October 7, 2011
Catalyst 2011 Justice and Mercy Part 1
There's a renewed passion for justice and mercy--with an exciting new twist.
One of the things I appreciate about this conference is the beautiful blend of worship and compassion, evangelism and justice, love for the church and love for a broken world. The Catalyst culture promotes so much talk and action around huge issues like solving global poverty, protecting and adopting orphans, walking with the poor, feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked. This isn’t supposed to minimize the call to preach salvation in Christ alone (although I’ll let readers decide if that has happened or not). And most of this passion and energy is coming from a new wave of younger leaders.
But there’s also an interesting (and I think deeply biblical) twist to one aspect to this emphasis. It’s a better way to do justice and avoid “toxic mercy.” Here’s an example of toxic mercy: Bob Lupton told a story about a fairly typical suburban church program that brought gifts to a poor inner-city family at Christmas time. Of course the children in these inner-city families were always happy to get presents. The kids’ mothers were also at least semi-excited, especially for their kids’ sakes. But the fathers would usually disappear. It dawned on Lupton that these fathers couldn’t handle the shame. When the nice, well-meaning suburban church members swooped in to “help” the “needy” poor families, they emasculated the men and fathers. It provided one more concrete and public reminder of the fathers’ inability to care for their families.
That kind of mercy is toxic to humans made in the image of God. Rich, usually white, nice suburban churches wanted to help, but the help usually focused on their need to feel good about providing gifts to those poor children. In the process, we put ourselves into the center of the story. We became the hero of the story, not Jesus. It’s paternalistic and it’s degrading to the poor, but we never questioned it because it makes us feel so good. This kind of pity demoralizes the poor.
So Lupton’s community discovered a different model for Christmas gifts. They established a store were parents could purchase the gifts for the children. Then they set up a process for fathers and mothers to also earn extra cash to purchase the gifts. So just like most American families, fathers and mothers could give Christmas presents to their children. By actually getting to know these inner-city families, the partner churches started to treat the poor like human beings, not projects. This kind of mercy restores rather than denigrates dignity.
It's a good thing. I wonder why it took us so long to figure this out.