You Say You Want a Revolution?
I’ve been a part of a number of interesting and often painful conversations over the last few days, many of which relate—directly or indirectly—to the problem of evil and whether or not there is a coherent way to think about and respond to this from a Christian perspective. These subjects of these conversations have covered a head-spinningly wide range—from the reality of war and poverty to systemic injustices to painful realities of everyday life and relationships. In every conversation, old, old questions lurk in the shadows: “How can God allow this? How can I believe that God is good and loves his children in light of ____? What am I supposed to do, as a person of faith, in light of all this evil?”
In extremely general terms, there often seem to be two responses to these kinds of question that are either explicitly or implicitly adopted by Christians seeking to understand or respond to evil. The first goes something like this: the world is evil and has always been so and will always be so and our job is to simply believe in God and look forward to heaven. Christian faith is seen as mostly private and spiritual and oriented primarily toward the future. Jesus lives in our hearts and will one day rescue us from the evil we see around us, but has little to say about how or if we are to work towards a more just present.
The second approach argues that our task is to fight evil tooth and nail in the name of Christ. Evil is not to be taken for granted or assumed, it is to be resisted as an expression of faith. Jesus does not “live in our hearts” (whatever that might mean); his main task, rather, is to be an exemplar of how to do battle with corrupt institutions and unjust systems that have such terrible effects upon the vulnerable and marginalized. Christian faith, on this view, is almost exclusively about working toward a more just order in the present but has little to do with personal spirituality or the world to come.
So, the first approach is concerned mainly with personal piety—with our thoughts and behaviours and relationships to those in our immediate sphere of influence and action. The second approach is concerned mainly with “big evil” and the ways in which Jesus can assist us in combating it.
On our last day in Colombia during the MCC learning tour I was recently a part of, we emerged from the doors of the Catholic retreat centre where we were staying in Bogotá to see a massive protest march beginning just around the corner from us. As we were watching the people go by, I snapped the picture you see above. My Spanish is poor to virtually non-existent, but even I could discern the message: “Christ, the first revolutionary.” Group number two above would obviously enthusiastically agree. Group one, on the other hand, would start to get a little nervous.
I’ve looked at this picture often since I returned from my trip. As is the case with so many of the words we use, “revolutionary” can be used in any number of ways, depending on the causes we support and the interests we have. In the broadest possible terms, I think we all believe that Jesus is our example of how to think and live in a world of great evil. But what does that look like? What kind of “revolutionary” was Jesus? It is too easy (and too convenient) to assume that Jesus’ main priority was to “revolutionize” our inner lives, dealing with our personal sins, cleaning up our relationships, and making us fit to be with him in heaven. But it can also be too easy (and too convenient) to conceptualize the way of Jesus as an ethical system or a political strategy to the exclusion of taking seriously what it might mean on the level of inner dispositions and personal relationships.
The first approach perhaps doesn’t think big enough when it comes to the revolution Jesus inaugurated. The second approach perhaps doesn’t think small enough or fails to honour or pay sufficient attention to the ways in which the revolution Jesus inaugurated can (and must) be worked out closer to home. Both approaches, it seems to me, could use a broader conception of the nature and scope of Jesus’ revolution.
I don’t claim to have this all figured out, by any means. My time in Colombia made me painfully aware of just how insular and privatized my faith can become in a context of material privilege, and of my obligation to think and act globally in obedience to Christ. At the same time, I see daily evidence—in my own life, and in my community—the necessity of a “revolution” of the heart and mind in the most ordinary and mundane of everyday circumstances. At my intermittent best, I try to pay attention to and respond to both realities. Here, then, are a few of the revolutionary acts I have caught glimpses of over the last few weeks :
- A wildly eclectic group of passionate Colombians marches in a protest against the unjust treatment of displaced people in their nation.
- A young boy with few friends at a middle-class school refuses to join with the crowd in picking on another kid, and instead sits down shares his lunch with him.
- Several friends engage in honest and painful grappling with how to be good global citizens and disciples of Jesus in light of their material privilege and the grave inequalities and injustices they have witnessed around the world.
- A man brings a bowl of ice cream to a wife who cannot eat is and is slowly withering away due to the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s disease in the hopes that today might be a “good day” where she smiles.
- Good and caring people work patiently and persistently in seemingly hopeless and desperate contexts in our world where progress often seems minimal to nonexistent, and where people continue to suffer unimaginably despite their best efforts.
- An older man clings tenuously to faith and hope in a good God despite long years of loneliness and abandonment by those who ought to have expressed love and support.
In each of these cases—and countless others around the world—people are resisting evil by following the pattern of Christ, the first revolutionary.