In John 17, Jesus prays for his disciples who are not of the world (vv. 14, 16), and sends them into the world (v. 18). The mandate is twofold – holiness and mission. The question of how to live as people who are “in the world but not of the world” (the question of Christ and culture) has been answered by different Christian traditions in different ways. The Amish are famous for their isolation from the world. They succeed at Jesus’ “not of the world”, yet fail at his “in the world”. On the other extreme, it is possible to be engaged “in the world” and fail to be “not of the world”. The NG Kerk of the Apartheid days would fall into this category, as would the ZCC movement (an overtly syncretistic South African church): influential, but no different to the world.
While there are many legitimate biblical and theological arguments to be made in this complex matter of how to be “in”, but not “of”, one factor that does not deserve a place at the table is selfishness. The attitude that says, “If it can’t get over my 6-ft wall, it doesn’t bother me.”
Many of us South African Christians find ourselves comfortable. We have enough money or influence to escape poverty and suffering. When another politician does another crooked thing and steals another few million Rand, there is a lot to complain about, but in all honesty, our four-wheel-drive cars handle the potholes just fine. In stark contrast, we find that those around us are in despair! Poverty is normal, unemployment is sky-high, rape is too common, decent medical treatment is hard to come by, AIDS and TB continue to kill, and change is so painfully slow. The rise of the radical EFF could take place only in our climate of desperation. Of course, not everyone is suffering dramatically, but society in general is unwell. South Africa is suffering, but we are not.
The suffering represents a huge need for Christians to be “in the world”. But the suffering does not affect us, and so the temptation is to turn a blind eye and withdraw. Too often we who are comfortable are quite happy to quietly enjoy our comforts without any active concern for those who suffer. We know it is hard to be concerned. We know it will cost.
It has become popular to speak about “respectable” sins; surely the selfishness that prevents engagement with a suffering world because it is not our suffering is one of the most respectable yet downright hideous sins of them all. The 6-ft wall that keeps the bad stuff out is our own selfishness.
Jesus said, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”
And in case the message was unclear, he set his face toward Jerusalem and died out of sheer love for the world. Through receiving such love, we are able to give it to others. As usual, Christian growth comes through reflection on the gospel.
As the heart is progressively rid of selfishness through reflection on the gospel, what might the hands find to do?
- Learn about the suffering in South Africa. Speak to people who live with much less than you do. Talk to your domestic worker, or a car guard. Make new, unconventional friends. Try to understand the lives and struggles of those outside your normal circles. You could speak to people who work to prevent suffering and hear their stories. Surely, as we meditate on the gospel, this learning will stimulate active compassion in us.
- Pray about the suffering of others. Christians in the Roman Empire believed they were the Empire’s most valuable citizens because they prayed for Caesar. Don’t let your prayers become selfish. Pray for the suffering individuals you know, as well as the government and NPOs. Pray that there will be relief from suffering and gospel transformation.
- Volunteer at a non-profit. It doesn’t have to be doing Christian work per se; it just has to be doing good work. Spend one Saturday a month (or more!) on the other side of your 6-ft wall serving others the way Jesus did. So long as the organization is doing good work, you will help people. And as you help, people will ask you why you do it. The gospel is your answer. Help and gospel – what could you possibly prefer to that?
I have a long way to go. Perhaps you do too.