The American church is slowly waking up from a decades-long slumber. Many of us have been sleeping snugly under a thick blanket of individualism for far too long, embracing a guarded theology as a pillow for our sleepy little heads. The mission of Jesus to care for "the least of these" has largely suffered under American Christianity.
Our toxic apathy is rooted in a lot of places, but sadly we don’t have to look any further than the church itself to find several excuses to not care for the poor, vulnerable, marginalized, and downtrodden in our community and in our world.
We’ve mastered Christian-ese catch phrases to get us off the hook from ever really having to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Before I go on, please allow me to climb off my high horse and admit that I know all of these phrases by heart because I have disingenuously used them all myself. They’ve rolled off my tongue with ease and a sense of identity. But the more I listen to those who have suffered, the more I realize how much I’ve manipulated Scripture to stay comfortable.
These sayings are not bad or untrue at face value, and sometimes they are said with sincerity. But American Christians also use them as an escape hatch to turn our backs on suffering. We proclaim what we believe as rock-solid theology, while ignoring those who are at the heart and soul of Jesus’ ministry.
Eight phrases in particular have paved the way for a passivity that keeps us quiet when we need to speak up, and keeps us paralyzed from being the hands and feet of Jesus:
1.“I’ll pray for you.”
Or: "We’ll pray for you." "I’m praying about that." "Praying."
How This Lets Us Off the Hook: "I’m sorry for your situation, but please don’t ask for my money, time or assistance to help with your problem. I’ll pray for you when I remember."
This reminds me of comedian Hannibal Buress’ sketch where he says, "You’re going to pray for me? So basically you’re going to sit at home and do nothing…while I struggle with a situation. Don’t pray for me — make me a sandwich, or something."
When individuals or communities are in a desperate situation, love is more felt in actions than in words. A promise of prayer without corresponding action can be felt at the very least as an annoyance — at the worst, said with smugness and apathy, it can inflict even more pain. Jesus modeled a hands-on approach, by caring for hungry, hurting souls. He was present in physical touch. He actively fed five thousand. He turned water into wine. Sure, he had power as the Son of God, but his entire ministry was less talk and more action.
2. “I love everybody!”
Or: "I don’t have anything against black people/Hispanics/Arabs/Muslims..."
How This Lets Us Off the Hook: "I believe God loves all people, but don’t ask me to invite any of them to my dinner table, frequent one of their businesses, send my kids to school with their kids, or live in one of their neighborhoods! I'd like to stay comfortable in my holy huddle."
Growing up in Arkansas, I’ve heard generous, well-intentioned church people say this too many times to count. We say that we love everybody, but our actions don’t really show it. We live in different neighborhoods, go to different schools and churches, and frequent different businesses. Jim Crow doesn’t have to enforce it — we do it to ourselves. But racial tension is growing like cancer in America right now. How should the church respond? What’s our role in all of this?
What would it look like if the hands and feet of Jesus embodied a theology of justice — of grace and redemption to all people, and we started seeing ourselves all on the same side of the equation of grace?
3. “Let’s keep the peace!”
Or: “I don’t like controversy/conflict.”
How This Lets Us Off the Hook: "Let’s keep the status quo."
For a lot of people, the appearance of siding with the “other” is horrifyingly embarrassing. God forbid, someone might think I’m a liberal. And so we’ve co-opted indifference and called it peace.
But it doesn’t really keep the peace — it keeps the status quo, which can be soul-crushingly oppressive for some people. Paul called Peter out on this in Galatians when he went back on his ways and was too embarrassed to do life with the uncircumcised. Paul ruffled some feathers in the process, for the sake of the gospel that was for everyone. He didn’t stay silent, even though Peter was his elder and one of the original disciples.
True biblical peace, or shalom, is more about belonging to one another, and less about minding our own business. It’s more about wholeness and restoration, and less about silence and passivity.
The deafening silence from prominent evangelical leaders in the wake of Charlottesville is devastating for our brothers and sisters of color. The choice to stay quiet and comfortable emboldens a whole new generation of haters. It’s going to take a choir of voices prophetically speaking light into this darkness.
4. “God is sovereign!”
Or: “God is in control!” “It’s all in God's hands!”
How This Lets Us Off the Hook: "I’m uncomfortable with what’s going on, but I’m going to hide behind my Bible instead of doing anything about it."
