Being the Change
By james barnett
November 10, 2010
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once proposed that, though it may be normal to stop at a red light, a fire truck goes straight through if there is a fire on the other side. An ambulance would do the same were there people bleeding to death. He said there are disinherited people everywhere, waiting on a brigade of ambulance drivers to run the red lights until the emergency is solved.
The truth is, there are fires of injustice raging in our world and red lights need to be run. The sad thing is, most of us are conservatively driving cars instead of fire trucks. Perhaps the even greater travesty is that many Christians have come to believe only a few are uniquely “called” to put out the fire. If your building is on fire, you toss water on it. You don’t pray for someone to bring a bucket of water. Nor do you chase a more extravagant fire halfway around the world to the neglect of the neighbors in your own building. Understanding this is paramount for college students who want to be like Jesus to their four-year family.
There are red lights everywhere. While you’re in college, or any other of life’s seasons, you should find your red light. Some lights come in the form of human trafficking, the exploitation of factory workers or the ecological impact our apathetic lifestyles have on our planet. Still others resemble the genocide of unjust wars, a disregard for people living with AIDS and the complacency of preventable diseases.
It all comes down to this: The world needs the Church. We would be daft, however, to serve the world without first serving our neighborhood. Many of us in good intention have traveled the globe only to end up robbing the poor of their circumstance for a good profile picture on Facebook. God isn’t oblivious to this. In fact, this pop culture ritualism bothers Him a lot. In Amos 5:21-24 He says, “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream” (NIV).
There is something more to our faith than what many of us have been shown. We’ve been asked to lay it all at the cross but are left empty-handed with little more than Christian T-shirts and a new music collection in place of our sacrifice.
For the past eight months, I’ve been voluntarily living on the streets to care for homeless folks as I search for something more. I don’t believe I am “called” to homeless people—at least no more than you are. I’m simply called to Jesus—the same Jesus who, as we read in Philippians, “made himself nothing … a servant … [who] humbled himself and became obedient to death …” (2:7-8). There is nothing remarkable about me. I simply decided I wanted to be like Jesus—the Jesus I said I’ve followed for years but admired instead.
In the New Testament, James emphasizes that, despite being a prophetic, fire-inducing, weather manipulator, ”Elijah was a man just like us” (5:17). No matter the city you’re in for the seemingly perpetual but momentary collegiate experience, you can be like Jesus. After all, it’s a command (1 John 2:6). Being socially aware in your community isn’t only something for the few; it’s for everyone who bears the name of Christ. Only in community will we discover the interconnected nature of our mutuality and fully comprehend the parts of the Body of Christ. In Jeremiah we read God’s heart on communal living while in transition: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you … and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (29:7, ESV).
God is saying our well-being hinges on the well-being of our community. After all, our love toward our “neighbor” is the second, but equally greatest, commandment to loving God. So what more suitable quest is there besides becoming a good neighbor in your community? In Jesus’ vision of community, there is no “us” and “them.” There is only “us.” There is no “mine.” It has become “ours.”
We cannot boast God as Father if we deny ourselves our sisters and brothers who live in need. It is disheartening how little worth we attribute to the “least of these,” the ones deemed by God to be the greatest in His Kingdom.
However, there is a flip side to social activism we mustn’t overlook. In Revelation, Jesus tells the church in Sardis that, while it has a reputation for being alive, it is dead, and to the church in Laodicea He states that any lukewarm person will be vomited out of His mouth. So yes, while it may be true no lukewarm churchgoer will enter through the gates of splendor having not cared for the “least of these” (Matthew 25), the opposite is equally true; no matter how many trees you’ve hugged, whales you’ve rescued or orphanages you’ve built, it’s all for naught without the blood of the Lamb.
In a culture where orphaned Chinese infants have become accessories on the arms of A-listers and where Africa has become more a trend than a continent, we must ask what it means to walk the narrow path that only a few will find (Matthew 7:14).
So how do you live for an unpopular Kingdom that is rejected by the world and embraced only by the few? You certainly don’t need to be a Christian to build houses or dig wells. The answer is found in the upside-down kingdom where the least are the greatest and enemies are loved. Here are some practical ways to take the narrow path.
Permeate your community
My friend Joe was telling me about a church in the city he used to live in. It was next to a strip club, of all places. Instead of picketing along with all the other churches, an elderly woman from this church volunteered to bring gifts to the strippers. She did this for a while and eventually all the strippers quit and the club closed its doors. Radical love can change a community.
Lately, my friends and I have been throwing Frisbees at a park that’s notorious for drug activity. Instead of avoiding the park like everyone else, we disrupt the drug deals by throwing the Frisbee near them and asking them to play. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but you can’t love your enemies if you avoid them.
My point being, you cannot improve a community you aren’t part of. It is much easier to drop change into the hat of a panhandler than it is to sit down together at the kitchen table and work out a budgeting plan. Detached charity is hardly the way of Jesus. It is a dangerous isolator and has proven itself to be a far greater threat to the validity of Christendom than disbelief itself.
Become “weak to the weak”
This is an ideology Paul the Apostle proposed, and when I met my friend Don, it became clearer what this meant. Don is a commercial airline pilot, and not too long after Mother Teresa’s death, the wife of the president of Albania was a passenger on one of his planes. Mother Teresa was Albanian by blood and this woman was bringing a relic back to Albania in order to promote tourism. When Don asked what was inside the tube she held, she told him it was the carpet Mother Teresa died on. Apparently, Mother Teresa couldn’t rationalize dying in a bed while others die in the gutters so, like Jesus who gave up a throne, she crawled out of bed to die on the floor. This lends a whole new meaning to “love your neighbor as yourself,” a popular teaching of Jesus’ that is usually viewed as a fresh perspective on generosity rather than an intentional mandate for the Church. No, you may not be able to provide a bed for everyone, but you can certainly join them on the floor.
If it bothers you that people are sleeping on the curb downtown, organize a “sleep-out” to dramatize the injustice of homelessness. If your cafeteria’s use of Styrofoam troubles you, write up a proposal to the Student Government Association lobbying for alternatives. If your heart breaks when you realize your shoes were made on the backs of children half your age, go one day without shoes to emphasize our duty to be good neighbors, no matter what borders divide us.
There are plenty of organizations on campus that take up the cause of those in the margins (see sidebar for some suggestions). Go to a meeting and decide if it’s for you. If it is, raise awareness so other people can join you.
When Adam and Eve ate the apple, they became aware of their depravity. It wasn’t long before God walked into the garden, asking, “Where are you?” The question wasn’t so much about geography as it was biography. It’s a question He still asks of us, and one a Christian must ask of their community.
So, if you want to be like Jesus who hung out with the poor, you should too. Since Jesus stepped in front of the defenseless, you should too. Since Jesus spent time with the sick, take some Airborne because you should too. Go, be like Jesus, and whomever you find yourself among will be to whom you are “called.” But find your red light. There is one on every corner of our planet and on the streets in your community. We mustn’t forget that. For God, whom we follow, so loved the world that He “gave” … so a Christian does too.
James Barnett is the founder of Clothe Your Neighbor as Yourself. When you purchase a shirt through CYNY, he provides clothing for his new friends on the street. Book James to speak at your church/organization by sending an email to email@example.com.
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