Monday, July 07, 2008

Social dimension of the Christian gospel

All along, I have always associated the Christian gospel with personal salvation, i.e. Jesus Christ died on the cross for my sins and to reconcile me back to God. Recently, as I read more about the different dimension of the Christian gospel, I have come to realize that it has a serious social dimension as well.

In this summer, I have been reading:
1) Bryan McLaren's Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope;
2) N.T. Wright's Evil and the Justice of God;
3) Tracy Kidder's Mountains beyond mountains.

All three books illustrate how our gospel message is more than just personal salvation. The first book examines the system which we live in, and McLaren points out that we are living in a suicidal machine. The rate at which we destroy our environment to sustain our living will lead us to our death one day. The second book is about how we might search for a clue to evil from the Old Testament and New Testament. And one thing is for sure, we are parts of the problem and we are also parts of the solution. The gospel story tells us how God co-opts us as part of the whole BIG story in the solution. The third book has the most impact on me. It is a true story of Dr. Paul Farmer, who started his work on tuberculosis (TB) in Haiti (a very poor Caribbean country whose economy was sabotaged by US foreign policy), and how his organization evolved to become one of the international organizations to tackle TB and another type of mutant TB known as MDR, on a global scale. Farmer challenges how I should interpret "Who is my neighbor?" and how I conceive poverty and health.

There are such things called the poor man's disease such as TB, and AIDS; and rich man's disease such as cancer, and heart attack. The public health policy adopted by every country will determine what type of disease the citizens are more vulnerable to. And sometimes, unfortunately, the policy of another more powerful foreign country will introduce a new type of disease into one's country. Now, you know why the South Koreans protested so strongly against the import of beef more than 30-month old from the US into their country.

Last time, when I listened to the gospel message, I interpreted it as my personal salvation. But now, I realize that it goes beyond personal salvation. In the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37, Jesus is responding to a lawyer's question on "who is my neighbor?" after the lawyer iterates the two most important commandment, i.e. "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." (NRSV Luke 10:27) Jesus relates the story of a man being beaten up and left to die, when he was on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho. Jericho is supposed to be a dwelling place for Jewish priests when they are not on temple duty. A priest passed by, followed by a Levite. Both serve in the temple, and are supposed to "do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow." (Isa 1:17) Yet, it is a Samaritan, a hostile enemy of Jews, who shows kindness to the victim. The person who shows kindness to me is my neighbor. But what if I reverse the role, I am not the victim, and I am the passer-by. My neighbor is the one whom I should not only show kindness to, but to love them as myself.

In Singapore, my neighbors, i.e. those whom I could show kindness to, include other races such as the Malays/Indians/ etc. How could I show kindness to them? By being involved in their tuition center such as the Mendaki (for Malays) and Sinda (for Indians), and not just CDAC (for Chinese). If I can do social visit, why shouldn't I put Malay/Indian old folks home on my list? In the global village that we live in, as the needs of the African children are brought to my awareness, and I do possess the means to help them, I have to ask myself anew: "Are they my neighbor?" (It is a resounding YES.) This mindset changes the way I perceive the gospel. If we take the gospel message seriously, we could change the whole society.

Kidder highlights how Farmer lives out the verse "for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me." (NRSV, Matt 25:35-36) Farmer interprets it literally and even visits his friend's son in Haiti's prison. When I read commentary on Matt 25:31-46, Jesus Christ refers the kindness performed on "one of the least of these who are members of my family" (NRSV Mt 25:40-41), to mean any disciples of Christ. At least, my conscience does not feel so bad as I could definitely not measure up to Farmer's standard. But, minimally, did I offer any help within my means to the Christians around me? At least, I could say that I have helped the Korean and Japanese brothers and sisters in their paper writing. But did I give food to those who are hungry, to those who needed minimal means of subsistence? I couldn't answer to that.

The books above reminded me once again of the cry of the prophet Isaiah:

"What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats." (Isa 1:11)

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings; from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. " (Isa 1:16-17)

Farmer has given me hope that the something can be done about world poverty, and Christian gospel has something to offer those in need of hope. The gospel is not an opium portrayed by Karl Marx. Though I am not a Marxist, I believe that the cause of the neglected and poor must be spoken. Hope lies not just in the afterlife, but in seeing everything as creation of God and humans made in God's image imply that I have a duty and role in making this world a better place, not just for me, or my descendants, or my race or for my country, but for the whole of humanity. I believe the the blood of Jesus Christ redeems the whole of human race and certainly demands every preacher to shoulder the global responsibility of tackling the sins and wickedness of the whole humanity, starting at the local level. However, the source of evil is in each and everyone of us. We are part of the problems in the system, but we are also the solution. The gospel story co-opts us as part of the solution, who will eventually see the full fruit in the last days, and we have to act now based on faith.

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