“A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury.”
-John Stuart Mill
To my great delight, there is a growing inclination within the faith community to embrace creative ideas in regards to making a difference in the suffering areas of the world. I thought for years that the phrase “social justice” was almost a curse word in fundamental Christian circles. They told me to “just preach salvation and heaven.” But, to read the gospel is to see a Jesus meeting human needs.
I don’t think most Christians in a nation like America care about the end of suffering, because I’m not sure we really can care. Every time I hear the end of suffering, Christians talk about heaven. I believe that, but we should never use that as an excuse to allow injustices to continue. We have been socially and culturally conditioned to wrap our sense of entitlement up with misperceptions of God’s blessings and provision. In other words, we mistake God’s provision for us as a personal blessing upon us. We work hard to get ahead, but forget that most of the world’s poorest people work harder and longer days than we do and somehow stay further behind. Do we really think that God is rewarding us and punishing them?
I would like to offer one central affirmation that I believe is the only realistic starting point on this journey to hope:
The end of the unjust suffering of the world’s oppressed poor will start with the voluntary suffering of the non-poor.
This beginning of suffering will require embracing a humility that puts the so-called “other” first. The beginning of suffering will also require authentic submission that amplifies the muted voices of repressed peoples whose voices have been ignored. In this revolution, we, the non- poor, will follow the poor to God’s heart.
When the non-poor realize that in sincere relationships with people who are poor, we will all experience the power of God’s grace. Too many of us want extreme exposure without having to face the extreme responsibilities of our responses. It is a blatant sin to go on mission trips and do ministry all over the world, and neglect our own Jerusalem, first.
First, We must allow our lives to be forever changed by the presence of poverty in our world. As we consider what the end of suffering summons us to, we start with the affirmation that unjust poverty and suffering are an assault on the image of God. Every victim of poverty and every human being who unjustly suffers are created in God’s image. And that image is attacked when one’s dignity and identity are stolen. We must work to reclaim their identities as a testimony to their dignity as God’s children.
Secondly, each victim of poverty is, at the very least, our neighbor, and in many cases our sister or brother. Jesus had much to say about how we should relate to our neighbors and sisters and brothers.
Finally, we need to clothe ourselves in a spirit of humility and submission by recognizing and affirming that we desperately need the poor. Their circumstances remind us of our own poverty, our need for grace and rescue, and Christ’s own example of becoming poor for our sake. We truly work out our salvation among the poor.
As Mother Teresa said, “we need the poor more than the poor need us.”