this. While there is overlap with the political meaning, I intend it less as opposed to politically liberal and more specifically referring to the traditionalist and fundamentalist perspective of the conservative Christian church in America. I’m doing my best to look at a conservative witness against itself and against the Gospel rather than against a liberal witness or liberal view on the Gospel. 

I recently had an exchange with a friend about the current state of politics in America. Like many, even though she’s not a Trump fan, she downplayed my concern about Trump’s authoritarian leanings, citing that he was just one man. I said “sure, but the Republican Congress is moving in lockstep with him from a policy perspective.” She said, “not always.” I responded, “Name one major policy area where they haven’t. ACA? Consumer Protection? Deregulation? Immigration? Foreign Relations?” We could not identify an area off-hand, and I’m also not aware of any Republican-led initiatives that prompted Trump to use his veto power.

She responded to my restatement of concern about where America could end up with a favorite phrase of comfort among evangelically-minded people: “God is in control. God is sovereign.” I was reminded in that moment of an exchange I’d had in 2016 on social media with a friend who was pretty much diametrically opposed to me politically, where she responded to my fears of a then merely-possible Trump presidency with the same statement.

Another friend with whom I was conversing pointed out that that comforting phrase about God’s sovereignty is seldom used to assuage fears of cultural change, or immigrants, or crime. It only seems to appear when people are expressing concerns about conservatism going too far. Regardless of intent, the phrase can seem to the listener to be saying, “God is in control because I am comfortable, and it doesn’t matter if you are not.”

Like Paul, I can claim the title “chief among sinners” in seeking my own comfort and convenience, though I actively work against it. However, the Church is supposed to be a place where we support each other through the incredibly rewarding but often quite uncomfortable and countercultural life of Christianity. What is this desire that has taken hold in the American Church for comfort above witness? Comfort above compassion?

“God is in control.” is a phrase that reminds me not to worry or obsess about temporal matters, however massive they may seem at the time. It breaks me out of my navel-gazing social media loops and friend circles to recognize that both problems and solutions are bigger than I am. It reminds me to recognize that the arc and scope of God’s goodness is not limited to my narrow view, but expands and unfolds at the periphery and beyond.

Much of the American evangelical church uses this powerful phrase now as a blindfold, a gag, and binding rope. It blinds the speaker to human needs directly in front of them. It silences those that complain about social injustice by telling them that there is a problem with their faith if they don’t see how God’s point of view is aligned with the speaker’s, even if it is hurting the listener. And it ties the hands of both, telling them to be passive and let God’s wonderful plan finish playing out without meddling.

If God’s sovereignty means that I should not take any action to protest against conservative policies that seem to be literally killing people either through hostility or inaction, then why does God’s sovereignty not equally apply when I see abortions being allowed, or cultural changes that I don’t agree with spreading, or when immigrants come across our border to seek a better life? Why is it that when it is a conservative point of view that needs assurance and patience, we need to take action in protest or policy change? But when the concern is that the conservative perspective has become Pharasaic, or that it has become a hypocritical, compromised witness, then God’s sovereignty becomes a call to be still, silent, and show a passive grace.

God is in control. Yes. God is sovereign. Absolutely. But if you’re saying it to reinforce your comfort, your culture, your understanding to someone else who is challenging those things, then it’s time to re-examine your heart. Would you still say God is in control if it were you who was uncomfortable? If it were you who were being persecuted or treated unjustly? And if not, who is?

On Reconciling Christian Principles with Government Programs

President Trump recently proposed a budget which makes a number of cuts to discretionary spending across government agencies. Liberal-leaning folks are predictably up in arms. Conservatives range from mild concern to relief that Trump is finally realizing Grover Norquist’s dream of “reduc[ing] [government] to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” People on the left are wagging their fingers about the hypocrisy of professed Christians being so concerned about performance of programs designed simply to feed the poor and hungry. Conservatives answer with their standard retort that being Christian doesn’t mean you advocate that the government do everything. To them, it’s the job of churches and private citizens to step in and take care of the poor and needy. Who’s right?