While God is sovereign, God is also non-coercive. God is never going to jump out of the sky, grab us by the shoulders, and tell us we’re completely off the rails. Sometimes, I wish God would, but that’s not how we’ve seen it work throughout history. We have the free will to turn a blind eye, or to obey Jesus' primary command to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.
5. “Jesus said, ‘The poor will always be with us.’”
Or: "No matter how hard we try, there will still be poor people.”
How This Lets Us Off the Hook: "What good is it to help the poor since they’ll always be with us anyway?"
As a child, I remember finding out for the first time that there were people in the world that went to bed hungry, and I remember being handed this line almost as a license for complacency.
Let’s account for the full passage where this is taken. Jesus is at the home of Simon the leper, and a woman breaks open her bottle of costly perfume to pour over Jesus’ head. She’s criticized by the men in the room for being wasteful and extravagant. And Jesus rebukes them. He sees what’s in her heart as she pours out all she has as an act of worship. Remember the first command: Love the Lord your God…This line is about giving our best resources to the Kingdom of God. It’s not about holding back from the poor so that we can keep more for ourselves.
The Old and New Testaments both are filled with overt commands and references to care for the poor — roughly 300 times (compare this with seven passages referencing homosexual behavior). It’s one of the overarching themes of the Bible, but when was the last time you heard a sermon asking us to cut down on what we buy for ourselves in order to give to other people?
6. “God works in mysterious ways.”
Or: “When God closes a door, he opens window.” “God works for good.” "Everything happens for a reason."
How This Lets Us Off the Hook: "Somebody will care for your problem, but don’t ask me to go there."
When people are in the middle of the darkest storm imaginable, the last thing they want to be told is that God is working everything together for good, and to trust in God's mysterious ways. It is not helpful. It is not comforting. It does not bring healing. More often than not, Romans 8:28 spoken out of context only confuses and alienates the hurting person even more. The implication that God has predestined pain and suffering is unloving and can drive people away from the church. Making them a sandwich would be a better plan. Or cleaning their house. Or taking their children for an afternoon. Or just listening to them or sitting with them in silence.
There are circumstances in which a fitting Sunday school answer is nowhere to be found. There are times when there are no words. But yet the mystery and love of Christ can be felt in small tasks that add up to big love.
7. “Mercy is not my gift.”
Or: “Some people have the gift of mercy/forgiveness/service. I do not.”
How This Lets Us Off the Hook: "I know the Bible says, 'Blessed are the merciful,' but it’s more comfortable to leave that job to people for whom it comes easy."
Here’s the big secret that needs to get out: Mercy doesn’t come easy for anybody. We’ve always said that some people have a “heart” for this or that, but the way that it really works is that when we do things to show compassion and mercy to those who need it, the heart follows. It’s the same principle with where we put our treasure — there will your heart be also (Matt. 6:21). We’ve had these things backward for a long time. When we invest our time and money into things, our heart follows after the fact.
8. “The Bible says we should submit to authority.”
Or: "I’m just going to keep praying for our leaders. I trust our leaders."
How This Lets Us Off the Hook: "Sure, there are some very un-Christ like things happening all around me, but it’s more comfortable to offer a blind trust and allegiance to my leader than go out on a limb for those who are oppressed."
Romans 13 tells us to honor those in authority, and to follow the law. It does not mean we should sit silently and comfortably when there is evil all around us. There will be tension between those commandments — Jesus lived and breathed in that tension all the way to the cross.
For me, hearing this phrase on repeat lately has broken my heart. I work with Somali refugees in Bangkok, and when the Trump administration began demonizing immigrants, reducing the amount of refugees we take per year by more than half, and shutting the door on all Syrian refugees, I was a direct witness to how policy and ideology can harm "the least of these." Hearing from my comfortable brothers and sisters back home say that we need to “just trust” that it was the right decision, simply because it was coming from the president, not only defies all logic but is antithetical to the Gospel.
Christ called us to be the counter-cultural people who love radically. He never called for the bride of Christ to marry Rome. Respecting those in power is very different from sanctifying and blessing everything they do. When we are silent and apathetic about policy that hurts people, we are complicit in the suffering.
Church, the stakes are high. We are at a crossroads in history where the reputation of Christ is on the line. These are the days in which we are called to speak up and act. We are the hands and feet of Jesus, taking part in his beautiful story of healing, redemption, restoration, and love.
Whether it’s making somebody a sandwich, speaking up when it is uncomfortable, or listening to the voices of those who are suffering, we have to shed the comforts of complacency to each do our small part together. There is really no other way forward.