Sometime around the middle of the first century A.D., James, who was a brother of Jesus, wrote to a group of Christians warning them about the sin of partiality – that is, showing favor to the rich and powerful at the expense of “those who are poor in the world” (James 2:5). In doing this, these Christians were forgetting that God sees people differently from how the world does, flattering and exalting the wealthy, the impressive, while ignoring and forgetting the poor and the weak, the unimpressive.
I love how Russell Moore puts this in his excellent book Onward (B&H, 2015), using the theme of the kingdom of God to show us how our thinking about who’s important who is not can become so contrary – and because of this, twisted and ugly – to the way things are in God’s kingdom. Check it out:
“The kingdom of God changes the culture of the church by showing us a longer view of who’s important and who’s in charge.
“The kingdom of God turns the Darwinist narrative of the survival of the fittest upside down (Acts 17:6-7). When the church honors and cares for the vulnerable among us, we are not showing charity. We are simply recognizing the way the world really works, at least in the long run. The child with Down syndrome on the fifth row from the back in your church, he’s not a ‘ministry project.’ He’s a future king of the universe. The immigrant woman who scrubs toilets every day on hands and knees, and can barely speak enough English to sing along with your praise choruses, she’s not a problem to be solved. She’s a future queen of the cosmos, a joint-heir with Christ” (82).
In 2000, candidate George W. Bush campaigned on a domestic agenda of “compassionate conservatism,” which he said would not “balance the budge on the backs of the poor.” This sounds good, doesn’t it? It softens the stereotype of mean and rich Republicans out to cut back on government spending left and right and establish fiscal order at the expense of the neediest Americans. Yet, as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and Slate‘s Reihan Salam argue in their thought-provoking and important book, Grand New Party (Anchor, 2009), this language in fact perpetrates the notion of a class dependent on the hand of government to survive that is so antithetical to what is at the essence of the American story. This philosophical stance that resists big government largesse and encourages self-reliance and -drive to achieve upward mobility is actually one of the key principles that, in my view, defines what it means to be a conservative.
“While his [Bush’s] instincts were sound, the language of compassion strikes the wrong note. It speaks to upper-middle-class empathy, not to the aspirations of poor Americans with the drive to succeed. For a generation, anti-poverty campaigns have fallen into this trap too often, emphasizing pity over self-help, framing government interventions in terms of charitable outreach, and poor-mouthing the prospects of the very people they set out to help. In the process, they have created an assumption that the poorest Americans simply aren’t capable of the kind of drive, ambition, and zeal for self-improvement that defines the American character.” (194)
So it was a significant event in my reading life when, as I turned the last pages while sitting in the plane during our recent flight, I realized I had found my favorite book: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together (Harper, 1954).
This was actually the second time I read this book. I first read it two years ago, in preparation for a fellowship program that I didn’t end up doing (I got married instead!). The first time I read it, it was excellent. But it was as if I took a few bites, tasted it. The second time, I enjoyed the full meal, and it was so rewarding that before I finished it I was already anticipating the next time I would read it.
Bonhoeffer – a German theologian and pastor who was murdered by the Gestapo for plotting to assassinate Hitler – wrote the book while teaching an underground seminary in Nazi Germany. He instructs on doing life together in Christ, as a community of Christians or as a family, and deals with topics such as prayer, common devotions, daily work, solitude, and serving one another. It’s a small book, running just over a hundred pages, but it is rich in wisdom and practical instruction. If you want to grow as a member of your community or your family, I cannot think of a better book you can read than this one.
Here are three excerpts to pique your interest. More posts will follow.
“Only he who gives thanks for little things receives the big things. We prevent God from giving us the great spiritual gifts He has in store for us, because we do not give thanks for daily gifts” (29).
“Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate” (30).
“The exclusion of the weak and insignificant, the seemingly useless people, from a Christian community may actually mean the exclusion of Christ; in the poor brother Christ is knocking at the door” (38).
Before David the shepherd boy became David King of Israel, he was ruthlessly persecuted by King Saul, who sought to kill the “anointed one” who would take his throne. Yet despite this enmity, David enjoyed an intimate friendship with Jonathan, the son of Saul. Jonathan was exceedingly kind to David during this difficult period, and, knowing that David would ascend to the throne, he made him promise to be kind to his descendants.
In David: Man of Prayer, Man of War (Banner of Truth, 2011), Walter Chantry explains what would normally have happened to one of Saul’s descendants once someone like David came to power: “It was common in the Middle East for a newly-crowned ruler to exterminate the males of the former ruler’s household. Any prominence of one who survived this carnage would give rise to whispers that he was a rival for the throne. Then ordinary citizens might kill him to gain special favor with the present king.”
But David remembered the promise he made to his beloved friend Jonathan, and he would fulfill this promise to one of Jonathan’s sons, who was also the grandson of the man who turned him into an outlaw and sought to kill him. This person was Mephibosheth, who was dropped by his nurse at at young age, leaving him lame and dependent on others’ kindness for the rest of his life.
Chantry describes David’s proactive kindness: “David was not content to wait until someone from the household of Saul appealed to him for aid. He searched out the relatives of Jonathan” for someone to show kindness to (187).
Now watch this:
When Mephibosheth appeared before David, anxious and uncertain before the new King, he was met with gentle words and given gifts, the large estate formerly held by King Saul, and a position of honor in the King’s court. For the rest of his days he would be fed at the King’s table and all would know that he “enjoyed the special favor of David” (189).
Chantry then turns to the reader:
“Do you show kindness to others as God has showered undeserved blessings on you? Too many say, ‘I’m not aware of those who have needs’! But we must search out opportunities to do good…There are widows, the infirm, and prisoners in great need of attention in their sufferings” (188).
I was moved and inspired by this example, and I couldn’t agree with Chantry’s point more. We shouldn’t wait for the needy to come knocking at our door to be kind and generous. Rather, just as we’ve been shown extravagant grace and kindness, we too should look for opportunities to show mercy and kindness. If we do, we won’t be disappointed: they are all around us.