As usual, the answer requires a bit of nuanced thinking. Conservatives have a point about their Christian obligations not extending to an explicit call to fund government programs. Other than giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s, Jesus himself says little about how we respond to government authority, though he says a lot about how we should individually behave. Paul says more, generally telling us that we should generally abide by the government’s rules and authority, even if we are encouraged to live in a socially countercultural way and not allow human law to subvert God’s law. Generally, the commands on how to live and treat people speak to individuals, not governments. So it is technically fair to say that there’s no call in the Bible to engage in aid through taxation or government programs.

That said, it requires a narrow interpretation of the Bible to assume then that government programs that execute Jesus’s mandates are inherently bad, or even just inherently worse than a church or individual doing the same. While I cannot presume to know the mind of God, why would God not be pleased about a government that distributes some of the taxes it collects for programs to help the poor or needy? Corruption is certainly found in government, but what is forgotten by many who prefer limited government is that government is ultimately just comprised of people, just like any institution. Churches and individual hearts are no less susceptible. In fact, churches have to be on special guard because of their perceived proximity to God’s desire for humanity.

Another challenge with the standard conservative Christian position on the role of government is that churches have both an inward-facing and outward-facing obligation. The churches may have mission that they engage in locally or far away, but a primary objective is the cultivation of spiritual life and community among their attendees. While it would be better if people gave more in general so that church coffers were overflowing and churches were able to step into the breach for the needy across the nation, that’s simply not the case for most churches. The churches that do have lots of money often struggle with the challenges Jesus warned us that money brings.

Also, the outward-facing missional work of a Christian church is usually tied to evangelism, the spreading of the Gospel. Conservative Protestant denominations tend to interpret this fairly literally, with telling the message being as important or more important than showing and patiently modeling in one’s life. So, then, what if a person refuses the Gospel? What if they don’t wish to come because they know that that’s what will be served with their soup and bread, or with the clothes they are given? I’m not encouraging anyone to shut their mouth about the Gospel. I’m just asking if the church expects that it can be effective at meeting all types of needs.

On top of all this, the Christian church is no longer hegemonic in America. By this I mean that it’s not the default, dominant framing for most citizens. As church membership declines and more people turn away from faith as it’s historically been understood, the weight on the shoulders of each remaining member increases. It simply isn’t reasonable to assume that the church can serve the needs of everyone.

Even if other people start chipping in out of pocket, we’ve already seen what that looks like. Go to GoFundMe and see which medical requests get funded and which don’t. Popular, well-connected, attractive people get more money than the unpopular, the undesirable, the forgotten. We give to people we care about or think we care about, dropping $25 here, $100 there, while we leave the masses of the invisible at the margins and mercy of government programs that we want to cut so that “real charity” can begin. Why do we think a post-tax world would look any different than GoFundMe writ large, with individuals and small shelters and nonprofits spending more time putting on a good face for well-heeled donors than servicing the needy?

This is the part where some would point out that the liberals or non-religious people out there should put their money where their mouth is and give a lot more to charity. The response: they do give, in the form of taxes. The government is able to achieve some economies of scale with the support programs it funds. Taxes are also a great way to get everyone to participate in programs that improve the state of the society as a whole rather than relying on the goodness of individual hearts. The concern often raised following this assertion is that too much government money is going to the undeserving. I always find the notion of being deserving of grace to be a funny thing to be promulgated by people whose entire faith is predicated on receiving a gift that they did not deserve.

Moreover, when we unpack the notion of an unworthy recipient of government largesse, we often find ourselves envisioning someone very different than ourselves, someone with a different style of dress, different way of speaking, different way of acting, possibly different complexion. Our biases have a way of working themselves into our decisions about who should get what, whether it’s our tax dollars our just our attention.

I consider myself fairly generous, but I hold too tightly to my money, forgetting that I’m only a steward. I don’t manage as well as I should. Why would I assume my neighbors would on average fare any better? I’m always in favor of examining places where we can cut spending waste, where private organizations can serve people more efficiently than government organizations, or where government organizations can be restructured to be made more nimble. What I am not in favor of is the replacement of tax dollars that are helping millions with a reliance on the kindness of each of our individual hearts and our willingness to cheerfully give. I fear that switching to that model will find us coming up painfully short, with a net increase in suffering, all so that we can be satisfied that someone isn’t getting what they don’t deserve.