January 2011

One year ago today Tè Tremblé struck Haiti. This devastating earthquake claimed over 250,000 lives, displaced one million people, led to a deathly outbreak of cholera, and created a humanitarian crisis the Western Hemisphere has never seen. It was preceded by a social disaster that left Haiti the poorest of all western countries, and it is being followed by a 3rd disaster which stalls development and the rebirth of the Haitian people: charity.

The week of the earthquake, Dr. Evan Lyon said this in reference to charity: “This aid attention is nice. The extra supplies are nice. The energy and the money is helpful. But if the Haitian institutions are not rebuilt, nothing will be durable, and in one year we’ll be exactly where we are right now, which is in pain.” Today, one year later, these words are all too true! You see, our primary response has been humanitarian aid, rather than justice, solving the short term problem of food while utterly failing to provide for infrastructure, leadership, housing, or health care. Even with our insistence on charity only 10% of that pledged by the international community has been delivered. The same is true of many non-profits. One million people remain living in tent camps with little food or sanitation. Haiti is an utter indictment of the limits of charity.

The Christian idea of charity began to take its present form not in the early church, but in the middle ages. “The churches encouraged charitable giving to meet the needs of the poor and developed various institutions to care for the victims of the system they now helped to sustain, but there was no longer any appetite to challenge the system itself (Naked Anabaptism, pg 119).” The system itself, that’s what is broken in Haiti, and no amount of loving individuals will fix it. What is needed is a social fix to a social problem, or, in other words, justice.

But what is justice? Justice is mercy and kindness applied on a social scale. It is love writ large. In the same way love and mercy should define individual relationships, justice is the biblical term for what should define community. Beyond acts of charity towards individuals, justice creates patterns of behavior, systems of community, and relational interactions so there is no longer need for acts of charity. Charitable giving can, according to Stuart Murray, “offset some of the worst effects of this unjust system.” But, he cautions, “this can appease our consciences and distract us from working toward a more just world (Naked Anabaptism, pg 121).” If a ministry of mercy would feed the poor through a food pantry, a ministry of justice would explore the systemic reasons why poverty exists in the first place, then seek to change the system so poverty is no more. Both charity and justice are expressions of Biblical love: charity on a personal scale, and justice is love writ large. But now is the time to repent of our narrow focus on charity and shift from relief to development, from charity to justice.

Alex Dupuy, a Haitian American professor at Wesleyan University, suggests that Haiti’s current situation is exaserbated by 2 primary responses: old failed policies, and charity. “The strategies that they have devised for Haiti’s reconstruction are no different than the strategies that they had put in place in Haiti for the past three decades or more that have proven to have failed.” He notes that former President Clinton testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the policies he himself pushed on Haiti were an utter failure, and yet they are the same policies he is introducing again today. Likewise, charity in the form of humanitarian aid has turned Haiti into what he calls “The Republic of NGO’s.” “The foreign community has a direct role to play, in collaboration with the Haitian elites, to create a situation in Haiti where the vast majority of the population continued to live in poverty, and their basic needs and their basic rights are being ignored (interview with Amy Goodman, 1-12-11).”

Today I pray for the ongoing disasters in Haiti. And I recognize that media-worthy disasters are not the only places were a social response (justice) is needed more deeply than a personal response (charity). Homelessness, health care, racism and xenophobia, and Wall Street are all symptoms that here in the US, we too need to let justice roll down like waters.

In conclusion, allow me to ask with lyricist John Bell of the Iona community, “If the war goes on and the daily bread is terror, and the voiceless poor take the road as refugees; when a nation’s pride destines millions to be homeless, who will heed their pleas?”

Most of the comments I’ve heard in response to MCUSA’s weekend decision to retain Phoenix as the site of the 2013 Convention fall into two camps: scattered energy from those disappointed, or “let’s move on” statements from those in agreement.

Several of those who were, like myself, disappointed with the decision have suggested we’ve “crossed a threshold” or that its time to think about new ways to be Anabaptist(Click here for one example). Both varieties of energy feel premature to me. I’m not sure we as a faith community are ready to move on yet. What we need is to properly feel this decision: there are folks in our family who now feel further marginalized by this decision, there is genuine disagreement on how best to be a witness, and a growing sense of mistrust in our midst. What can we do today in personal and corporate response to these realities?

Allow me to suggest that we join our voices in lament. The following lament is based on Ephesians 1-3 and was born out of God’s vision for one body of Christ. It is not a statement that suggests that we “got it wrong” in the decision, though I clearly think we did. The lament is that WE are somehow broken, the Phoenix decision is only a symptom of a larger reality. This decision didn’t create a crisis in MCUSA, it only revealed its existence. Whether we’re in or out of Phoenix, the real work was NEVER about this one decision. The real work is the difficult task of being a body with many members, of breaking down walls and of being built together into a spiritual house for God. I trust we as a church are committed for the longhaul to address the breadth of this reality among our family.

But today, I invite you to join me in bringing our brokenness before God in prayer:

O God, your family is dysfunctional!
What you have gathered up into Christ we have kept scattered.
What you are Lord over, we so easily become slave to.
We have been created in Christ for good works (indeed! this is our way of life), yet feel powerless in a system of privilege, wealth, and ethnic identity to make your peace reality.
While you work to make multiple groups into one, we plan separate (but equal?) gatherings. While you break down walls that divide, we decide by highest bidder.
While you work for reconciliation, we decide to exclude.
Where is your peace? Where the new humanity promised? Where is the dwelling place where all are welcome? Where the evidence of the church distinct from the world?

We deeply grieve the hostility between us, and confess that your gift of peace has fallen flat.
Today members of our family woke up wondering if this family is theirs too.
Your household crumbles, only the foundation stands.
Your stunning mystery again feels concealed: that all people have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise.
We mistook financial risk for a daring opportunity to make known the wisdom of God to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.

O Christ, the Prince of Peace, come again and proclaim peace to those who are far off and peace to those who are near.
May we be strengthened in our inner being for the work that is before us.
May Christ dwell in all our hearts, and may our responses, plans, and new patterns of behavior always be rooted and grounded in love.
We pray with the whole church, that MCUSA would one day have the courage to live by the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ.
Today, we can’t imagine this ever happening.
But thankfully God, you still can.
Indeed, we barely have the heart to ask.
But filled with all the fullness of God, anything is possible.

May it be so.