Many Christians, particularly evangelicals, focus almost exclusively on calling people to a personal relationship with Jesus. The vision is so individualistic that there is almost no notion of living as body, where different parts take on one another’s pain and poverty.
I think Jesus and Paul would be surprised that these folks think they are resisting our culture and pointing people toward the New Testament. A personal relationship with Jesus is no replacement for joining his body. Individualism destroys–even if ifs in the name of Jesus.
Then there’s us peace-and-justice folks. We emphasize individual rights until all possibility of community is destroyed. We become so paranoid that our rights will be violated that we can’t even work with those closest to us. Rights are no replacement for love. Individualism destroys whether it’s from the Left or the Right.
We need to grasp that “leading people to Jesus” without taking them into the family of God is like a mother abandoning a newborn in a public bathroom. And so is helping poor people join the middle class without helping them become disciples of Jesus.
I used to think that evangelicals and peace-and-justice folks each had half the gospel, and what we needed to do was to combine the two. But I no longer think this analysis cuts deep enough. Instead of bringing the two together, we must come close to rejecting both.
Because both leave our voracious egos firmly at the center. The only thing that can inflate my ego more than my belief in my personal rights is my belief that I have a personal relationship with God.
If our egos are alive and well, we can’t become part of the body of Christ (or any other body). We can’t become one by learning to be assertive, throwing off our oppressors, or having a personal relationship with Jesus. We become one by dying to ourselves, so that Christ can live in us.
I’ve been teaching Isaiah the past few months. I have always been drawn to Isaiah because of his emphasis on justice. In fact, I remember saying that the only thing Isaiah condemns more than injustice is failure to trust Yahweh.
But I’ve started to wonder if I ever really heard myself. Because Isaiah’s central concern isn’t justice but Yahweh. Isaiah cares deeply about justice, but he’s not Karl Marx–because Isaiah understands injustice as growing out of Israel’s failure to trust the loving God. “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand” (Isa. 1:3).
It would never occur to Isaiah to get the government working better except by calling for a return to Yahweh. Isaiah knew that reform that didn’t include following God would fail to produce justice as regularly as Marxism has.
But what Isaiah says is equally offensive to the Right. Notice that his call was to the nation of Israel, to God’s people as a whole, not to individuals.
Of course, Isaiah doesn’t talk specifically about dying to self. But consider this passage: “Oh Lord, be gracious to us; we wait for you. Be our arm every morning, our salvation in the time of trouble” (Isa. 33:2). If that’s not dying to yourself, what is? He’s telling the children of Israel to stop trusting themselves and let God do the work.
Isaiah tells them that they won’t make peace with their Babylonian oppressors through military might or anything they can do. They will have to die to themselves and trust God: “For thus says the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel; In returning and rest, you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength. But you refused and said, `No! We will flee upon horses'” (Isa. 30:15-16a).
Isaiah is speaking to a situation equivalent to that of a third-world nation being eaten by the United States, but he doesn’t tell them to organize to oppose the Babylonians. No, he tells them to repent, die to themselves, and trust God.
Not exactly what we peace-and-justice folks tell the third world.
Isaiah’s vision is for people to rely on God, give up on themselves, and live corporately (that is, as a body). And this, in some form, is the driving vision of almost every part of the Bible.
The human heart is rotten, in rebellion against God, out for its own pleasure and power. This leads to violence, poverty, racism, and every other form of oppression. The only possible solution is for people to repent, own their sin, turn to their loving God, and begin living as members of God’s people. Anything else, no matter how well intended, is ineffectual.
That includes every form of ministry that isn’t driven by this vision. So personal evangelism that gets people to say a prayer and leaves them sitting on a park bench is ineffectual. And so are soup kitchens, congressional-reform movements, and antiwar rallies.
Yet all of these are fine if they are driven by a vision to call people out of their egos to life among God’s people. Within that vision, most any ministry is acceptable, as long as people are clear on what the vision is.
But I believe any ministry that isn’t calling people pretty directly to repentance and into God’s loving community is a distraction. The forms of ministry–evangelism, soup kitchens, antiwar rallies, daily vacation Bible schools–can easily become ends in themselves, distractions from the basic heart issues, bunny trails leading away from the paradigm of discipleship among God’s people. This leaves the people of God so poorly cared for that we have no light to project out so a fallen world can see the way home.
That, I suspect, is why Isaiah and the other Hebrew prophets spent so little time organizing and institutionalizing ministries. They kept it simple. They called for repentance and a return to God–and not much else. Their only plan for reform was for the people of God to become righteous.
And I suspect that should be our only plan, our only ministry.